Last month, the Japanese government formally announced its intention to make Churches and Christian Sites in Nagasaki its official candidate for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2016. This decision has shone a spotlight on a side of Japanese history that many around the world have little awareness of.

The story of the Catholic Church in Japan is a human story unlike any other. It begins with the arrival of the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier in Kagoshima in 1549, and unfolds much like one of Shakespeare's great tragi-comedies. It is complex and compelling, and certainly has the potential to be of interest to a wide range of people across the world.

It merits global recognition. Firstly, it is a crucial chapter in an even wider story: that of the history of Japan's foreign relations. Xavier's arrival was the catalyst for a hitherto unprecedented amount of cultural exchange between Japan and Europe, the great orchestrators of which were, in large part, Jesuit missionaries.