Friday, January 17, 2014

The Bells of Nagasaki by Takashi Nagai

The Bells Of NagasakiThe Bells Of Nagasaki by Takashi Nagai

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading A Song For Nagasaki about Takashi Nagai, I thought it would be good to at least try Nagai's first and most famous book.

It begins on the morning that the bomb is dropped on Nagasaki. I was interested to see it told not only from his point of view but also from that of various other people in the countryside and from different vantage points at the teaching hospital where Nagai was dean. After helping all those they can from the immediate university area, the small band of survivors heads to the countryside to help the many people who are being sheltered by farmers and villages.

I was surprised to find myself laughing at one point. After American planes drop leaflets informing the Japanese that they dropped an atom bomb (so surrender already), Nagai instantly whirls into thought about the implications, both scientifically and to the victims. He comes out to hear the few remaining hospital staff, doctors, and students in a fevered discussion about which scientists were involved ("Einstein?"), how it would have worked ("they couldn't have had a cyclotron on a plane" "fission! it must have been fission!" "Ahhh"), and so forth. Despite the circumstances, as Nagai himself comments after reporting this exchange, they are all scientists first and deeply interested in the development.
We were members of a research group with a great interest in nuclear physics and totally devoted to this branch of science--and ironically we ourselves had become victims of th atom bomb which was the very core of the theory we were studying. Here we lay, helpless in a dugout!

And yet it was a precious experience for us. Placed on the experimentation table, we could watch the whole process in a most intimate way. We could observe the changes that where taking place and that would take place in the future. Crushed with grief because of the defeat of Japan, filled with anger and resentment, we nevertheless felt rising within us a new drive and a new motivation in our search for truth. In this devastated atomic desert, fresh and vigorous scientific life began to flourish.
I'm really glad that I read A Song For Nagasaki first so I have the context of Nagai's life in which to put this story. I think without that it could be desperately depressing. However, there are always very human moments to which we all can relate, such as when the little team is on the road back to a farmer's house and a fart starts a series of jokes, with each person capping the next.

I'd think this would be the mandatory companion to A Song For Nagasaki because I was surprised to find how much Paul Glynn soft-pedaled Nagai's reaction to Japan's unconditional surrender. Nagai in this book tells us how stunned everyone was when the news came, how he cried for 20 minutes, and how devastated everyone felt. I completely understand Glynn's overview of Nagai's overall feeling about war in general, but it did ring very true to me that one would feel a gut-punch to learn one's country had to completely surrender. For a Japanese person it would have been such a part of their very identity that it would be very hard to take. And, the way that Nagai rallied everyone would have less impact if he hadn't honestly told of his own reactions. The conclusions he drew later would be much less powerful, such as what happens after Nagai's sense of overwhelming defeat leads him to reject a man seeking medical help.
In a flash I had a change of heart. Even one precious life was worth saving. Japan was defeated; but the wounded were still alive. The war was over; but the work of our relief team remained. Our country was destroyed; but medical science still existed. Wasn't our work only beginning? Irrespective of the rise and fall of our country, wasn't our main duty to attend to the life and death of each single person? The very basis of the Red Cross was to attend to the wounded, be they friend or foe. Precisely because we Japanese had treated human life so simply and so carelessly--precisely for this reason we were reduced to our present miserable plight. Respect for the life of every person--this must be the foundation stone on which we would built a new society.

Our people had been told that they must suffer these terrible wounds to win the war; but in fact they had suffered in order to lose. Now they were thrown into the most pitiable and desperate situation. And there was no one to console them, no one to help them except us. We must stand and come to their aid. I stood there unsteadily on my tottering legs. And then the whole group stood up beside me. Our courage came back. The determination to continue our work gave us strength and joy.
There is precious little moralizing of the sort that many might expect. In fact, I saw a review somewhere where a person refused to read the book because they found out that Nagai was Roman Catholic. Nagai rarely mentions his faith other than in passing so that person's innate prejudices stopped them from experiencing a very inspirational and thought provoking book about the innate heights to which the human spirit can soar. Highly recommended.


  1. Sounds like another good book.

  2. I'm glad you read it. Your comment about someone refusing to read it made me laugh. I bought my copy used - evidently read for a college class in the early '90s when deconstructionism was the rage. Luckily the reader had written in pencil, but it was disconcerting how 1) the reader didn't believe the Japanese who stayed strong after the bombs would fall apart after their emperor's surrender and 2) the reader kept saying how "arrogant" and "self-centered" Nagai was because he used many "I" statements. (Poor dear had an epic meltdown when Nagai considered Nagasaki as a burnt offering for the Japan's sins against humanity!)

    I love Nagai's poem: "Today again I have survived;/I contemplate and relish/The precious jewel of life."

    Also, I recommend Nagai's "Leaving My Beloved Children Behind." It's essays mostly, but I found his relationship with his daughter most touching.


    1. I want to read more of his books. At this point it just depends on what the library has available. :-)

      I also love that poem.

    2. If your library cannot supply it, by all means contact me. I'm in the process of simplifying and letting go of material goods, so I'd be more than happy to send it to you.