Issue 219: 2019 10 17: Nagasaki

17 October 2019


Japan’s pariah city?

By Richard Pooley

photo Robin Boag

It was a bizarre sight even for Japan.  As I came through the ticket gates onto the small plaza at Nagasaki station ten days ago I was welcomed by the sight of a Dutch-flagged, 17th Century sailing ship on wheels being rotated at high speed by twenty tall, young men in light blue and white robes.  Then they pulled it away from the watching crowd, who shouted as one for it to return towards them, which it duly did.  Again and again.  The replica ship was big enough to have on deck eight women, dressed in red jackets and black hats, who were drumming and chanting for all their worth.  I had arrived on the first afternoon of the three-day Kunchi[1] festival, an event held every autumn since 1634 across the city in honour of the Shinto gods of the Suwa Shrine.  These gods, I learned, are regarded as the guardians of Nagasaki. When one knows the city’s history one wonders why its people think these gods justify such a celebration.

I noticed something else unusual for Japan while taking a tram to my hotel.  The young woman opposite me with a baby was wearing a ring on the fourth finger of her left hand.  She also had a tiny cross at the end of the pendant around her neck.  I looked up and down the carriage.  Nearly all the older women were also wearing wedding rings.  As I criss-crossed the city over the next 48 hours, I realised that this was the norm.  Proof that Nagasaki still is the centre of Japanese Christianity.

I attended two weddings when I lived in Japan a quarter of a century ago.  Both brides were colleagues. Neither are Christian.  Yet, like so many Japanese brides then and now, one had a fake Christian marriage ceremony, dressed all in white, during which she received a wedding ring.  She changed twice during the wedding, first into a kimono for the Shinto blessing and finally into modern, going-away clothes.  I never saw either woman wearing a wedding ring afterwards.  Typhoon Hagibis stopped me from seeing them on this visit to Japan (they both live in Yokohama) but I am sure their left hands would have been ringless.  The norm is for married Japanese women to have wedding rings but never to wear them; unless they are Christian.

The Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs published a study in 2017 which stated that on December 31, 2016, there were 1.9 million Christians in Japan, of which about 60% were Protestants.  Whether these include foreigners I could not establish.  But if just Japanese, then this would mean 1.5% of Japanese declare themselves to be Christian.  A survey conducted over twelve months in 2016/17 by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nagasaki found that 60,989 people in the diocese were Roman Catholic, 4.408% of the city’s population (very Japanese to go to three decimal places).  If one can assume that the national proportion of Protestants is mirrored in Nagasaki, then perhaps as many as one in ten of the city are Christian.  Even that, I suggest, may be a significant underestimate, if history is any guide.

As you may already know, there is a connection between that replica Dutch ship and the number of Christians in Nagasaki.  Both are central to an understanding of why the people of the port of Nagasaki and its remote, mountainous, seaside region on the island of Kyushu are to this day regarded with suspicion by other Japanese.  And why many Japanese in the days after the dropping of the “Fat Boy” atom bomb on the city on August 9, 1945, refused to believe that Christian US American forces would have murdered fellow Christians on such a scale.  To them, it had to be fake news.  Why do we and the Japanese focus so much more on what we[2] did to Hiroshima’s people three days earlier?  Is it because it was the first one or because almost twice as many were killed in Hiroshima?  Or is it that the Japanese themselves find it easier to mourn the victims of the Hiroshima bombing?  I have no hard evidence, only the opinions and comments of Japanese friends and acquaintances down the years, but I believe there are a lot of Japanese today who think that the people of Nagasaki brought this horror on themselves. They had supped with the devil: us gaijin.[3]

