From the Korean Peninsula, we hop on a ship over to the islands of Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun; to the very first treaty port in Japan – and quite likely the oldest colonial port city anywhere in Asia, except for Goa, Malacca and Macao.
This is Nagasaki – and its name belies the many layers of history that make the city a palimpsest… the Portuguese Era, the Dutch Era, the Foreign Settlement Era, the Chinese presence, the city as Buddhist pilgrim site, the Atomic Bomb…. The only other palimpsest-city in Asia, with multiple layers of colonisation and peoples, is Malacca.
The Portuguese first came to Japan in 1543, more than 450 years ago. Soon after came that most famous of missionaries – St Francis Xavier, in 1549, to initiate a very efficient programme of evagelisation. By the 1560s, the Portuguese had established a sufficient toehold in Japan that they were granted a “treaty port” in Nagasaki in 1571. By 1580, they had been given sole jurisdiction and ran a trade monopoly in Asia via Macao.
The Portuguese would impart to the city a taste for tempura – or deep fried seafood – and a sponge cake called castella, both of which still exist in Japan today, the former all over the islands, and the latter specifically in Nagasaki. In the meantime, they would begin the export of one of history’s most spectacular and rare objects – nanban lacquer – or Japanese lacquer made for the European – which the Japanese called Southern Barbarians, or nanban 南蛮 – market.
In 1634, in the face of a hugely successful programme of evangelisation, the shogun ordered the construction of an artificial island, Dejima, to house the Portuguese and prevent them from further contact with the natives; but to no avail. Within 5 years, the Portuguese were expelled from the city, and Christianity hastily and violently suppressed. Japanese converts were brutally persecuted and a key milestone of this period was the execution of 26 Japanese missionaries and converts, subsequently canonized by the Catholic Church in 1862 as the 26 Martyrs of Japan. All in all, the Portuguese had been in Japan just under 100 years.
With the Portuguese gone, the Dutch East India Company filled in the vacuum. Already trading in Nagasaki since the early 1609, the Dutch alone were allowed to remain in a Japan that decided to turn in on itself as part of a centuries-long National Isolation Policy. From their settlement at Dejima – with the Portuguese gone, the Dutch moved in in 1641 – they alone controlled trade in and out of Japan; and they continued the lucrative export of nanban art, Imari porcelain and other luxury items to Europe.
The Dutch would remain on Dejima – which became associated, in turn, with the Dutch and the Dutch East India Company (the V.O.C.) – till 1858: more than two hundred years!
That which ended the Dutch monopoly in Nagasaki and Japan, was the coming of American “black ships” led by Commodore Perry into Edo harbour in 1853. The Americans forced Japan out from its National Isolation Policy and in the course of the next decade, would establish a dozen treaty ports and foreign settlements all around Japan – in particular, at the cities of Kobe, Yokohama, Osaka, Nagasaki (naturally), and even Edo itself.
In Nagasaki, a foreign settlement was established at Oura 大浦 （which means “big waterfront”) and the settlement itself extended from a Bund, or waterfront, by Nagasaki harbour, all the way up to the top of the hill. Today, much of this colonial-era architecture still stands and many buildings have been immaculately preserved. In particular, the area is famous for its Oura Cathedral – the oldest Cathedral in Japan, and its Dutch slopes – where many of the foreign settlers used to reside.
Besides the Europeans, Nagasaki also has a very strong Chinese presence, with the earliest wave of Chinese settlers migrating from the Fujian province to the city in the early 1600s, during the final years of the Ming Dynasty. These Chinese are there still and they have imparted to the city another of its most iconic dishes – the chanpon, or seafood soup noodles.
The city contains one of the most well-preserved Ming Dynasty-style Chinese temples in the world – the Sofuku-ji 崇福寺, built in 1629 and dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea, Mazu. It also has other familiar aspects of Chinese built heritage that can be found all over South and Southeast Asia – chiefly, a Hokkien Huay Kuan 福建會館, a Confucius Temple, and a City God temple － and of course, a Chinatown.
Perhaps due to the Chinese influence, Nagasaki is also renowned throughout Japan as a Buddhist pilgrimage site; and the city itself contains dozens of ancient temples both of the Buddhist, Zen Buddhist and Shinto persuasion. A full dozen of these are concentrated along a single pathway, called the Teramachi 寺町, or Temple Alley, where a pilgrim may spend a whole day simply visiting each and every one of these temples in turn.
But we are digressing.
Returning back to the main historical narrative….. The Foreign Settlement Era ended in 1899, just over 40 years after it was established. Japan became an Imperial power and a coloniser in its own right. The aftermath of Japan’s Imperialist ambition, as we all know, was World War II. And World War II was ended through the Americans dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Atomic Bomb thus constitutes the final, and most recent layer of history in this multi-layered city; and throughout the city centre and its outskirts, one may find traces of the horrifying impact of the bomb and moving memorials to world peace.
This month on the Grand Tour belongs to Nagasaki, and I hope you enjoy taking a journey through its rich, complex and multi-layered history, as much as I did.