Theology After Hiroshima and Nagasaki

“I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad-Gita, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer (often called the “father of the atomic bomb”)

Today, seventy-five years ago, the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima and three days later the second bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. Some twenty-five years ago we visited Hiroshima on a trip to Kyushu and on the return trip we drove to Nagasaki by way of the Gotō Islands in Nagasaki prefecture, which were strikingly different than any part of Japan we had visited. Several of the island villages were built around a Catholic church, and to see church steeples towering over a Japanese village was a bit jarring. Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence, is set in these islands, in which Christianity took hold and survived during two hundred years of persecution. Endō’s portrayal, focused on the insecure faith of his characters, may not capture the enduring commitment of the islanders, even when threatened with torture and martyrdom. We knew as we made our way to Nagasaki and ground zero, that Japanese Christians had not only endured one of the longest and bloodiest persecutions but they would be the victims of a martyrdom never before unleashed on humankind.  Our first evening, we camped on the beach on Nakadori island before making our way into Nagasaki, and Erin (7 years old at the time), found a bag of kittens that a local farmer had failed to completely drown.

In the Dozaki Church, which had been converted into a museum, was a display explaining how Buddhist prayers offered by a priest downstairs would be redirected by Christians hidden above him upstairs. Hidden Christians venerated Mary by creating statues that could also be taken to represent the goddess Kannon, and they hid crosses inside Buddhist statues that could be used during Christian funerals. The tea ceremony was turned into a communion-like service, by turning the tea cup three times prior to drinking (to symbolize the Trinity) and by folding napkins in such a way as to indicate the silent recital of a prayer. (Considering that the tea ceremony may trace its origins to the communion service in the first place, this reconversion of the ceremony is fitting.)  

In Nagasaki we (6 cats, 2 children, and Faith and I) made our way to the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum, itself a testimony counter to Endō’s notion of weak-willed Japanese Christians.  Twenty Japanese Christians and six foreign priests were hung on 26 crosses and as they were lanced to death, one of the priests, Paul Miki, preached to the crowd from his cross. The museum contains testimony to the impact Christianity had on Japan, with entire clans taking up the faith, and it indicates that there may have been some ten thousand martyrs of the faith.  But of course, it was the “Christian Nation” (the United States), which would martyr more Japanese Christians in a day than had been killed in the 200 years of persecution, which our next stop would symbolize. We could not convince Erin to leave the cats long enough to visit the museum, but maybe it was for the best.

About half the Catholic population of Japan, around 50,000 of a total of 110,000, lived in the Nagasaki parish and were concentrated in Urakami, which was ground zero of the atomic blast. Urakami Cathedral had been erected in 1895 on the very ground where citizens were forced to trample on fumie (images of Christ or the Virgin Mary) so as to expose those who were Christians. The church had been erected to honor the resilience of Japanese Christians and the twin bell towers, completed in 1925, made it the largest cathedral in East Asia.  The atomic bomb exploded about 500 meters from the church and incinerated the building. Parish priest, Saburo Nishida entering the church to receive the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, Curate, Fusayoshi Tamaya, who was hearing confession, along with a dozen Christians inside the church were instantly incinerated. They were among some 10,000 Christians who made up the largest proportion of the 15,000 killed in the immediate vicinity of the blast. In other words, the United States wiped out the heart of the Catholic Christian population in Japan, and the Urakami Church, symbolic of 200 years of persecution, is also the marker of the atomic holocaust. Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived both atomic bombs (he was visiting Hiroshima during the first bomb and returned home to Nagasaki and experienced the second) thought the marble head of the Virgin Mary, which endured the Nagasaki blast, was emblematic of Christians destroying Christians. The eyes of the Virgin are black hollows and the side of her face bears the mark, which Yamaguchi thought looked like keloids, which appeared on victims of the blast.

