How bomb tested faith of Japan's Christians

Nagasaki Catholics once saw devastation as act of God, writes Richard Lloyd Parry
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The Independent Online
"What if I had come to hate Americans?" said Tsuyo Kataoka, in the Peace Park at Nagasaki. "It would be meaningless. It wouldn't have given me the strength to live, and it wouldn't have helped this face of mine. You used to hear a saying in Nagasaki: 'The bomb was dropped by Christians on Christians.' I survived by enduring my bitterness. I accepted it as the will of God."

At the 50th anniversary commemoration of the atomic bombing, Miss Kataoka could be a frail old Catholic woman from any Mediterranean country. Despite the heat, she wears a black lace skirt down to her shoes. Only up close do you notice her injuries. Her eyebrows have been burned off, and painted back with a cosmetic pencil. Beneath her make-up are the traces of thick, lobster-red scars. Miss Kataoka is a Nagasaki Catholic, and like most Nagasaki Catholics over the age of 50, she bears the marks.

Of all the ironies of the second atomic bombing this, in Japanese eyes, was the greatest.

Nagasaki had been been famous as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the country. Chinese and Korean merchants had lived here for centuries, and in the 16th century were joined by Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish traders who brought with them Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries. After a century of evangelism, they were violently driven away by the shoguns. Practising Christians were crucified, but the faith never died out. When the country opened up again in the late 19th century, churches were rebuilt.

The centre of Japanese Christianity was a northern suburb of Nagasaki called Urakami, where, 50 years ago yesterday, the second atomic bomb exploded.

As well as a prison, a hospital, several schools and 74,000 human beings, the plutonium bomb destroyed the largest cathedral in Asia. About12,000 members of the diocese were living in the area at the time. Two-thirds of them were killed at a stroke and many of the rest, like Miss Kataoka, faced years of suffering.

Nagasaki Catholics were used to affliction. "Until my parents' generation we could not attend Mass openly," said Miss Kataoka, "Before the war there was a lot of hostility between Christians and Buddhists."

The cathedral area lay in a valley. The old centre of the city, home to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, remained almost undamaged. A rumour spread by Shinto preachers said the native gods of Japan had protected two-thirds of Nagasaki at the expense of the Christians. "People said we were being punished, and even some Catholics believed this," said Miss Kataoka.

In the 1950s, A-bomb victims in Hiroshima formed a radical movement and pressed the government for compensation. Nagasaki's most famous survivor, a Catholic doctor named Nagai, punlished a book called The Bells of Nagasaki, which he wrote as he was dying of leukaemia.

"Dr Nagai said it was a tribulation sent by God, and that we should accept it as His will," said Miss Kataoka. "His opinion was tremendously influential. People used to say that in Hiroshima there is anger, but in Nagasaki there is prayer."

At the age of 24, Miss Kataoka had been transformed from an attractive girl into a deformed monster, deaf in one ear, sick from radiation and so scarred around the mouth that for 12 years her food had to be cut into small pieces. She bore her injuries silently. "For 36 years I hid myself away. I never came to these Peace Ceremonies. I said nothing of my experiences."

The turning point came in 1981, when the Pope visited Nagasaki and gave a speech which Miss Kataoka attended.

"The Pope said that the bomb was not dropped by God, but by men. And he said that to look back at the past is our responsibility towards the future. Then we realised Dr Nagai's opinion was not so good."

A Japanese director discovered archival American footage of the city soon after the bomb. One scene showed the young Miss Kataoka, barely able to see through her scars, sitting on a bed in a ruined hospital. It was made into a radical documentary and shown in Europe and the US. Miss Kataoka flew to the Vatican to present it personally to the Pope.

"When the Pope blessed me, I felt happy for the first time since the bomb, and I realised that endurance is not enough," she said. "We have to expel nuclear weapons from the earth. We have to oppose the French nuclear tests. Without that there can be no peace of mind."