Nagasaki Photo Drift

Nagasaki Harbour

Nagasaki’s long and complicated relationship with the outside world blends into the diorama of hillside houses that sweep back from the long harbour, and the distinctive, cosmopolitan neighbourhoods of this small city. In fact, reminders of this vexed history make Nagasaki popular with tourists: Japan’s oldest Chinatown; the landlocked, newly reconstructed houses of fan-shaped, manmade Dejima island; the churches and monuments to Japan’s first and largest Christian population; the ruins of undersea mining colonies on islands such as Hashima in Nagasaki Bay; the memorials to the city’s H-bomb victims and survivors.

As far back as the 2nd century CE, before there was a unified country called Japan, The islands of Iki and Tsushima, near the site of present-day Nagasaki, appeared in classical texts as the earliest Japanese “kingdoms” to be in contact with China and mainland Asia.

Skip forward some 1200 years, to Japan’s first contact with Europeans and the “Christian century” — from 1550-1650 — which followed. By 1571, Nagasaki had been developed into a port city to handle all the traffic with the Europeans, particularly the Portuguese, and the so-called Nanban, — “Southern barbarian” — trade commenced. The Portuguese introduced new technology and culture such as guns, Christianity, and popular food such as castella (sponge cake), and tempura — called in Portuguese “peixinho-da-horta” — as well as silk and other forbidden luxury goods from China.

After the initial culture shock wore off, many of these Portuguese imports were keenly embraced. Not least was Christianity; by 1580 Nagasaki had become a Jesuit colony. In 1587, however, the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi nationalized the port as part of his campaign to unify Japan. Fearing the foreign influence of the Jesuits, a series of persecutions of Christians led to the crucifixion of 26 Christians in 1597, the “26 Martyrs of Japan,” and the banning of Catholicism in 1614. Where previously trade with the Portuguese had dominated, attention now shifted to the Dutch and English, who apparently acted more as merchants than missionaries. The Dutch introduced badminton, beer, billiards, chocolate, and coffee to an apparently receptive audience, since all of these things are still popular in Japan today.

Oura Catholic Church

Nevertheless, Nagasaki continued to be a hotbed of Christianity, and by 1637 ongoing religious persecution helped foster the Shimabara Rebellion and subsequent policy of national isolation, the subject of Shusako Endo’s historical fiction Silence — soon to be a feature film by Martin Scorsese. By 1641 the meddlesome Portuguese Catholics were expelled, and even the sober Dutch Protestants were confined to Dejima – the subject of David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

The situation vis-a-vis foreign influence must have improved, as by 1720 the ban on Dutch books lifted, turning Nagasaki into a center for rangaku “Dutch learning.”

Nagasaki became the focal point for Japan’s foreign contact and modernization: in 1858 the port opened to foreign trade, and in 1859 the Scotsman Thomas Blake Glover – no relation I can detect to Crispin  or Danny Glover  – arrived from Shanghai in time to be an arms dealer to the Emperor’s army which defeated the Tokugawa shogunate and brought about the Meiji Restoration – a period of Japanese history captured in The Last Samurai. Glover went on to introduce steam locomotives and western-style warships and shipbuilding to Japan, as well as to develop the first coal mine in Japan at Takashima, and founded Kirin Brewing Company. Glover’s hillside estate overlooking the harbour is now a tourist attraction.

Nagasaki Peace Park

By the late 19th century Nagasaki had become a hub of western technology and industry, including such heavy industries as shipbuilding and railways. Thus, unlike Hiroshima, by the end of World War Two Nagasaki was very definitely a strategic target in the sights, so to speak, of Allied bombers. Nevertheless, the city was still only a secondary target on August 9, 1945, when an H-bomb was exploded over the city.

Unlike the flat, open river delta that Hiroshima was built on, Nagasaki is relatively sheltered by its setting among foothills and so many more buildings, including churches and the harbour, survived the bomb. It’s said that the residents of nearby Gunkanjima island saw the explosion from their apartments.

Rebuilding focused on foreign trade, shipbuilding, and fishing. Memorials to the bomb victims were created from the rubble, such as the one-legged torii gate at Sanno Shrine, and in new buildings such as the Atomic Bomb Museum – the counterpart to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum.

Gunkanjima “Battleship Island”

Today, the city is popular with tourists from China and further abroad, as well as with expats looking for an alternative to Japan’s drab urban sprawl. Nagasaki’s newest “attraction” lies just offshore: the abandoned coal mining facility on Hashima, so-called Gunkanjima “Battleship Island.” But that is the stuff of another story…


Fire in Golden Gai April 12, 2016

Update Friday, April 15: On Wednesday, a day after the fire, police reportedly arrested a 66-year-old man for breaking into the building shortly before the fire started.


