Two Sixths of August, 333 Years Apart

‘To remember the past,’ said Pope St. John Paul II in Hiroshima, ‘is to commit oneself to the future.’

Nagasaki, the heart of Catholicism in Japan, lies in ruins following the bombing of the city on Aug. 9, 1945. The remnants of the Catholic cathedral can be seen near the hills on the left side of the picture.
Nagasaki, the heart of Catholicism in Japan, lies in ruins following the bombing of the city on Aug. 9, 1945. The remnants of the Catholic cathedral can be seen near the hills on the left side of the picture. (photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Seventy-seven years ago, on Aug. 6, 1945, B-29 Superfortress No. 82 dropped an enriched-uranium bomb called Little Boy over its designated bull’s eye, the T-shaped Aioi Bridge in downtown Hiroshima.

The pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets, plunged her into a dive to pick up speed and turned to get as far as possible from the bomb before it exploded. Forty-three seconds after the weapon’s release, its shock wave hit the Superfortress, which “cracked and crinkled from the blast,” although it had sped 11 and a half miles distant by then. That blast smashed the city below like a titanic anvil dropped from the heavens while the bomb’s flash incinerated man and beast indiscriminately. Richard Rhodes writes

People exposed within half a mile of the Little Boy fireball … were seared to bundles of smoking black char in a fraction of a second as their internal organs boiled away. … The small black bundles now stuck to the streets and bridges and sidewalks of Hiroshima numbered in the thousands.

Three hundred thirty-three years before that bombing of Aug. 6, 1945, Tokugawa Ieyasu set in motion the genocide of Japan’s Catholics by the smash of his seal on a ban on the Catholic Faith in all shogunal domains. Mark this: the ban, that death-warrant for the faithful, was sealed on the sixth day of the eighth month of the old Japanese lunar calendar in the year 1612. The late Yakichi Kataoka, eminent historian and martyrologist, regarded that day, more commonly accepted Christian Expulsion Edict of 1614, as the true start of the Tokugawa persecution. Given the horrors inflicted on the Catholics of Arima in conjunction with the edict of 8/6/1612 (by Japanese reckoning), this author must agree with Kataoka. 

The legacy of the Hiroshima bombing is eerily reminiscent of the legacy of the Tokugawa shogunate’s protracted war on Catholicism, waged with countless martyrdoms spread across two and a half centuries of Tokugawa rule. At the mention of those “internal organs boiled away,” the martyrdom of Father Peter Kasui Kibe springs to mind, while the “bundles of smoking black char” could describe the remains of countless priests and other faithful burnt to cinders by the Tokugawa terror, often by the slowest means possible. Additionally, the bombardment, starving-out and final extermination of Hara Castle’s 37,000 Christians by fire and sword offers a panoramic snapshot in miniature of the Empire-wide persecution of the Body of Christ under the Tokugawas. 

Arai Hakuseki, whom Britannica lauds as “one of the greatest historians of Japan,” calculated in 1705 that 200,000 to 300,000 Kirishitan had been martyred by that writing. Most European chroniclers of the persecution give much lower numbers, but they had little (if any) access to accurate information from within much of the Empire after 1620 or earlier. Indeed, the frenzy of the persecution in the little domain of Arima alone suggests large numbers of anonymous martyrs, especially if one considers those starved by ruthless taxation or hounded out of their homes to scrape out a living in the wild. 

That persecution went on into the Meiji Period, after the so-called opening of Japan — her door actually only slightly ajar with a security chain stopping anything wider than the tip of a nose from getting in. Thus, modern weapons, modern manufacturing and even foreign languages poured in, but not that dreaded religion that made clear nonsense of the “gods” created out of rocks, trees, monkeys and the like until Western diplomatic pressure forced the door open wider. 

Meanwhile, with those modern weapons, Japan sank a Russian fleet, annexed Korea (where they forbade the speaking of Korean), rampaged into China (300,000 unarmed Chinese murdered in Nanking alone, not to mention the gang-rapes and the discarded, bayonetted victims), bombed Pearl Harbor, enslaved the Philippines, drove the Bataan Death March, invaded Singapore and cut off the city’s water supply to parch its populace into submission; starved, tortured and executed prisoners of war against all international law; and on and on and on. 

