Monday, October 10th, 2022

Nagasaki: a city alive with a history of trade

Photograph of a double arched bridge over a river with two people stood to the left of the shot

We know the story well: on August 9th 1945, a B29 bomber dropped a nuclear bomb on Nagasaki and a few days later Imperial Japan surrendered. You may also know the port city wasn't the primary target, the bomb detonated in the wrong place, and the B29 almost perished.

I expected my visit to be dominated by this brief yet intense event in history. What I discovered was a city that has somehow clung to the far longer, and arguably more important role Nagasaki has played in Japan's emergence as a nation state.

Founding, Portuguese and the threat of Spanish Conquistadors

Nagasaki owes its foundation as a port to the Portuguese. Having arrived in the mid 1540s, they needed a permanent trading post. Nestled between the Uragami and Nakashima rivers, the natural harbor and flat plain of Nagasaki seemed ideal. In the 1570s it was formally founded as a port, initially under Jesuit control.

Catholicism was a problem for Japan's rulers as its adherents swore allegiance to a "higher authority" based in another country. This didn't sit well with a dictatorship expecting absolute loyalty. Matters weren't helped by the behavior of missionaries and Jesuits in proactively recruiting people to their beliefs, particularly when they targeted government officials and key allies. As long as the Catholics were useful they were tolerated, albeit with sporadic outbreaks of violent persecutions.

Alongside the Catholic Iberians, the protestant Dutch and British established trading networks. They were subjected to far less violence, mostly because they weren't interested in conversion to their faith. Even so, they were kept isolated from the population at large.

By 1637, Catholicism had been all but wiped out. A plot in 1596 by the Spanish to invade had been uncovered, resulting in expulsions and violence. The Portuguese remained at Nagasaki for another 40 years until they too were removed after a Catholic led rebellion. Any Catholics who remained were forced to renounce their religion, or faced crucifixion or being burned alive.

Sakoku, Dejima and China

Dejima was an island in the Nagasaki bay that had served as part-prison, part-trading post for the Portuguese. Today it's been absorbed by land reclamation, and the trading post recreated as a living museum. Only it isn't the Portuguese who are the focus.

From 1633, Japan isolated itself from much of the world. Japanese subjects were largely forbidden from leaving the country, and few outsiders were allowed in. While trade continued with China and Russia, it was Nagasaki that formed the main link with Europe, and only through the Dutch.

While there are comfortable quarters and grand warehouses at Dejima, there was no settlement. The Dutch were prohibited from staying on the island for longer than necessary for trade. They were not permitted to leave, and few allowed to visit them. Those that did were usually from the merchant class, seen as the lowest of the low in Japanese society.

And yet there were cultural exchanges that cemented the Dutch influence on Nagasaki. Relations thawed, and scholars were permitted to learn of European science and art, even if it was viewed with suspicion.

The Chinese also left their mark. Unlike the Dutch, they were permitted to land and form settlements. Several of the Buddhist temples in the city show a heavy Chinese influence in their design and construction. While Japanese temples and shrines had slowly acquired local motifs and imagery, some of those in the city retained a distinctive Ming-era style, notably at Kofuku-ji (which is dedicated to a Chinese sea goddess) and Sofuki-ji.

The end of isolation

Walk through some of the older parts of the city and you might notice Dutch motifs in the architecture. Certain roof and window shapes hark back to Amsterdam, and wooden shutters can sometimes be seen. These are echoes of the end of Sakoku, when the Dutch were finally allowed to found their own settlements. Such was the impact of their influence on the city that local slang for a foreigner wasn't the familiar "Gaijin", but "Dutchu".

It wasn't only the Dutch who settled. The British also traded through Nagasaki, although their impact was more political than architectural.

Most notable is Scotsman Thomas Blake Glover. His impact stretched further than Nagasaki and helped to shape what Japan would become.

At the end of Sakoku, Japan was forced to sign trade agreements many saw as unfavorable. A rebellion sprung up, to which Glover supplied weapons and smuggled the leaders to Britain for training. This rebellion would overthrow the Shogun and prompt the Meiji Restoration that would shape modern Japan as an industrialized nation.

Glover's influence also extended to the founding of both Mitsubishi and the Kirin brewery, and he commissioned the first warship of the Japanese Navy. He built a stunning house in the hills overlooking the dockyards where he lived with his Japanese wife, a daughter and an adopted sun. This house and its extensive grounds are now a public park and museum.


Invariably this rich history fades as war looms and the nuclear attack nears. By the start of the second world war, Nagasaki was an important part of the Imperial Navy's infrastructure, supplying ships, weapons and ammunition through its heavy industry. Its location made it difficult for US bombers to reach, although it did experience a handful of strategic bombing raids.

Had the weather at Kokura, some 200km away, been different, Nagasaki would not have been attacked with a nuclear weapon. As it was, at 11:02 on August 9th, 1945 the bomb detonated 500 meters above a tennis court. It didn't matter it was 3km away from its intended target, nor that the steep mountain sides shielded much of the blast. Tens of thousands of civilians, military personnel and POWs were killed or maimed.

As at Hiroshima, there is a peace park and a museum. The former is populated with artworks donated by governments. The latter tells the human cost of nuclear war, though skims over some of the history of Japan's involvement in the conflict. A lack of awareness of the cruelty of the Imperial forces appears to be a feature of Japanese history.

Modern Nagasaki

The modern city is a mix of reconstruction, restoration and reimagining. Parts of it are as anonymous as any other shopping street or high rise jungle in Japan. Other parts, such as the Glover gardens and Hollander Hill, are restorations of what was there before.

No visit to Nagasaki is complete without the Atomic Bomb Museum and its adjacent park. But also visit the Deijma settlement to learn more of the Dutch presence and influence, the Oura church for some context on the Christian presence in Japan, and Glover's mountain-top retreat. Walk along the Nakashima river and enjoy the arched stone bridges, then slip away to the Ming-style temples at Kofuku-ji and Sofuki-ji.

Most of all, enjoy a warm and welcoming city that has such an understated and important role in Japan's history.

My name is Ross Hori

I'm a freelance writer, designer and photographer. By day I create articles, features and reports. At night I take photos and write fiction. Find out more.