It’s hard not to feel well disposed toward a place like Nagasaki even before you set foot in it. Nagasaki was, after all, the port in western Kyushu that had to bear the torturous brunt of the anti-Christian persecutions assiduously pursued by the Tokugawa shoguns in the 17th century. And had it not been for the ill luck of smoke from a previous air raid hanging over the first-choice target, Kokura (now part of Kita-Kyushu), it would have been that city, not Nagasaki, that would have earned the unfortunate celebrity of being the scene of one of the world’s all-time tragedies. The agent of destruction unleashed on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945 was the plutonium bomb “Fat Man” (supposedly named in honor of Winston Churchill’s paunch), released from a B29 that had set off from Tinian, Northern Marianas, just three days after the world’s first apocalyptic demonstration of nuclear weaponry in Hiroshima.
The point where Fat Man detonated was 500 meters above Ura-kami, which was several kilometers to the north of central Nagasaki. Ground Zero of the explosion was Urakami Cathedral, which before its destruction was the largest Christian church in the Far East. A single standing section of the side wall surmounted by the sorry-looking figures of saints is today’s main visible remnant of the original building.
Close by is the Peace Park, the most familiar icon within which is the 9.7-meter-high Peace Statue by local sculptor Seibou Kitamura. With its right hand pointing to the sky from where nuclear weapons descend and its left hand stretched out in a symbol of peace, the statue is certainly imposing, even if artistically it’s not to everyone’s taste. Also nearby is the Atomic Bomb Museum, which does only too effective a job of documenting at the personal level the pure horror of the blast that left more than 70,000 people dead.
Visitors see such exhibits as the photo of a mother and child, charred on the spot on the platform where they waited for a train, and the warped glasses that were a family’s only means of identifying their dead son. Also, what the Nagasaki museum commendably does, as the equivalent museum in Hiroshima does not, is honestly present the bombing within a coherent historical context. With such images as students doing bayonet drills and learning how to handle guns, the displays clearly show the high martial spirit in a country that had long been on the path of aggression.
The cathedral directly below which Fat Man wreaked its desolation is indicative of the strong cosmopolitanism that has long been characteristic of this port. After its opening to foreign trade in 1570 and the arrival of a Portuguese vessel the following year, Nagasaki was the conduit through which such Western contraptions as matchlocks and astrolabes entered the country, along with ideas like the exotic faith of Christianity. Nagasaki soon had 200 churches and became very much a Christian city.
Japan’s fondness for foreign goods and notions was not to last. By the 1630s, the government was issuing edicts restricting the contact between Japan and the outside world. In 1636, construction of the artificial, fan-shaped island of Dejima was completed in Nagasaki harbor as a place to confine Portuguese traders. After the Portuguese were expelled, Dejima became, from 1641, the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company. From that time until the opening of Japan two centuries later, Dejima was Japan’s sole window onto the Western world.
Dejima ceased being an island following land reclamation in 1904, but now Nagasaki aims to restore completely the former 1.5-hectare island to its original appearance. Five buildings have so far been reconstructed, and the restoration does a fair job of representing how life would have been for the 20 or so Dutchmen who lived in that cramped space, waiting for the next ship to arrive. A reproduction of a Dutch clerk’s room shows how he made the best of things, his Western furniture sitting awkward on the tatami. Elsewhere, a table set for a meal shows the merchants’ fare of sea bream boiled in saltwater and vegetables stewed in butter, the plastic models of the food making it look exactly as unappealing as it sounds. Recreation for the Dutchmen seems to have been found at the billiard table and in the Nagasaki ladies sent over to help shorten long nights.
Foreign residences of a more luxurious ilk are seen some distance to the south in Glover Garden. This is the name for a collection of nine buildings connected to the European and American diplomats and merchants who lived in Nagasaki from the 1850s, when it was one of several Japanese cities open to foreign trade. Glover Garden is centered on Glover House, Japan’s oldest Western-style wooden building and the former home of Scotsman Thomas Blake Glover.
“Glover came here in 1859 as a 21-year-old and started off in trading and shipping,” explains Hiroyuki Fukahori, director of Glover Garden. “Later, he became active in shipbuilding, mining, railways and introduced modern industries to Japan.”
In their various architectural styles, the houses are rather elegant edifices and show that for the moneyed foreigners, 19th-century Nagasaki was no bad place to be. Indeed, present-day Nagasaki is no bad place to be either. It retains the cosmopolitan air that has long been a feature of this port, evident in such ways as the local cuisine known as shippoku-ryori, an outstanding fusion of Chinese and Japanese cooking styles along with some European influences and one of Japan’s finest regional cuisines. The Chinese presence in the city is seen elsewhere in the small, lively Chinatown and Nagasaki’s colorful Chinese temples. Nagasaki may no longer be the hauntingly beautiful, sleepy port depicted in Dutch prints dating from 1855 on display in Dejima, but it still manages to exercise a fresh, distinctive, foreigner-friendly character that is unlike that of any other Japanese city.