Having spent my first read for the Japanese Literature Challenge by exploring some concepts of aesthetics and beauty, I moved into more difficult territory for my next book. A number of the books on my Japanese TBR were published by Kodansha who used to bring out some beautiful editions of ‘Japan’s Modern Writers’ and I used to pick these up whenever I came across them. One slim volume I’d never got round to reading was “The Bells of Nagasaki” by Takashi Nagai (translated by William Johnston). Having read Ibuse’s “Black Rain” and Hersey’s “Hiroshima” back in the day, I felt that “Bells…” might be a good choice for further reading. It certainly was, though it’s a painful and difficult work.

“The Bells of Nagasaki” is an eye-witness account of the dropping of the Atomic bomb on Nagasaki on 9th August 1945. The author was a young man called Dr Takashi Nagai; a nuclear physicist and dean of the radiology department in the medical school of the University of Nagasaki, he was swept into the air by the blast and buried under a pile of debris. By a miracle, he survived, and along with those colleagues who were also still alive, he set about bringing what rescue and relief he could to the injured and dying around him. With his particular knowledge, he had more idea than many what had happened; and his story is a moving, tragic and painful one.

Nagai begins his story just before the dropping of the bomb, setting his colleagues and friends in their places, conveying the mindset of people committed to supporting their country in the War (just as every nation and its people does); but it is clear that no-one is expecting anything more than a normal bombing raid. When the nuclear blast hits, the results are devastating, and it takes a while for the survivors to realise what has happened. At that point, it becomes damage limitation; parts of the area are literally flattened, others are burning fiercely and the main thing is to ease the sufferings of survivors and get them to safety. Rescues are attempted from collapsing buildings; remains of loved ones and colleagues, killed instantly, are discovered; and the pain of the ill and dying is hard to deal with.

For the first time in history atoms had exploded over the heads of human beings. Whatever symptoms might appear, the fact was that the patients we were now treating had diseases that were completely new in the annals of medical history. To ignore these patients would not only be an act of cruelty toward individual persons, it would be an unforgivable crime against science, a neglect of precious research material for the future. We ourselves were already experiencing in our bodies the first stirrings of atomic sickness.

Eventually, the surviving group move to safety and begin using the limited resources and skills they have to help those in local villages who have been affected. Nagai himself has been wounded in the blast, and becomes so ill at one point that he barely survives. With his knowledge, however, he is aware of the longer term effects of the bomb, of the cancers and illnesses which will develop; and many more people will die or will be affected than those who were initially killed. Eventually he sets up a hut in the centre of the devastation and lives his life out there until his death in 1951. He preaches a message of peace; but did the world listen?

“Bells…” is a devastating book to read in more ways than one. It’s worth noting that this edition was published in 1984 when Cold War tensions were high; I can recall the fear and uncertainty in the early 1980s, with warning siren testings taking place at weekends; and let’s not forget this was the era of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes”, with its lookalikes of the Russian and American leaders fighting – Glasnost and Perestroika were still in the future. So “Bells..” was very relevant at the time, and a sobering reminder of the horrors of nuclear conflict. Nagai brings a surprisingly non-judgemental viewpoint to the issue, with his memoirs reflecting the sorrow of loss (his wife was killed by the bomb); however, he retains a relatively calm narrative voice, and it is only towards the end, where he comes to the belief that Japan has been tested by God and lost, that his writing becomes more emotive. I tend myself to think that God was not involved in this, and that the nuclear bomb was a result of man and his evil, but that’s another matter…

Empires crumble, but the mountains and rivers remain. Opening the sliding doors, I looked at the mountains. The three peaks of Mitsuyama were tranquil as ever. They did not even seem to notice the fragments of cloud that floated beneath the towering heights. All things pass. All things are like a fragment of cloud. Our faith in the eternal stability of the Japanese Empire had crumbled in a moment.

Nagai, however, also brings much knowledge of how the bomb works and affected those places it destroyed, and this was an interesting aspect of the book. But what shone through for me was the stark horror of the effects of this evil weapon; and also complete disbelief that those who took the decision to drop the bomb did so. In his introduction, translator William Johnston rather curiously almost seeks to exonerate the leaders at Potsdam who agree to the bomb’s use, saying that despite the warnings of various scientists they were carried along by the tide of events. I’m not well read enough in history to know if that’s true, but I still find the decision to use the bomb unforgiveable.

I expected “The Bells of Nagasaki” to be an emotional and difficult book to read, and in places it was. To read starkly just what nuclear weapons can do to the human body is pretty horrible; and to hear of people’s suffering is awful. But this is such an important book, as the eye-witness account (composed, I believe, by Nagai on his deathbed) is a vital reminder of why we should never again use this kind of bomb (or frankly any kind of bomb – but that’s another story…) Nagai was obviously a brave man, his report of his experiences at Nagasaki is compelling and the book is unforgettable. Not a joyful read for the Japanese Literature Challenge but, I think, a very vital one.


A few further thoughts:

I’ve written before on the Ramblings about the subject of nuclear conflict, as unfortunately since the human race developed the bomb the risk really hasn’t gone away…

Back in 2018, I read a book called “Gods of Metal” by Eric Schlosser; published in 2015 to make the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, it’s a sobering look at the state of the nuclear industry in the USA and just how close things are to a Chernobyl-like accident. It made stark reading, and had been brought about by another post of mine in 2018, when I examined a fascinating radio programme…

That Radio 4 show was a half-hour which really packed a punch. Professor Richard Clay’s “Two Minutes to Midnight” examined our attitude towards nuclear confict, whether we still had any fear of the bomb being dropped, and how close the ‘nuclear clock’ was to midnight. It was a fascinating, thought-provoking and rather worrying show which I highly recommend, and which you can still listen to here (thank you, BBC radio…) The programme had reminded me of those seminal books I had read on the subject of the WW2 use of nuclear bombs, particularly the aforementioned “Black Rain” and “Hiroshima”. As you can see from the image above, I had put my copy of “Bells…” with those other books and it has taken me this long to read it. The subject is one we tend to avoid, though with conflict breaking out all over the world I really do think it’s something humanity needs to address. In the meantime, I do recommend any of these books, and also Richard’s radio programme which really is powerful and fascinating.

As for my Japanese reading, I intend to read at least one more book for the challenge, although I suspect I will probably choose something a little lighter…