It is all but established fact that the bombs played no role in Japan’s surrender. Historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, in his 2005 book Racing the Enemy, provides evidence from primary sources within the Japanese Diet that the War ended due to the entry of the Soviets into Manchuria. American intelligence, which had broken the Japanese codes, was conveying to Truman this same conclusion: the Japanese government wanted to negotiate surrender through Moscow. Truman already knew that the expected early August Russian declaration of war would end Japanese will to fight and American intelligence confirmed this to him. He also knew that assurances that Japan’s Emperor would be allowed to stay as a powerless figurehead would bring surrender, long before a projected November US invasion could begin. The destruction of two more cities made little difference to political and military leaders, after the destruction by fire bombing of the majority of Japanese cities. In the National Museum of the US Navy is a plaque that acknowledges: “the vast destruction wreaked by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the loss of 135,000 people made little impact on the Japanese military.” The Navy Museum acknowledges what Hasegawa proved and what Truman understood, it was Soviet entry into the war on the same day as the bombing of Nagasaki which moved the Japanese to surrender. Before this, Truman was being advised by most all of his generals the bomb was unnecessary.

William Leahy, President Truman’s Chief of Staff, wrote in his 1950 memoir that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. . . . in being the first to use it, we . . . adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”[1] The commanding general of the US Army Air Forces, Henry Arnold, indicated his views in a public statement only eleven days after Hiroshima was attacked. Asked on August 17 by a New York Times reporter whether the atomic bomb caused Japan to surrender, Arnold said that “the Japanese position was hopeless even before the first atomic bomb fell, because the Japanese had lost control of their own air.” According to Admiral William Halsey, “It was a mistake. . . . [the scientists] had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it.” Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, stated in a public address at the Washington Monument two months after the bombings that “the atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan.” General Dwight Eisenhower,  stated in his memoirs that when notified by Secretary of War Henry Stimson of the decision to use atomic weapons, he “voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.” He later publicly declared “. . . it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” Even the famous Major General Curtis LeMay, who had innovated new weaponry in the fire bombings of Tokyo, declared publicly a month after the bombing, “the atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.”[2] Truman’s political advisors overruled the military, and specifically Douglas MacArthur, who would retain the emperor despite the unconditional surrender.

Two Japanese Christian doctors who experienced the bombing of Nagasaki represent the two opposed reactions of Japanese Christians. Nagai Takashi (1908–1951), who would succumb to leukemia caused by the bomb’s radiation, spent his remaining years trying to comprehend the devastation. His wife had been killed instantly in the blast and he lived in a hut in the ruins of Nagasaki. I once heard a young preacher refer to the bright light of the atomic bombs as a light from God, which may be a perverse reading of Nagai but which reflects his attempt to account for the bombs as providential. “Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim, the lamb without blemish, slain as a whole-burnt offering on an altar of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all the nations during World War II?” Nagai asked.[3] Akizuki Tatsuichirō (1916–2005) a colleague of Nagai, devoted himself to treating survivors, many of whom were Catholics, but could not agree with Nagai’s seeming justification of the bombing. Akizuki would join the anti-nuclear peace movement and though he respected Nagai, he would not succumb to his silent submission. He received multiple prizes for his activities both as a doctor and as an outspoken witness against nuclear arms, and in spite of his sharp departure from the thought of Nagai, he was the first recipient of the Nagai Takashi Award. This dialectic between the two doctors, silent acceptance and angry protest is characterized by a saying which arises with the reactions from the two cities: Hiroshima rages, Nagasaki prays. Japanese Christians would be caught up with trying to reconcile these two extremes.

It was Japanese theologian, Kitamori Kazoh, who would develop the first Japanese theology which seems to reflect the peculiar suffering of Japan and the varied response of Japanese Christians. His book, The Theology of the Pain of God, not only refuses the Western notion that the Father does not suffer, but presumes pain is part of the essence of God, constituting the peculiar nature of the love of God. How can any but a suffering God truly love and how can there be true love apart from suffering? A key verse for Kitamori is Jeremiah 31:20: “Is Ephraim my dear son? is he a pleasant child? For since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still: Therefore my bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the Lord” (KJV). Kitamori sees this verse as describing God in a state of turmoil, pain, and suffering. In Luther’s translation the verse describes God’s heart as broken. In the Japanese the phrase appears as, “my insides are in pain.” Kitamori concludes that there is a conflict in God between wrath and love and this produces the pain in which he embraces the sinner.

