Friday, November 5, 2010

More Thoughts about A Song for Nagasaki

Well, then I was going to continue to post my thoughts as a comment below because I was too lazy to start a new blog post; but it got to be too long for a comment.

Like my previous comment, this is just a string of random bits, expanded from some notes I made as I read. Not really a coherent train of thought.

I think the moment in the book that most moved me was Chapter 26 "The Little Girl Who Could Not Cry", the chapter about Nagai's daughter. Her story is so sad, though I know it is not unique. It makes me think differently about how I react to my own children's tears: "Our childhood is happy because we can cry. We know that if we cry, our mother will come and comfort us. At times since your mother died, Kayano, I wanted to bawl my eyes out. But an adult cannot do that; only a child who has a mother can." How often do see their crying as an annoyance and an intrusion. How often do I deny them that comfort when they are crying because it is inconvenient to me?

The story about six year-old Kayano saving the pineapple juice and carrying it home from school because she thought her sick father would enjoy it.... I so could see my little Bella doing that. Another moment that made me cry. And that I had to read to my sister and to Dom, to anyone who would listen.

Also, in this chapter Glynn quotes from some of Nagai's books in which he writes down all the things he wants to tell his children before they die. that are not available in English, but which he says became bestsellers. So tantalizing getting a little taste of books I'd love to track down and read:

I'm sure you remember the fairy tale of the bluebird of happiness. When your mother dies, your bluebird, alas, flew away. You will not find your bluebird again except in heaven. Heartbreaking.

I don't frequently read biographies because they are so often dry. Like the bio of Jane Austen I've attempted several times but it's so weighed down with attempts to create the historical milieu through detail after detail that the story gets lost. Glynn knows how to tell a story and obviously cares about Nagai as a person rather than a subject.

I found the connections that Glynn drew between Nagai's prayer practices and traditional Japanese culture fascinating. I'm thinking of the passage in chapter 15 when Nagai is in China for the second time. Glynn writes about Nagai's adaptation of the Buddhist Nenbutsu prayer:

"Nagai's Christianity was deepening, but its style was becoming more Japanese.... Nagai began praying a kind of Christian Nenbutsu. He would choose a short passage from the Psalms or from the pocket New Testament he always carried and repeat it over and over.... His body and mind became almost numb as he worked around the clock, but he kept his spirit at peace by continually murmuring: 'The Lord graciously restores the dead to life.' Another of his Biblical Nenbutsu was a line from Isaiah, prophet in exile: 'For your sake we are massacred daily and reckoned as sheep for the slaughter."

While I don't doubt that Nagai was drawing on those roots and integrating Christian and traditional Japanese prayer practices; still what struck me about the prayers that he prays is how much they resemble the Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic's practice of the Jesus prayer. Glynn says that in Nenbutsu the goal is to escape preoccupation with the past and the future and to dwell in the Now. Not at all very different from the goal of Christian prayer, except int he awareness that to be in the Now is to be with Christ.

Likewise with the Parable of the Bare Hut in chapter 25. Nagai's hut is modeled on the huts of Buddhist pilgrim hermits and the later tea hut/private chapel of Christian baron Lord Takayama. But at the same time the Christian tradition in the West also has a history of hermits withdrawing to live alone in spare huts. The early desert fathers, the Irish monks on the islands off the west coast in their little beehive huts. Of course the difference in Nagai's hut is the emphasis on gracefulness and beauty that the Japanese aesthetic brings. In that way, the traditional tea hut has a very different spirit from the crude huts of Western monastics. Perhaps it's more akin to a Benedectine aesthetic, which tends toward balancing beauty and austerity.

If I had any quibble with Glynn's approach, perhaps is was the excessive focus on Nagai's Japanese exceptionalism that de-emphasizes a continuity with traditional Catholic practice. I suppose I'm still thinking of Silence and the insistence that Christianity is somehow a foreign invader that is swallowed in the swamp of Japan. Although I think the fact that it survived underground for centuries without any priests in itself rather belies that claim. Anyhow, it seems to me that Nagai's life shows much more clearly how inculturation happens, it's subtle and nuanced blending the best of East and West. He reads the text of the Book of Revelation onto the landscape of the atomic wasteland of Nagasaki. Far from being a foreign invader, Christianity gives him a rubric that makes sense of the tragedy in a way that native philosophy cannot.

It was especially interesting the contrast between Nagasaki's peaceful celebration of the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb and the violent protests in Hiroshima. Glynn lays almost all the credit for the difference at Nagai's door. This deep-seated and widespread influence made me wonder whether there has been or might ever be a popular movement in Japan for Nagai's canonization.


Emily J. said...

I wondered the same thing about a move for canonization for Nagai, Melanie. I suppose I could look it up somehow...

So the 13 yr old I've been talking about in the comments below read Night for his reading fair project, so I started reading it again last night. Although their experiences are quite different during the same war, Nagai and Weisel both suffered painful losses. The contrast between Wiesel's response to the Holocaust and Nagai's is stark. As I write this, I wonder if I'm mistaken to compare them. Wiesel's suffering was intensified by torture and a prolonged fear of his own death. Nagai's suffering was unexpected and he already knew he was going to die. Wiesel's suffering also is intensified by his feeling of abandonment by God, whereas Nagai's suffering is lessened by his Christian hope.

Melanie B said...

Though I've read several other accounts by holocaust survivors, I don't think I've ever actually read Night. I really should put it on my to be read list. I'd say a closer parallel to Nagai is perhaps Viktor Frankl. From what I understand of Night, Frankl's is a much more hopeful book. Though Frankl was a Jew, he later married a Catholic and according to one interview I read he might have been a very quiet convert. In later life he was very private about matters of faith. Certainly his worldview in Man's Search for Meaning has a very Catholic flavor to it.