“Gently to Nagasaki” by Joy Kogawa


Resting together after an afternoon climb to the hillside Kyoto grave of her father’s great benefactor, the school principal who provided for the 90-year-old Anglican minister when he was just a penniless, fatherless newspaper boy, Joy Kogawa brought herself to speak: “Dad, I know what you did.”

She had known for decades, since two words, “two stones”—sex, boys—were dropped into the bewildered teenager’s life by her shocked mother. “They fell into the forest of my mind and lay there through the springtime of my life,” she writes, “through summer drought and into winter snows, words to be forgotten. Although they remained unseen they changed my life irrevocably.”

Her public life has been one of devotion to peace, reconciliation, education and activism on behalf of the Japanese-Canadian community. The award-winning writer and poet is best known for the 1981 novel Obasan, inspired by her family’s banishment from Vancouver to the windswept prairie shacks of southern Alberta during the Second World War, and taught in schools across North America.

That poignant work was a touchstone for the movement demanding government apology and financial redress for the Dispersal Policy that displaced and permanently confiscated the properties of 22,000 “enemy aliens”, which came in 1988. For her efforts, the author was made a Member of both the Order of Canada and the Order of the Rising Sun—the Historic Joy Kogawa House Society hosts writers-in-residence and cultural events at her childhood Vancouver home.


But the shame and incomprehensibility of her beloved father’s betrayals—his seemingly Jekyll and Hyde behavior—haunted and sometimes physically sickened her throughout. How could so gentle a man of marked generosity and kindness have secretly played the demon, preying on the innocent, deeply wounding his wife and children, while somehow surviving the internal contradictions and revulsions of such enormous hypocrisy?

Moreover, the Reverend Nakayama was no ordinary priest, but a visionary and charismatic “saint hero” to the scattered issei and nisei of Canada. In the aftermath of war and exile, he travelled,


…out across the hot and freezing windy prairie, twenty-five miles, fifty miles, seventy-five miles, over dusty washboard roads, through blizzards at twenty, thirty below, holding prayer meetings wherever we were in hovels, in shacks, dung in the outhouses piling up… He laboured beside families in the fields, thinning beets, grading cucumbers, potatoes, picking corn. He was their advocate, he gave financial support and comfort; he was their translator in hospitals, in schools, in disputes, in situations of injustice. He valued deeply the people who were not valued, who were living far, far from each other, dots here and there.


Gently to Nagasaki: A Spiritual Pilgrimage, An Exploration Both Communal and Intensely Personal, Joy Kogawa (Caitlin Press, August 2016)
Gently to Nagasaki: A Spiritual Pilgrimage, An Exploration Both Communal and Intensely Personal, Joy Kogawa (Caitlin Press, August 2016)

“Write it as truth, Joy,” a friend urged, as she struggled to come to terms with the pain and guilt of her terrible knowledge. Now in this sad, thoughtful, unflinching and poetic memoir, she pulls together the events, personalities and themes of her eight decades of life—not only to seek some understanding and perhaps forgiveness for her “wretched wounded shepherd” of a father, but also to meditate on the larger mysteries of our shared human condition.

She questions victims with caution and sorrow, consults professionals, and after her father’s death, seeking insights in his past, climbs the ancient path to his childhood village in the mountains of Shikoku. People are not still-lives, she assures the conflicted offspring of public advocates for the racist Dispersal Policy—partial truths about them can unfairly masquerade as the whole. “I believe that even within the most vile life,” she writes, “perhaps most brightly within the most vile life, the Divine is indwelling.”

Such serious transgressions are not for a daughter to forgive, she ultimately grasps—that belongs only to “the full Knowing of the One … who forgives what we cannot.” What we can and must do is grieve over the trauma of others, feel their reality, and have mercy for human suffering in all its forms. And perhaps, she adds, “the living can bring a measure of ease to tormented victimizers and their victims by giving voice to their unvoiced apologies.”

Gently to Nagasaki takes that insight into the imperative of individual mercy and in some of its most arresting passages, extends it to the communal—and into our fraught human history—through the twin WWII holocausts of Nagasaki and Nanking.

The book describes the dropping of Fat Man and its impact on the lives of the American Catholic priest who prayed over both atomic bombing missions, and the renowned Nagasaki medical doctor who survived the blast, chronicled its harrowing aftermath[1]The Bells of Nagasaki, Takashi Nagai (1949), and pioneered treatments for the survivors. That the city was East Asia’s pre-eminent Christian center (its cathedral towers used to guide the B-29 superfortress), and that the blast killed three-quarters of the 12,000 “Hidden Christians”—the persecuted Jesuit converts that just decades before had astonished the world by emerging from more than two centuries of underground isolation—goes beyond irony.

For the guilt-stricken Father Zabelka, the tragedy was a “sign” of how far his Church had strayed from the way of peace and mercy—he later decried his complicity in “state-sanctioned murder”, and campaigned against the absurdity of using Christian ethics to justify war. For the saintly Doctor Nagai, the Kakure Kirishitan were the “purest of the pure”, their slaying “a whole burnt offering” that shared in the death at Calvary, and one ordained by God. Of the hidden “mystery” at the heart of the horror, Kogawa writes:


I cannot accept meaninglessness as an answer to Nagasaki. For me, the immolation by the Christian West of its best friends in Asia has made a certain truth starkly visible. It was the moment when a commandment to love the enemy was transformed into a description.


The destruction of Nagasaki is integral to the plot of Obasan—only later did the full horror and shame of the Rape of Nanking break upon the writer. She sees in the terrible cruelties of the Japanese Imperial Army there and elsewhere in China—which Doctor Nagai also witnessed and recorded—the same absence of empathy, the same dehumanization of the other endemic to war, where all but a heroic few choose “the path of blind obedience rather than the path of mercy.”

She urges that cries from Japan’s past not be muffled, and warns that history suppressed risks history being repeated. One day, she hopes, “the people of Japan will forthrightly acknowledge the facts of their country’s past, and shameful denial will be swept away. For that day, I long. It is for love of Japan that I seek the tears of Japan for its victims.”

Coming full circle to “my Nagasaki”, the disgrace of her father’s compulsions, predations and sins, she reflects:


Suppose we could look upon the catastrophes of war as we do catastrophes of nature, with mercy and without blame. Suppose humans are as prey to storms within as we are to storms without… We dehumanize the other so subtly we hardly notice the tectonic plates have started to shift. Beyond a certain point, the tremors within lead to devastations as unstoppable as earthquakes.


From a village high in the hills of Kurakawa, a boy-man of fourteen embarked upon his life’s eventful odyssey. There a profoundly disappointed daughter—one of faith that divine power had been abandoned into the human condition so that we may not abandon one another—extended the spirit of mercy to a deeply flawed but still beloved parent:


He served, he betrayed, he was revered and reviled, he preached, he wrote, he consoled, he harmed, he suffered, he forgave. He was a gentle father, he cared for his wife and died at last a month short of his ninety-fifth birthday. My father carried his mother within him throughout his life. I have carried him throughout mine. I wondered if there in Ozu, among the dead who had known and loved him, I could lay down my burden and leave my father in the care of his own.

Tim O’Connell is a China trader turned writer and historian who has lived in Hong Kong and Beijing since 1981.

Notes   [ + ]

1. The Bells of Nagasaki, Takashi Nagai (1949)