History of Nagasaki

Mother Earth Travel > Japan > Nagasaki > History

For a city that would experience a momentous 500 years, Nagasakis early existence was remarkably mundane. There was some limited contact with China in towns to the north, but Nagasaki itself was basically a secluded harbor village. Its people lived in historical obscurity until contact with European explorers in the mid-16th century.

Following the accidental landing of a Portuguese ship in 1542 at Kagoshima Prefecture, the zealous Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier arrived in another part of the territory in 1549. Xavier left for China in 1551 (dying soon after departure), but his followers who remained converted a number of daimyo (warlords), the most notable of whom was Omura Sumitada. His conversion was to prove profitable; through a deal, he would receive a proportion of the trade from Portuguese ships at a port that the two parties established in 1571--Nagasaki.

It would not take long before the little harbor village bloomed into a diverse port city. Its cosmopolitan fame spread until people all over Japan began craving things Portuguese: tobacco, bread, tempura (yes, it is Portuguese!), sponge-cake, and of course fantastic styles of clothing. The Portuguese also brought with them many goods of Chinese origin.

The ports prosperity was threatened, however, in 1587, when a new Japanese shogun, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, came to power. His anxiety over the extent of Christian influence in southern Japan caused him to order the expulsion of all missionaries. Nagasakis administrative control, which had been given in part to Jesuits by Omura, returned to imperial control. Nevertheless, Portuguese traders were not ostracized, and the citys culture continued to thrive.

In 1596, the captain of a Spanish galleon crashed in Shikoku, only to have his ship impounded. He boasted that with the increased numbers of Christians, he could oust the shogun. To discourage such threats, Hideyoshi lost no time in marching the captain around the country in disgrace. Later, he would crucify 26, Christian Franciscans and a few Japanese, in Nagasaki City as a further deterrent.

Under the rule of Tokugawa Ieyasu almost two decades later, conditions hardly improved. Christianity was banned in 1614, and all missionaries who did not going into hiding, as well as daimyo who would not apostatize, were deported. An incredibly brutal persecution campaign followed, and thousands across Nagasaki and other parts of Japan were killed and tortured. The Christians, however, did put up some initial resistance. In 1637, in the Nagasaki enclave of Shimabara, vagabond Christians and local peasants mired in penury erupted into Japans most startling rebellion. The numbers quickly swelled to 40,000, capturing Hara Castle and humiliating local daimyo. In retaliation, the shogunate dispatched 120,000 soldiers to quash the uprising, thus ending Japans brief 'Christian Century.' Christians still remained, of course, but all went into hiding, still the victims of occasional inquisitions.

During this time, the Dutch had been quietly making inroads into Japan. Although the shogunates policy called for ending foreign influence, the Dutch demonstrated that they were interested in trading alone. In fact, during the Shimabara rebellion, the Dutch were ordered to fire on the Christians in a test of loyalty. In 1641, their grudging (if not damning) loyalty won them Dejima, an artificial island in Nagasaki Bay, to which their activities would be confined. From this date until 1855, Japans contact with the outside world was limited to Nagasaki.

The port continued to exist as an exotic place. Chinese influence, due to what traders brought, began to appear in festivals, foods and architecture. Then, in 1720, the ban on Dutch books was lifted, causing hundreds of scholars to flood into Nagasaki to study European science and art.

After US Commodore Matthew Perrys landing in 1853, and the subsequent crumbling of the shogunate, Japan opened its doors again, and Nagasaki became a free port in 1859. Modernization began in earnest in 1868, and the city was swept along with the rest of the country.

With the Meiji Restoration, Nagasaki quickly began to assume some economic dominance, though its main industryshipbuilding, would eventually make it a target in World War II. On August 9th, 1945, the American B-52 'Bocks Car,' looking for the shipyards, spotted instead through the cloudbreak the Mitsubishi Arms Works, over which it dropped 'Fat Man' the second nuclear bomb exploded over Japan. At 11:02 am, 75,000 of Nagasakis 240,000 residents were killed, followed by the death of at least as many from resulting sickness and injury.

The city did, of course, rise again from the charred waste, albeit dramatically changed, as any city would be. New temples were built, and new churches as well, since the Christian presence never died out and even increased dramatically in numbers after the war. Some of the rubble was left as testimony, like the one-legged torii gate, and the stone arch near the epicenter. New structures were also raised as memorialssuch as the Atomic Bomb Museum. Most importantly, however, the port city, with its continued ship industry, stands today as a testament to peace, with its civic leaders and members of government providing a moral voice in the nuclear age and raising a cry of protest against any sort of testing that might compromise peace or human safety.