Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: Takashi Nagai
By John Janaro (’85)
The whole life of Takashi Nagai was one of continual conversion and growth in wisdom and knowledge. Here I can only sketch the story of his coming to faith and baptism. This Japanese scientist and professor of radiology at the University of Nagasaki faced his greatest challenges after the atomic bomb turned his city into a nuclear wasteland. While bedridden and slowly dying from the consequences of overexposure to radiation, he prayed, offered his suffering, and wrote extensively as a witness for peace to his own people and the world.
Takashi Nagai was born in 1908 in the rural Shimane Province, to a Shinto family. His father was a Western educated doctor. When Takashi himself entered Nagasaki’s medical college in 1928, he considered himself an atheist and scientific materialist. Though he had high aspirations, something seemed to be missing. He tried to numb his dissatisfaction with intensive study and occasional drinking and carousing. But at his mother’s deathbed, he was struck by the sense that she had not been simply annihilated; her spirit somehow lived on. And on hospital rounds, he saw that medical techniques were not in themselves enough to care for the whole suffering human person.
Then there was one Western scientist he greatly admired – Blaise Pascal – who was also an intense Christian believer. He wrestled with the challenges of Pascal’s Pensées, and decided to see what actual living, praying faith was like.
Nagasaki presented him with a unique opportunity: it contained the only significant Catholic population in all of Japan. Here martyrs had shed their blood and ordinary Christians had handed down the Faith secretly for three centuries without priests. When Japan opened to the West, Nagasaki’s Christianity flourished anew.
Takashi took lodgings with the Catholic Moriyama family, where he had a decisive encounter. Their adult daughter Midori befriended him, and in her he saw a conviction and a purity of soul unlike anything he had ever known. When Japan invaded Manchuria, Takashi was drafted, and Midori promised to pray for him every day.
In Manchuria, he endured the horrors of scientific warfare for the first time, treating wounded from both sides under appalling conditions. Meanwhile Midori prayed for his safety and for his conversion. She wrote to him and sent him a Catechism, which he read. He began to realize that this devoted, beautiful woman and her faith held the answer to the meaning of life, and the brutal military grind of the invasion – with its battles, prostitutes, and drunkenness – only served to make it clearer.
He survived the tour of duty and returned safely. Midori’s prayers were answered. In June of 1934, he was baptized, and soon after they were married. Takashi’s faith grew stronger through the companionship he and Midori shared from 1934 until that awful day of August 9, 1945. Later he found – in the wreckage that had once been their home – only her bones, ashes, and an object fused together into a metal lump in the skeletal remains of her hand. At the moment of the fiery atomic explosion, she had been praying the rosary.
He dedicated the rest of his own short suffering life to witnessing what he had learned from her: that the love of God is greater than the violence of this world, and is our hope for peace.
John Janaro (class of 1985) is associate professor emeritus of theology at Christendom College, and author of Never Give Up: My Life and God’s Mercy (Servant Books). He blogs at www.johnjanaro.com.