And to top it all off, the Japanese army was training women and girls to thwart any invasions of foreign troops by mass suicide charges with sharpened-bamboo spears. And the smaller schoolboys were being trained to blow up foreign tanks by rolling under the oncoming armor and pulling the detonator on suicide bombs strapped to their chests. 

So the atom bomb, once proven at the Trinity Site in July 1945, was a tempting choice to stop the madness. But then, mysteriously, came Nagasaki. 

The target designated for Fat Man — a plutonium bomb, unlike Little Boy with its charge of uranium-235 — was the Kokura Arsenal, at least by man’s planning. Superfortress No. 77, nicknamed Bockscar, was to drop its weapon over that “massive collection of war industries” on the northeast corner of Kyushu on the morning of Aug. 9, but before reaching Kokura, Bockscar wasted fuel circling over Yakushima Island for almost an hour awaiting a rendezvous plane that never showed up. On top of that, the reserve fuel tank was inaccessible because of a stuck valve. 

Once over Kokura, the pilot, Major Charles Sweeney, and his bombardier found the city blanketed in smoke and cloud too thick to spot any hint of their aiming-point. They made three passes over Kokura to no avail, and with fuel dwindling, Major Sweeney turned southwest toward Nagasaki, the secondary target, whence he could reach Okinawa for an emergency landing. 

About 20 minutes later, Bockscar reached the west coast of Kyushu to find Nagasaki also blanketed in cloud, but a hole opened in that blanket just long enough to give the bombardier a glimpse of Nagasaki’s stadium, and he let Fat Man drop. Forty-three seconds passed before the Apocalypse flashed in the face of Urakami Cathedral, incinerating all at the 11:00 Mass. 

Priceless Nagasaki, with her Catholic roots dug centuries deep, exploded into pulverized ash and white-hot flame as students and teachers at her university saw the ceilings collapsing onto their heads and windows exploding into glass shrapnel, while factories became smoking heaps of twisted steel. Only the mountains surrounding Urakami stopped the blast and fireball from reducing the whole city to cinders, just as Mount Hijiyama in Hiroshima had shielded a stretch of the city behind its shadow. 

Hiroshima had housed the military headquarters of western Japan, set to direct war within that sphere to the last drop of blood in case of invasion and national fracture. In Nagasaki were the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works and the Mitsubishi-Urakami Torpedo Works in addition to a shipyard and a major port, among whose laborers were Korean slaves and Western prisoners of war. 

Some hours before the Apocalypse, as Major Sweeney was aiming for Japan, plowing his bomber through stormy skies at 17,000 feet above the Pacific, St. Elmo’s fire had shrouded his ship in unearthly light. William Laurence, watching from an escort plane, wrote:

The whirling giant propellers had somehow become great luminous discs of blue flame. The same luminous blue flame appeared on the plexiglass windows in the nose of the ship, and on the tips of the giant wings it looked as though we were riding the whirlwind through space on a chariot of blue fire. 

That same blue fire had appeared atop the masts of the Mexico-bound galleon San Felipe in 1596 as a typhoon drove her relentlessly toward Japan, where the ruler’s greed for the rich cargo in her wrecked hull would drive him to crucify the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki. Their crosses stood atop a slope called Nishi-zaka, from which Urakami would have been in plain view. A great red brick cathedral would stand on a hilltop at Urakami three and a half centuries later, overlooking Nagasaki’s stadium. 

That cathedral, Urakami Cathedral, was dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Her feast day is Dec. 8. 

Japanese naval aircraft bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Hawaii time, plunging America into war with Japan. In Japan, though, it was Dec. 8 when those bombs came whistling down on America. 

The Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ first reached Japan in the hands of St. Francis Xavier with his landing at Kagoshima on Aug. 15, 1549, the feast of the Assumption. Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender to the Allied powers in a radio broadcast to his broken nation on Aug. 15, 1945, another feast of the Assumption. 

Somewhere in the great vault of Heaven, countless thousands of martyrs from both sides of that abysmal horror must be singing God’s praises as their hearts weep along with Heaven’s Queen. 

Luke O’Hara became a Catholic in Japan. His articles and books about Japan’s martyrs can be found at his website,