The first place I visited after arriving in Nagasaki was Dejima, the wedge-shaped artificial island built some 100 metres away from the harbour shoreline in 1636 on the orders of the Shogun[4], the military dictator and de facto ruler of Japan for almost all the time between 1185 and 1868.  The then Shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu (grandson of the most famous Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu) was determined to rid Japan of Christianity, a religion which had arrived in Japan when Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuits, landed at Kagoshima in the south of Kyushu in August 1549.  The Jesuits were highly successful over the next half-century in converting many of the daimyo (lords) of Kyushu as well as some 300,000 ordinary Japanese.  Too successful.  Iemitsu’s grandfather and his two predecessors had managed finally and bloodily to unify the country between 1568 and 1600.  Yet here was this foreign religion which was telling people to worship a foreigner called Jesus and obey the orders of a foreign ruler called the Pope.  Christian missionaries were banished from Kyushu in 1587.  On February 5, 1597, twenty-six Christians – twenty of them Japanese, three of whom were young boys  – who had endured a forced march from Kyoto to Nagasaki, were crucified on a hill above the harbour.  Such persecution continued.  In 1615 Christianity was banned throughout Japan and all missionaries were ordered to leave.  Many refused and paid with their lives: 56 foreign missionaries were either burned to death or beheaded in Nagasaki on September 10, 1622.

Even when the Protestant Dutch had arrived with a version of Christianity more palatable to the Shogunate, the divisions between Protestant Japanese and Catholic Japanese had continued to endanger the unity of the new nation.  In 1636 Iemitsu ordered that all Portuguese merchants had to live on the new, tiny island of Dejima and nowhere else in Japan.  Three years later, after a Japanese Catholic uprising in the Nagasaki region against the rule of the Shogunate, the Portuguese were banned from trading any more with Japan.  For the next 229 years only Dutch merchants were allowed to trade with the Japanese and only from Dejima island in Nagasaki harbour.  Any foreigner who came ashore in Japan, even if shipwrecked, was instantly killed.  Any Japanese who went abroad and was foolish enough to return met the same fate.

So, for over two centuries, the Japanese saw the world through Dutch eyes.  The only Japanese who saw or met a foreigner were the citizens of Nagasaki and the occasional visitor to the Dutch trading post on Dejima from the Shogun’s court in faraway Edo (Tokyo).  The Dutch used this to their commercial and political advantage.  In 1672 HMS Return sailed into Nagasaki harbour and asked for Anglo-Japanese trade to reopen.  The Dutch Chief Factor in Nagasaki informed the Shogun that Charles II, though nominally Protestant, was married to the Portuguese Catholic Princess Catherine[5].  That was enough for the Japanese to reject the British request.

When in 1865 Shogunate rule ended and Japan opened itself to the world, hundreds of thousands of Japanese, mostly on the island of Kyushu centred on Nagasaki, revealed that they and their ancestors had practised Christianity in secret for the previous 250 years: the Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”).  But instead of their bravery being applauded, the Japanese authorities conducted a five-year campaign of religious persecution which resulted in yet more martyrs.  Finally, aware perhaps that such actions were not making Japan an attractive place for Christian European and American entrepreneurs to live and invest, Japan’s new rulers lifted the ban of Christianity.[6]

But acceptance meant neither respect nor endorsement.  Japanese Christians were still treated with great suspicion by their fellow citizens, largely because they were seen as not truly Japanese.[7]  The biggest cathedral in the Asia-Pacific region was built and entirely paid for by local Christians between 1875 and 1925 in Urakami, a village on the northern edge of Nagasaki.  Urakami had suffered greatly in the 1868-1873 persecution: 3,600 villagers were exiled during this period, of whom 650 died.

At 11.02 on August 9, 1945, the atomic bomb detonated above a point just 500 metres from Urakami Cathedral.  The church was full.  Mass had just started and two priests were taking confessions.  All were incinerated.  If the bomb had been dropped where it was intended, above the port area of Nagasaki, far more people would have died.[8]  But cloud cover forced the bomb aimer to wait for a few more kilometres until he could see the ground.  I have often wondered if he noticed the red brick cathedral with its 64-metre twin spires rising far above the one-storey buildings around it.  Surely he did.  What went through his mind at that moment?

Which brings me to Nagasaki’s Atomic Bomb Museum.  I met a couple of New Zealand rugby fans after they had been through it.  Old men like me, one of them admitted that he had had to sit down and let the tears flow.  They were both angry too.  Why had we done this?  Wasn’t one bomb enough?  These are questions incapable of being answered satisfactorily.

