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.
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.
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.
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…