Saturday, April 30, 2016

In Memory of Dr. Nagai

Some of you readers of this blog know Kathy Laffoon, my oldest daughter. Kathy and her family moved to Liberty in 2008 when she took a job as a gifted education teacher in the Liberty Public School. In the last few years she has been working with many of her middle school students doing National History Day (NHD) projects—and in recent years I have been a resource person or a mentor for some of those students.

This year two of Kathy’s students teamed up to do a NHD project on Dr. Takashi Nagai, who died 65 years ago on May 1, 1951.

I enjoyed meeting with those two boys a few times in connection with their project, and I was impressed to see how interested they were in learning about Nagai. They made a webpage (link to it here) in order to introduce him to other people.

Some of you may remember my mentioning Dr. Nagai in articles I posted on this blog last August. (See here and here.) He was a doctor who was teaching at the medical college in Nagasaki, Japan, at the time the atomic bomb was dropped on that city on August 9, 1945.

Nagai’s research specialty was radiology, and he had already contracted leukemia from his exposure to radiation. And then he was seriously injured by the bomb.

In spite of his illness and injuries, though, Nagai worked tirelessly to give medical assistance to many who were injured by the explosion and also to those who suffered long term health problems because of what came to be known as “radiation sickness.”

From July 1946 until his death, Nagai was confined to bed. He spent much of his time writing, and his best known and most powerful book is Bells of Nagasaki. He finished writing that book in 1946 but did not get permission from the American Occupation officials to publish it until 1949.

The English translation of Nagai’s book was published in 1994. It was done by William Johnston, an Irish-born Catholic missionary who arrived in Japan just in time to attend Nagai’s funeral in 1951.

The title of Nagai’s book refers to the bells of Urakami Cathedral, which at the time was the largest Christian church in Asia. Nagai was a member of that church, and, of course, grieved greatly at its destruction. It was very near the epicenter of the atomic explosion, and some of its remains can still be seen in the Nagasaki Peace Park.

In 1947, local Catholics built a simple two-tatami (about 36 sq. ft.) teahouse-like structure for Nagai. He named it Nyokodo (literally As-Yourself Hall,” after Jesus words, Love your neighbor as yourself”).

While bed-fast there in what he considered his hermitage, Nagai was visited many notable people, such as Helen Keller in 1948. The following year he was also visited there by Emperor Hirohito and by Cardinal Gilroy, as the emissary of Pope Pius XII.
Dr. Nagai with his children in Nyokodo
Many years ago I went with some of my Seinan Gakuin University students to visit Nyokodo, which with the addition of a library had become the Nagasaki City Nagai Takashi Memorial Museum in 1952. My visit there was before the English translation of Nagai’s book was published, and I hadn’t taken the time to read it in Japanese. Consequently, I didn’t appreciate it as much then as I would now.

If you would like to read more about Dr. Nagai, I recommend Paul Glynn’s fine book A Song for Nagasaki (1988), which Kathy’s students found to be very helpful in preparing their National History Day project.
Here is the link to a 5-minute radio interview with Dr. Nagai that was broadcast nationwide in Japan on Aug. 9, 1950. The interview is in Japanese, of course, but there is a brief English explanation worth reading. And those of you who can’t understand Japanese might still enjoy hearing his voice.


  1. Kathy took me to the Nagasaki Peace Park while I was in Japan to ask for her hand in marriage. I most highly recommend the visit if one visits Japan. I had expected a political or nationalistic foundational vision for the Park. There was not - the facts speak strongly enough for themselves. There was a rationale for targeting Nagasaki, as it was a significant manufacturing hub and harbor for the Japanese Navy - and this is clearly presented. The town was also a center of Christendom back through the centuries. These should also be visited while in that city.

    I am also impressed with the quality of the website produced by her students. I believe they are in Columbia today, as they qualified for the State competition for National History Day. Hopefully they are selected to move on to the Nationals in Washington DC this summer.

    Side note: Nagasaki is very near the epicenter of the recent earthquakes. Keep them in your prayers.

  2. Thinking Friend Bob Hanson, who lived in Fukuoka for a number of years and now lives in Wisconsin, writes,

    "Many thanks, Leroy. I have visited that museum and park was always the most graphic of the three I hold in my memory: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Okinawa war museum. I took visitors to Nagasaki if I could."

  3. Thinking Friend Carolyn Houts, who also happens to be my first cousin, makes this comment:

    "Wow!! I have read the webpage which Kathy's students made about Dr. Nagai. I learned so much and am impressed with how the students made their website. You say these are middle school students?? How advanced they are!"