The Bells of Nagasaki

Today again I have survived;
I contemplate and relish
The precious jewel of life.

I wasn’t planning on reading The Bells of Nagasaki, by Takashi Nagai, for Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature reading challenge, but I found it on the shelf at the library and decided it was an important book to read. It is a painfully honest eyewitness account of the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945. Takashi Nagai was a medical doctor who survived the initial blast and then did everything he could to help the injured and dying around him, despite being gravely wounded himself.

He tells this story from a number of different angles. First, he describes his own experience in survival that day. The destruction around him was unfathomable, and the human loss excruciating. Then, as a scientist, he tried to understand the power and physics of the bomb, which he described in four parts: the enormous power, what happened to the elementary particles, the heat, and the electromagnetic waves. His explanations were both clear and terribly sobering. As a medical doctor, he then wanted us to understand the atomic bomb wounds, which was the hardest part for me to read. He also gave a day-by-day account of the Relief Center work he organized with his surviving colleagues from the hospital.

His explanations of “the stages of reconstruction” of Nagasaki were very interesting. During the first month after the bomb, people lived in dugouts and underground shelters. Then, between the 2nd and 4th months, huts were built. By December of that year, carpenters from other cities had arrived to help build provisional houses, thankfully sheltering people from the cold winter winds. Slowly, the people of Nagasaki began to rebuild their lives: “Little by little, people are putting things in order and rebuilding their homes. Though it may not be apparent to the eye, the atomic desert is gradually sending forth new shoots of life.”

Dr. Nagai lost his beloved wife in the blast. He fought his own battle with leukemia before his death, trying desperately to postpone the day when his two children would become orphans. He was a deeply religious man, a devoted father, and a compassionate healer and teacher. During the last years of his life, when he was confined to bed due to the ravages of his atomic bomb disease, he wrote many books, poems, and papers in the spirit of peace. His writings, a powerful plea for peace in this atomic age, touched the hearts of many people around the world. He died in 1951.

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8 thoughts on “The Bells of Nagasaki

  1. Kay

    What a good review you wrote! Such a tragic story. Thanks for bringing this book to our attention. I agree with you that this is an important book and probably overlooked by this time.

    I am reading Anne Perry’s NO GRAVES AS YET, the 1st in her 5-book story about WWI. It is a slow-moving mystery but is rich in the feelings and philosophies of those living in that time.

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  2. Nymeth

    I had never heard of this book..it sounds very disturbing, but, like you said, very important too. Thank you for letting me know about it.

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  3. tanabata

    I added this to my wishlist recently. It does sound like an important book to read. I’ve never been to either Nagasaki or Hiroshima although I’ve wanted to for a while we just haven’t made it that far yet. Maybe this year. Thanks for the review.

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  4. jenclair

    I’ve never heard of the book or the author, but having the point of view of a doctor in discussing the bomb and aftereffects would be particularly insightful. Sounds like a wonderful,terrible read.

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  5. Robin

    Thanks, everyone! This is not a subject matter I would normally choose to read. I remember having to read Hiroshima, by John Hersey, for a high school class, and it really stuck with me over the years. I’m not sure these stories are “required reading” any more, but I hope they are. I thought this book was quite remarkable because of the contrast between the horror of the bombing and the compassion of Dr. Nagai. I was reminded once again that in the middle of the worst possible things man can do to man, there are men that show us what is truly important by their compassion and their humanity.

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  6. Bellezza

    It is so painful to me to read of wars. I’ve been reading War and Peace, and although I’ve never experienced a war personally, I have such sympathy for those whose lives have been destroyed by them. They don’t seem to differ much, from one country to the next (Japan to Russia to Iraq). I wonder if we’ll ever learn to get along, or if selfishness if just too inherent to our nature. Anyway, this book sounds very profound, and I appreciate your excellent review.

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