------- Nagasaki History – An Overview -------    

(see also the Early History of Japan and Kyushu and Christianity, the Dutch and Chinese in Nagasaki)

Nagasaki was opened as a trading port for the Portuguese in 1571 by the lord of the area, Omura Sumitada. Before that time, despite its magnificent harbour, it had been just a tiny fishing village because of its inaccessibility by land. The new town grew rapidly, and many of the new citizens were converted to Christianity. As time went by, the Japanese government grew fearful of the power of the Portuguese and the effects of Christianity. They saw that the Europeans in the area were at war due to religious differences and did not want it to spread to Japan. The Christian religion was banned from 1587. Although 26 Japanese and foreign Christians were executed in Nagasaki in 1597, the religion did not die down. Christians fled to outlying islands in the region and stayed in hiding during the ban on Christianity.

A "tori" leading up to a Japanese temple..

After a rebellion at Shimabara, near Nagasaki, in 1636-8, during which 30,000 Japanese Christians were massacred, a policy of national isolation was decided on in 1639. This policy meant that all ports except Nagasaki were closed to foreign traders. Only the Dutch (whose protestant religion was considered safer than the Catholicism of the Portuguese) and the Chinese were allowed to continue trading. The Dutch were mainly confined to the artificial island of Dejima, while the Chinese were allowed more freedom. During this period, Nagasaki had no feudal lord, but was administered by a governor appointed directly by the shogunate in Edo (Tokyo). This explains why Nagasaki, unlike other prefectural capitals, has no castle.

When the policy of national isolation was ended by the demands of the American Commodore Perry in 1853, it was found that Christianity had survived during more that 200 years of prohibition. For forty or fifty years after the reopening of Japan, Nagasaki was once again an important international port despite its isolation from the centres of political and commercial power in Tokyo and Osaka. At this time the cathedral at Oura was constructed in the foreigners quarter of the town in 1865, and the Urakami Cathedral in the heart of the Japanese Christian area. Gradually, the pull of Tokyo and Osaka exerted itself, and Nagasaki declined in importance as an international centre in the early twentieth century.

  On the 9th of August, 1945, Nagasaki was the target of the worldfs second atomic bomb, chosen because it was a major shipbuilding centre – a legacy of the international commercial activity of the second half of the nineteenth century. Nagasaki has since rebuilt, and is now a thriving port city with a population of 450,000.

Nagasaki - Gateway for Western Science and Culture.

Various aspects of western applied science entered Japan from the very beginning of contact with the Portuguese - weapons, navigational aids (the compass and astrolabe) and elementary medicine. However, it was only from the later half of the eighteenth century that pure science and more advanced applied science were able to enter Japan on a fairly large scale. Shogun Yoshimune permitted Dutch books to be imported by private citizens from 1720, and after 1745 Japanese people were allowed to read and write Dutch. As a result of this, serious language studies began. At first, these were exclusively concerned with Dutch, involving the production of grammar books and dictionaries of the Dutch language. Soon, however, interest in other languages developed. Study of French and English began in the first decade of the nineteenth century - helped by Dutch residents of Dejima who could speak these languages.

Study of languages led to the study of science and major translations were done. Newton's physical theories had been translated into Japanese - via Dutch - by 1800. Studies of astronomy, geography and biology were also undertaken. Western crafts, such as glassblowing, also developed in Nagasaki (and can be seen in local souvenir shops). Over the years, many technological developments would make their first appearance in Japan through Nagasaki. The first clock made in Japan, the first iron bridge and the first photography studio in the country were all in Nagasaki (as was the first bowling alley).

The most significant knowledge of western science was in the field of medicine, however. This was because most of the scientists whom the Japanese met were doctors sent to tend to the Dutch residents in Dejima. The knowledge transfer was not only in one direction. The Dutch scholars also studied Japanese medicine and botany, as well as the history, language and culture of Japan. On returning to Europe, they wrote books and spread this knowledge.

Thomas Glover and the Foreign Settlement.

After the reopening of Japan by 1860, Nagasaki became one of the "open ports" where foreigners were allowed to settle and do business. A special quarter was allocated to the foreign settlement, in the area now known as Minamiyamate and Higashiyamate. Foreigners were not allowed to live outside this settlement, nor Japanese to live within it. It was governed by British law, not Japanese law, a situation that lasted until near the end of the century. Many countries opened consulates here, Britain, The United States, Russia, Holland and France being among them. Although not he only "open port", Nagasaki was particularly important in introducing western technology to Japan. The first steam train in Japan was exhibited in Nagasaki, the first Japanese built steamship was built here and the first newspaper in Japan was produced here.

One of the main pioneers of this transfer of technology was Thomas Glover, a Scot, who came to Japan in 1859 at the age of 21, and who spent the rest of his life here. He married a Japanese woman with whom he had two children. He made extensive studies of Japanese life, customs, flora and fauna, and was eventually honoured by the Japanese government for his contribution to the development of Japan. He is buried in the Sakamoto-machi foreigners' cemetery. It was he who brought the first steam train to Japan and who founded the shipyard which was the fore-runner of the great Mitsubishi yard which dominates the harbour today - and was the main reason that Nagasaki was the target for an atomic bomb. Ironically, Glover's main business was arms dealing and the selling of ships.


Links about the History of Japan

Schauwecker's Guide to Japan

A Timeline of Japanese History

Exploring Japanese Feudalism