I was moved too.  The most poignant exhibits were the bones of a small hand fused into molten glass (a child drinking from a glass of water?), the blackened rice in a metal lunch box which had the owner’s name and class number scratched on the bottom (14-year old Satoko Tsutsumi, whose father discovered her corpse alongside those of his parents) and the “shadow” of a man at the foot of a ladder.

But the secondary school children of Satoko Tsutsumi’s age who were also at the museum looked bored.  I watched them as they passed her lunch box.  Not one glanced at it.  They had already had enough and were giggling over their smartphones.  I don’t blame them.  Apart from one feature, the museum is well-designed but there is far too much to take in.  A large room with just five exhibits would have had a much more powerful effect.  As so often, less is more.

The poor design feature?  There is a panel which shows a timeline from 1933 explaining what led to the Pacific War (as the Japanese call the Second World War) and finally the dropping of the atomic bomb.  It’s only in Japanese, is badly lit and hides behind another panel, which also has a timeline but starting from 1943, in English and Japanese, focusing on the development of the bomb itself.  Poor design or a deliberate ploy to hide the truth?  The schoolchildren looked at neither panel.  Perhaps they felt they did not need to.  After all they know what happened.  The standard history textbook in Japanese secondary schools devotes 19 out of 357 pages to the period between 1931 and 1945.  There is just one sentence on the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So, how were the survivors of these two nuclear holocausts treated by their fellow citizens?  They are known as hibakusha (“people affected by the bomb”).  From the beginning they were ostracised, often unable to get a job, rent accommodation, or marry.  Their stories are heart-breaking, no matter whether they were in Hiroshima or Nagasaki.[9]  And yet.  The stories of the hibakusha of Hiroshima seem to get written, read and heard much more than those of Nagasaki.  Or am I imagining it?

I have just come back from Japan.  I had a great time, as clearly did all the rugby fans of many nationalities who I met.  Without exception they were deeply impressed by the way everything works so efficiently and smoothly (the Shinkansen was up and running after the typhoon in the Osaka area by 08.00 on Sunday morning, enabling me to get to Kyoto 56 kilometres away in 15 minutes).  They were also astonished at the warmth of the welcome they had received from every Japanese they had met (though I doubt that included the taxi drivers).  But there remains a dark side which most visitors don’t see: the discrimination by Japanese towards those Japanese who don’t conform, who don’t fit in, who are different whether by choice or not.  If you don’t believe me, look at the reports which have come out this week about the homeless men turned away from shelters in the Tokyo area during the typhoon.  They were rejected because they could not give a home address.  Pettifogging officialdom?  Yes.  But what was the reaction on social media of far too many Japanese?  These scroungers don’t deserve our help.  Let them drown.


[1] The leaflet about the festival said that the name derives from Kunichi, meaning the “ninth”, and refers to what were originally harvest festivals held all over Japan in the ninth month.  Yet this was the tenth month.  Other sources say that Kunchi just means “festival”.

[2] Yes, the British too.  The UK government had to give its consent before the Americans could go ahead, as agreed in the Quebec Agreement of 1943 signed by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.

[3] in full this is Sei-i Taishogun: “Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force against the Barbarians”.  That’s right; against us, folks.

[4] literally “outside people”, once a term of abuse but now fairly neutral.  I have heard Japanese use it even when abroad themselves.  Essentially it means “non-Japanese”.

[5] The lady is said to have introduced the English to tea-drinking.

[6] And assumed that Japanese Christians would be the best people to deal with the gaijin.  They still do.  Many of the Japanese Human Resources managers of foreign companies who were my clients were Christian.

[7] And it is here that Madame Butterfly could enter the story.  The opera was based on a “summer affair” conducted by Frenchman Pierre Loti in 1885 in Nagasaki which he used to write a hugely successful semi-autobiographical novel, Madame Chrysanthème.  It reveals the rejection by the Japanese of those among them who consorted with gaijin.

[8] The original target was Kokura on the northern tip of Kyushu.  But cloud cover, black smoke deliberately created by a factory and the presence of Japanese fighter planes forced the plane on to Nagasaki.

[9] Read the accounts of five survivors in Susan Southard’s Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War.


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