 In this he comes close to the Christ of Endō. In Silence, Father Rodrigues, is repulsed by the apostate coward, Kichijiro, and cannot imagine sharing communion with such a creature. But when he too is faced with death or stepping on the fumie, he realizes the true path to communion with Christ: “How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross!”[4] The priest argues, “But you told Judas to go away: What thou dost do quickly. What happened to Judas?” Jesus answers, “I did not say that. Just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do. For Judas was in anguish as you are now.” As Christ explains, “There are neither strong nor weak. Can anyone say that the weak do not suffer more than the strong?” As Kitamori would put it, God does not reveal himself in power and glory but in forsakenness and suffering. Christ speaks to all, sinner and saint, faithful and faithless, as his grace is unilateral.5 Is he deterred by a mud swamp faith, which ebbs and flows with the tide, which comes and goes as circumstance demands and permits?

Theologian, Noro Yoshio, protests that Kitamori does not provide room to fight evil in our political and social life and seems to suggest a passive acceptance of evil and suffering.[6] Shoji Tsutomu, likewise concludes, Kitamori’s theology is confined to the psychological and personal and provides no basis for social praxis.[7] But the fate of two hundred years of unrelenting persecution, the helplessness felt before the power and seeming inevitability of the atomic bombs, may have marked Japanese Christianity with a sensibility of ontological suffering which Kitamori captures. It is the same sort of futility expressed by Endō and, I realize, it accounts for my own theological turn.

Where Christian faith and ethics have been made to accommodate violence, each holocaust, each murder, each slaughter of innocents, will have to be argued on the merits of the case. As with all arguments against the necessity of violence, the particulars of the argument against the justification or necessity of deploying the atomic bombs may fail to convince. The problem, as it should become evident, pertains to a faith that seems to require violence, no matter the argument. There is a form of the faith in the West that seems to require that it enact violence, much as there is a form of the faith in Japan that would accept the inevitability of being subject to suffering. An all-Christian bomber crew from an all-Christian administration guilty of vaporizing, incinerating, annihilating tens of thousands of innocent civilians, including a disproportionately large number of Japanese Christians, and choosing a/the Church for ground zero, shows up the meaningless of this form of religion. Of course, the Christian faith as it was practiced by these men seems not to have figured into the decision. Christianity did not cause Truman the Baptist, Byrnes the Catholic and one of Truman’s closest advisors, or Charles Sweeney (pilot of Bock’s Car) a devout Catholic, or any of the long list of Christian advisors and actors to pause or refuse. Truman reported sleeping soundly and never having a second thought. The faith simply served, it seems, to ease the consciences of its adherents. Though the image of Christian slaughtering Christian in genocidal proportions, as in Nagasaki, forever exposed the emptiness of the predominant form of the Western religion, it was precisely their faith that blinded many to this conclusion.

We made it home with our six kittens, but much like my shedding of my received understanding of the Western Christian faith, each of the kittens slowly died due to the substitute milk which provided no nourishment.  


[1] https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/why-the-us-really-bombed-hiroshima/

[2] Ibid. What was the point? Was it Truman’s attempt to intimidate Stalin? Secretary of State James Byrnes, we know, believed a demonstration of atomic power would help the United States dominate in the postwar era – and it was the Soviets, America’s ally, he was most concerned to impress. According to Manhattan Project scientist Leo Szilard, “[Byrnes] was concerned about Russia’s postwar behavior. . . [and thought] that Russia might be more manageable if impressed by American military might, and that a demonstration of the bomb might impress Russia.” In the event it did not work, as the bombs and Truman’s threatening distrust initiated the Cold War arms race. Truman, baffled by the science, assumed no one else could duplicate the technology. He told Oppenheimer the Soviet Union would never acquire the technology, though Oppenheimer presumed they would shortly have the weapon, which they did.

[3] The citation of Nagai’s passage was taken from his Nagasaki no Kane [The bells of Nagasaki] and is quoted from https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/4258.

[4] Silence, 171.

[5] Ibid, 191, quoted from Ethan Richardson https://mbird.com/2012/03/the-christ-of-silence-part-two-kichijiro-or-the-judas-everyman/

[6] Yoshio Noro. Impassibiliats Dei (Ph.D. dissertation, Union Theological Seminary, 1955), p. 99. Quoted from https://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.item?id=NQ52205&op=pdf&app=Library

[7] Tsutomu Shoji, “The Church’s Struggle for Freedom of Belief– An Aspect of Christian Mission.” in Living Theology in Asia, Edited by John C. England New York: Orbis Books. 1982). p. 56. Ibid.