Why Nagasaki is Much More than a Bombsite

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The influx of foreigners had to be stopped, said alarmists. There were too many already, and they were coming in increasing numbers. It was a threat to traditional values. Some brought with them a dangerous, alien religion, which – the alarmists maintained – they were determined to impose on everyone. Anything they did was suspected to be a front for religious extremism. Some of that faith had, indeed, been involved in violent incidents in which many had been killed, and all fell under suspicion. They were treated as potential subversives until proven otherwise.

Shogun Iemitsu reacted by shutting Japan off from the outside world. Foreigners were prohibited from entering, those already there were sent home. Christianity was banned. It became a capital offence to leave the country. Japan was isolated for 220 years.

But it was not hermetically sealed. Foreign trade did not end, it was just heavily restricted. The Dutch East India Company had been happy to spread rumours that its Catholic rivals were aggressively proselytising under cover of their trading companies, and the Shogun rewarded its loyalty to Japan with a monopoly on trade with Europe. The Dutch stayed when the Spanish and Portuguese were expelled, albeit ghettoised on the tiny man-made island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbour: the only place in Japan to which foreign ships were allowed to sail.

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Dejima has been restored and rebuilt as an open-air museum with the buildings fitted out much as they would have been in the seventeenth century, a fascinating blend, unique in Japan, of East and West with heavy European furniture in tatami mat rooms and paper screens abutting papered walls.

In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry persuaded the Shogun to open up Japan to trade with the United States by anchoring a fleet of heavily-armed warships in Edo Bay, firing the cannons (ostensibly to celebrate the Fourth of July) and asking nicely. The other Great Powers then demanded, and got, trade agreements of their own.  The isolation policy was abandoned.

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Japan once again gave a reluctant home to ambitious Westerners like the Scotsman, Thomas Glover, who moved to Nagasaki in 1859, initially to Dejima and later to a house he had built, the first of many in the city in Western colonial style, in the hills on a plot with the best view in Nagasaki. It is still there now, and open to the public; there are more Western-style houses and the old red-brick British Consulate further down the hill.

A few blocks away are the paifang ornamental gates, the paper lanterns and Confucian shrines of the Chinatown established when Nagasaki became a free port and Chinese traders moved out from their compound in the hills. It is crammed, now, with restaurants serving the city’s iconic fusion dishes, champon and sara udon. Nagasaki is a great food city. It claims the best Wagyu beef in Japan.


Glover traded in anything in which there was money, be it opium, tea, ships or arms. He secretly sold weapons to the rebels who became the leaders of the Meiji Restoration, which overthrew the shogunate and restored the emperor. It was good for business.

Where, before, anything Western had been treated with suspicion, it was now indiscriminately embraced: everything from battleships to ballroom dancing, from Cognac to colonial expansion.

Japan was suddenly building ships and trains, mining coal and making steel; it built up a strong modern army, won wars against China and Russia and became a colonial power. Nagasaki was at the heart of it all, and so was Thomas Glover. By 1870, though, he had overreached himself and gone bankrupt. Yet with his contacts and experience, he was taken on by emerging Japanese companies like the Nagasaki Shipyard & Machinery Works, better known later as Mitsubishi. It still has yards in Nagasaki with half-finished cruise liners looking like multi-storey car parks.


In the 1880’s, Mitsubishi bought Gunkanjima (Battleship Island), a few miles from Nagasaki, where it set up an undersea coal mine and built apartment blocks in which over 5,000 lived, until the mine closed and the entire population left in the 1970’s. The derelict island served as Raoul Silva’s base in Skyfall.

The tensions at the core of the Meiji Restoration were never resolved in the helter-skelter rush to industrialise. They led to assassinations, rebellions and attempted coups and, in time, to Manchuria, Nangking, Pearl Harbor and the brutalising of prisoners of war. That ignoble episode ended seventy years ago almost to the day with the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage,” as Hirohito put it with imperial understatement.


As in Hiroshima, there is a memorial park to the victims and a museum which shows, with the same quiet dignity, what happened to tens of thousands of ordinary people when the Bomb exploded. There are old air raid shelters cut into hillsides, the single surviving leg of a shrine gate marooned in the middle of a Post-War development, the ruins of the old Shirayama Elementary School incorporated into the modern school buildings, and the blackened belfry of the Urakami Cathedral lying where it fell.

The dead, the disfigured, the grievously injured should never, of course, be forgotten; but Nagasaki, too, deserves to be known as more than a bombsite.

© Richard Senior 2015

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