Feast of the Assumption and the Japanese connection

Feast of the Assumption and the Japanese connection

Robert Denahy

The Blessed Virgin, and in particular, the Feast of her Assumption, have played a significant part in the history of modem Japan.

It was precisely 444 years ago on that Feast Day in 1549 that a squat, lateen-sailed Chinese junk sailed into Kagoshima harbour. On board was a fiery Basque Jesuit, Francis Xavier. August 15th that year marked the fifteenth anniversary of the day he made his vows and was the foundation day of the Jesuits.

Xavier was impressed by the honesty and industriousness of the Japanese, but not by their language which he thought must have been designed by the devil to thwart missionaries. He predicted that, if the Japanese were converted, their faith would be unshakeable.

The following century a cruel and ruthless persecution of Christians was unleashed by the Tokugawa Shoguns. Many withstood tortures, burning and crucifixion, but would not recant.

For two hundred and fifty years the Faith went underground and was passed on, family by family, from parents to children.

There were three criteria by which they were to identify Catholic priests, were they ever to return to Japan: they would be celibate, they would obey the Pope in Rome and they would have devotion to the Mother of God.

And so it was one day in 1865 that a small and timid group of Christians from Urakami in Nagasaki secretly approached a French priest of the Paris Foreign Mission Society, Father Petijean, and astounded him with their story.

Catholicism in Japan was further revivified this century by another saint, Maximilian Kolbe. He also was to work in Nagasaki. His magazine, Knights of the Immaculate, was and is the most popular Catholic magazine in Japan. He was recalled to Poland and was executed in Auschwitz on August 14,1941.

Worldwide notoriety was to come to Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The American crew of a B-29 had failed in their attempt to drop their plutonium bomb on the much larger city of Kokura and turned instead towards Nagasaki. The crew had averaged only a 200 metre error in practice sessions, but that day they were three kilometres off target. The bomb exploded over the Christian suburb of Urakami, near the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

On an accompanying observation aircraft, a young British pilot, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, watched the seething atomic cloud shoot upwards to 20,000 metres. Its awful power and symmetry seemed to announce, "Against me, you cannot fight."

A saintly Japanese doctor, Takashi Nagai, was working in his hospital when the bomb detonated at 11a.m. He was severely wounded by flying glass and crashing debris, but worked furiously for more than a day without rest tending the dying, the maimed and mutilated. He later found the charred remains of his wife, Midori. She was a direct descendant of the underground Christians and it was she who converted her husband to Catholicism. Nagai was to remain at peace and unembittered.

That same day, in a bunker beneath the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Emperor Hirohito met with the Supreme Council of War to discuss surrender. It was deadlocked and the meeting was abandoned. Late that night the Emperor recalled its six members.

Mr Nagai, who wrote several books before he died the death of a saint a few years after the war, tells the story in Father Paul Glynn's book A Song For Nagasaki: "At midnight that night our cathedral suddenly burst into flames and was consumed. At exactly the same time in the Imperial Palace, His Majesty the Emperor made known his sacred decision to end the war. On August 15, the Imperial Rescript which put an end to the fighting was formally promulgated and the whole world saw the light of peace. August 15 is also the great Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It is significant, I believe, that Urakami Cathedral was dedicated to her ... 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 nations during World War ll?"

Nagai did a sketch of his wife, hands joined and eyes turned to heaven, standing atop the mushroom cloud of the bomb that destroyed her. She resembled the Virgin Mary as she is depicted standing on a cloud as she is assumed into heaven.

As the world and Australia again face a period of crisis and challenge, we might profitably turn our minds on August 15th northwards to Japan and her Christians, loyal like the samurai; and heavenwards to the patron saint of Australia, Francis Xavier, and to the Mother of God.

Paradoxically, we might hear her say, as she has in every crisis down the centuries, "Against me, you cannot fight. With me, you will always conquer."

Mr Robert Denahy is Australian distributor for the U.S. based Seton Home Study School. He married his Japanese wife, Mariko, in the Cathedral of Hiroshima in 1970.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.