Update 7:25 p.m.: According to this report from The Japan Times, the fire is out with no cause determined. Five buildings damaged and one person injured. I can’t tell much from the picture, so I’ll have to pay a visit sooner than later to see where the damage was…


Don’t have any details yet, but a part of Golden Gai – my favourite hang-out spot in Tokyo – is apparently on fire. here’s the news footage:

On the one hand, given the 200+ tiny bars crammed into ramshackle buildings in this six-block Shinjuku ghetto, it may not be surprising that a fire has broken out. Then again, there has been a rumour ever since Tokyo won the bid for the 2020 Olympics that Golden Gai is once again being considered for gentrification…

Either way, I may have to update Down the Rabbit Hole, my guide to Golden Gai, sooner rather than later…

Sakura Cherry Blossoms 2016

A selection of sakura “cherry blossom” haiku from the Japanese poet Issa…

Sakura Cherry Blossoms
Sakura Cherry Blossoms

sasuga hana chiru ni miren wa nakari keri

when cherry blossoms
no regrets


sensei nakunarite wa tada no sakura kana

the master being dead
just ordinary…
cherry blossoms

chiru sakura kokoro no oni mo dete asobe

cherry blossoms fall–
come out and play
devil in me!

masse matsudai demo sakura sakura kana

a corrupt world
in its latter days…
but cherry blossoms!

sawagashiki yo wo oshi haratte oso-zakura

the cure for
this raucous world…
late cherry blossoms

mata hito wo tachi-fusagaru ya hatsu sakura

again someone stands
blocking my view!
first cherry blossoms

kome-bukuro munashiku naredo sakura kana

though my rice sack
is empty…
cherry blossoms!

ima kara wa sakura hitori yo mado no mae

from now on
cherry blossom solitude!
my window

ubasuteshi kata yama-zakura saki ni keri

on Mount Ubasute
where the old were left to die…
cherry blossoms

ôkata wa doro ni hittsuku sakura kana

most end up
stuck in mud…
cherry blossoms

hana no ame kotoshi mo tsumi wo tsukuri keri

rain of cherry blossoms–
this year, too
I’ve sinned

shinibeta to mata mo miraren sakura-bana

that they’re no good at dying
again can be seen…
cherry blossoms

chiru sakura kyô mo mucha-kucha kurashi keri

cherry blossoms scatter–
another day
of life’s chaos

shinijitaku itase itase to sakura kana

“Get ready, get ready
for death!”
cherry blossoms

toshiyori no me ni sae sakura sakura to

even to these old eyes–
cherry blossoms!
cherry blossoms!

yorutoshi ya sakura no saku mo ko urusaki

growing old–
even the cherry blossoms
a bit annoying

yama-zakura hana kichigai no jijii kana

he’s a mountain
cherry blossom-crazed
old man

miren naku chiru mo sakura wa sakura kana

without regret
they fall and scatter…
cherry blossoms

hana saku ya ima ni jû nen mae naraba

cherry blossoms!
if I were twenty years

hana saku ya kyô no bijin no hohokaburi

cherry blossoms–
the pretty women of Kyoto
cheeks wrapped in scarves

hana miru mo zeni wo toraruru miyako kana

even viewing the cherry blossoms
costs money…

tengushu no rusu [no] uchi saku yama-zakura

mountain goblins
are out in droves…
cherry blossoms!

translations from David G. Lanoue, “the HaikuGuy”, RosaMary Professor of English, Xavier University of Louisiana; President Haiku Society of America


Thus Another Day in 1959 Tokyo

the tokyo files archives 東京ファイル

Keisuke Kinoshita 木下惠介 was a wonderful filmmaker. In the half-dozen films of his I’ve seen, he creates an effective balance between humor and sadness, optimism and cynicism. Visually, his use of real-world locations provides a rich visual library of what Tokyo and Japan looked like in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s.

In The Eternal Rainbowこの天の虹 (1958), the real-life Yawata Steel Works 八幡製鉄所 (map) in Kitakyushu 北九州市 is one of the film’s main characters. Although the film is de facto propaganda for the steel company, it is good propaganda. And it’s good for history fanatics. The establishing shots and transitional scenes show us what this Japanese steel town looked like in 1958.

The mill:

Inside the factory, hot steel spins through the machines like spaghetti:

The danchi 団地 apartment building complexes:

A moment of beauty (?) on the hillside:

Kinoshita (or his cinematographer) often worked with a wide lens and would pan left to right (or right to left) for almost…

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Kafunsho: Allergy Season in Tokyo – and the rest of Japan

I may well have a lot to say on this subject – later. For now, I just wanna let you know I found an interesting website,, a weather site which also has a page to map and grade pollen levels across Japan, and report on allergy conditions generally. I’m still deciphering what some of the pictographs mean, but the site looks quite useful.

And, FYI, Tokyo is still apparently in the red, still experiencing worst-case scenario conditions for another day…