FILE – In this September 13, 1945 file photo, the Catholic Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, Japan, lies devastated following the explosion of the atomic bomb more than a month ago above this city. The city of Nagasaki in southern Japan marks the 75th anniversary of the US atomic bombing of August 9, 1945. It was a second nuclear bomb dropped by the United States three days after the world’s first atomic attack on Hiroshima. Japan surrendered on August 15, ending World War II and its nearly half-century of aggression against its Asian neighbors. The dwindling survivors, whose average age exceeds 83, are increasingly concerned about passing on their lessons to younger generations. (AP Photo/Stanley Troutman, Pool, File)
At 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945, an atomic bomb exploded 1,650 feet above Nagasaki, in Japan, killing an estimated 40,000 people instantly. Tens of thousands more eventually died from burns and radiation; the true death toll will never be known.
A US bomber, diverted from its primary target by smoke and haze, dropped its payload on two weapons factories. But the bomb also nearly destroyed Urakami Cathedral, just five hundred meters from ground zero. A small group of people inside the cathedral and thousands of Catholics who lived nearby died.
History books document how the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to Japan’s surrender during World War II, but rarely mention their effects on the Catholic community in Japan. About 12,000 Catholics lived in Nagasakimainly in the Urakami district in the northern part of the city.
The faith had survived there under extreme persecution for centuries.
Why Early Japanese Christians Trampled Images of Christ and Mary
Jesuit missionaries from Portugal, a maritime power, brought Christianity to Japan in the mid-16th century. Nagasaki, a port city, became known as “Rome of Japan” with probably hundreds of thousands of Christians there.
But as the faith spread, the persecution grew. In perhaps the most famous incident, twenty-six Catholics were tortured and crucified in 1597 by order of Toyotomi Hideyoshifeudal lord and samurai considered the second “Great Unifier” of Japan.
In 1614, Japan banned Christianity. In order to root out the believers, the authorities demanded that everyone walk on a to smokea flat image of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary, as a sign of renunciation of faith.
“It was a mustcommoners, samurai, Buddhist monks, even the sick couldn’t miss it – they brought the wooden board home”, Martin Ramos, professor at French School of Asian Studies in Paris, told the BBC. “Every person had to do this.
“It was quite well thought out because at the time, Christians relied a lot on images. People were praying in front of an image – Mary, Jesus – so many people thought that part of God was inside the image. It was a connection with the divine. . . for them, walking on it was something very frightening.
Christians who refused to step on the fumie risked torture or execution. Others known as “Hidden Christians” only pretended to renounce their faith.
“These people were still secretly practicing things like baptism, they were giving their children secret Portuguese Christian names like Paulo, Mario and Isabella,” Ramos said. “They were celebrating the nativity, Easter.”
The Japanese government lifted the ban on Christianity in 1873. At that time, it was believed 20,000 Christians lived in Japan.
“One of the paradoxes of Japanese Christian history is that if all Japanese Catholics had refused to trample the fumie and instead chose to die as martyrs, Christianity in Japan would also have died,” said Simon Hull, a professor at Nagasaki Junshin Catholic University. told the BBC.
“It is only because some made the existential decision to trample the smoke, despite their belief that this action was a grave sin, that Christianity in Japan was able to survive.”
He also survived the atomic bomb. And, in a symbolic twist, the now-rebuilt Urakami Cathedral stands in an area where Christians had to tread the smoke or face the consequences centuries ago.