Heroes of the Faith

Japanese peacemaker a 'pathfinder' for others

Spiritual director John Steward reflects on the life of Christian convert Dr Takashi Nagai, a man who is revered in his home country of Japan for the way he devoted his life to bringing physical and spiritual healing to others in the aftermath of the devastating atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

By John Steward

My hero of the Christian faith is a relatively unknown peacemaker, Dr Takashi Nagai. According to Paul Glynn, author of A Song for Nagasaki: The Story of Takashi Nagai – Scientist, Convert, and Survivor of the Atomic Bomb, Nagai is responsible for the very spiritual atmosphere in Nagasaki’s commemorations of the dropping of the atomic bomb on the city on 9 August, 1945. This legacy reflects the meaning of his Japanese name, “The well that lasts”. This man, who died from leukaemia caused by his sacrificial and life-saving radiographic work, speaks to me profoundly.

Born in 1908 into a Shinto family, Nagai became a convinced atheist. He studied medicine at Nagasaki Medical University where scientific rationalism confirmed his unbelief and intensified his abhorrence at the “foreign gods” being worshipped in the Cathedral of Nagasaki. Nagai believed science held the key to every door that barred human progress.

He loved Japanese poems from the seventh century, while his favourite Western author was Pascal. These writings kept him aware of feelings and intuition. While he appreciated Pascal’s saying “the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of”, Nagai was challenged by: “Faith is a gift of God … You must pray for it.” Nagai discovered Pascal was also inventor of the syringe and the barometer, and he appreciated this rare combination of scientist and mystic.

In 1931 Nagai wanted to investigate the beliefs and practises of Christianity at his own pace and on his own terms, so he asked to board with the prayerful Moriyama family whose Christian roots traced back to the arrival of Francis Xavier in 1549. He observed their simple faith and piety; it echoed the life of his favourite painter Millét. Nagai was astounded to find out that poor Nagasaki farmers and fisher folk built their local cathedral over 22 years...

John Steward is a spiritual director. He attends St John’s Cranbourne and is the author of From Genocide to Generosity: Hatreds Heal on Rwanda’s Hills (Langham Global, 2015).

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