Nagasaki: Gateway to the World

For most Americans, Nagasaki  is known only as the second city on which the U.S. dropped an atom bomb to help end World War II. Even in this respect, Nagasaki is less well known compared to Hiroshima. But Nagasaki played a vital role in Japan’s development during the era of Tokugawa peace, serving as a vital portal between Japan and the rest of the world.

 

For most Americans, Nagasaki  is known only as the second city on which the U.S. dropped an atom bomb to help end World War II. Even in this respect, Nagasaki is less well known compared to Hiroshima. But Nagasaki played a vital role in Japan’s development during the era of Tokugawa peace, serving as a vital portal between Japan and the rest of the world.

For most of its history, Nagasaki was merely a small village in southwestern island of Kyushu. Despite its fantastic harbor, Nagasaki (literally, “Long Peninsula”) was difficult to access by land and never experienced much economic growth. When a Portuguese ship landed accidentally nearby in 1542, this provided the area with its first European contact. The Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier arrived in 1549, and although he left shortly thereafter, many of his missionaries converted some local daimyo to Christianity. One of the converted daimyo, Omura Sumitada, arranged for the Portuguese to use Nagasaki harbor for trading in 1571, which changed the tiny village forever. As Nagasaki grew in prosperity, the Japanese government became concerned about the Portuguese presence, especially the presence of the missionaries.

When Hideyoshi came into power, he ordered the expulsion of all missionaries in 1587. To show that he was serious, he crucified 26 Christians in 1596, while still allowing the Portuguese trade to continue. When Tokugawa became Shogun, he banned Christianity outright in 1614, deporting all missionaries and daimyo who would not renounce the religion. Persecutions of Christians began across Kyushu and the rest of Japan, with thousands of Christians killed or tortured. The Shimabara Rebellion of 1636-38 consisted of Christians and other peasants revolting against the shogunate, with a force that eventually numbered 40,000. The shogunate sent a large force of 120,000 troops to quell the rebellion, killing 30,000 Japanese Christians. After that, Christianity in Japan was nearly extinguished, with its few adherents hiding their identity.

The Shimabara Rebellion was instrumental in Tokugawa’s decision to impose a policy of foreign isolation on the country. In 1639, all ports except Nagasaki were closed to foreign traders, and by 1641 the only traders allowed were Dutch, who had demonstrated they were not interested in religion, but only in trading. The Dutch had even supported the shogun’s troops in the Shimabara Rebellion by firing on the Christians, which probably helped their status with the Japanese government.

From 1641-1853, Japan’s only contact with foreigners was at Nagasaki. In 1720 the ban on Dutch books was lifted, bringing many scholars to Nagasaki to study Western technology, medicine, and art. The Tokugawa shogunate governed the city directly, appointing a city administrator to protect its interests.

With the Meiji Restoration, Nagasaki became a free port in 1859, and began the process of modernization in 1868. The port was of some importance despite its distance from Tokyo or other major city centers, and its industry turned to specialize in shipbuilding. Its focus on this particular activity was what made it the target of America’s second atomic bomb in World War II. Ironically, Nagasaki had been the secondary target on that particular day — the primary target of Korkura had been obscured by clouds. Despite the atomic bomb being of greater power than that used on Hiroshima, Nagasaki suffered less damage because the nearby mountains helped to shield some of the blast. Many of Nagasaki’s historic centers survived the atomic bomb and are still popular tourist sites.

Nagasaki’s rapid rise to prominence in Japan, its association with early Japanese Christians, and its fate from an atomic bombing on August 9, 1945, have given this city a fascinating history, and it remains a popular tourist attraction today.

 

(Originally published in Muzosa Journal 3/24/06. Author retains all copyrights.)

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