As the setting for a multitude of magnificent historical events, Nagasaki offers numerous places to visit, whether you are a history-lover or not. Located at the western tip of Japan, Nagasaki Prefecture has flourished as a result of repeated interaction with many people from different cultures and through the positive acceptance of those cultures. Nagasaki acted as a bridge between Japan and mainland Asia for centuries and served as the only gateway to the Western world during ‘Sakoku’, the two-century long period of Japan’s national isolation. The history of Nagasaki reveals how Japanese traditional culture coexisted and harmonized with different cultures. The Prefecture faced tragic events, such as the persecution of the Christians and later the atomic bombing in WW2, as well as multiple natural disasters. Despite this, Nagasaki’s history shows the Prefecture’s strength to overcome and to rebuild itself as one of Japan's most intriguing and attractive tourist destinations. This page shows a brief history of Nagasaki and a selection of items which first arrived in Nagasaki and then spread to the rest of Japan.
History of Nagasaki
2nd to 3rd Century
The islands of Iki and Tsushima in Nagasaki Prefecture are listed in a Chinese historical text, the Sanguozhi (the Records of the Three Kingdoms) as the oldest Japanese kingdoms that communicated with China.
16th to 18th century
During the Age of Exploration, a wave of Western civilization swept over Japan. Starting from 1550, when the first Portuguese ship to visit Japan arrived in Hirado, the people of Nagasaki came into contact with Europeans. Missionaries from Spain, Portugal and elsewhere arrived to spread Christianity and the whole of the Nagasaki region became one of the main centers of this missionary work. A feudal lord of Omura became Japan’s first Christian daimyo (lord), and dispatched four young Japanese men as ambassadors to visit the Pope in 1582. Many churches were built in Nagasaki after that and Christian culture flourished here to such an extent that the city earned the nickname “Little Rome”.
However, in 1587, Japan’s most powerful daimyo, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, afraid that Japan would be conquered, issued an edict expelling missionaries. In 1597, 26 Christians including Spaniards, Italians and Japanese were arrested in Kyoto and Osaka, forced to walk all the way to Nagasaki and crucified at Nishizaka Hill. The martyrs were later beatified in 1627, and canonized by the Pope in 1862.
Meanwhile, Hirado City flourished through trade with the Dutch and the British. William Adams (Miura Anjin), known as the first English Samurai, arrived in 1600 on a Dutch Ship, and helped to establish the Dutch East India Company in 1609 as well as British East India Company in 1613.
Dutch Trading Post
Memorial to the Martyrdom of the 26 Saints of Japan
However, the religious ban initiated by Toyotomi was soon expanded, and all churches were destroyed. To replace them, more Japanese temples (tera) were built in a part of downtown Nagasaki later named Tera-machi. Large numbers of missionaries and Japanese Christians were martyred, including French and Filipino missionaries executed at Nishizaka Hill and many Japanese laymen killed at Unzen Hell. At Hara Castle where many Christians lived, about 37,000 peasants lost their lives in the revolt known as the Shimabara Rebellion.
Eventually, in the 1630s, the third Tokugawa Shogun issued a series of edicts and started the ‘Sakoku’ policy of national isolation. Under this policy, Japanese people were not allowed to leave the country and all trade from abroad was strictly banned except for at a single place: an island in Nagasaki Port, called Dejima. The artificial island housed the Dutch East India Company’s Japanese trading post.
For the next 218 years, Nagasaki became Japan’s “only open window to the west” and the center of international exchange for the whole of Japan. Various goods including porcelain as well as more exotic Japanese culture were exported from Nagasaki. Meanwhile, ambitious young people and samurai came to Nagasaki from all parts of Japan to acquire new knowledge in the fields of medicine, astronomy and chemistry, laying a foundation for the modernization of Nagasaki and Japan as a whole.
Although Nagasaki’s role as Japan’s sole trading port ended with opening of the country to the world in 1859, it took on a new role as the starting point of the modernization of Japan. Nagasaki was opened to free trade with foreign countries, and merchants of various nationalities including Dutch, British, French, German, American, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Swedish, and Swiss flocked to the city and enjoyed interacting with the people of Nagasaki. The Japanese people fell in love with Western industry and culture, and the new arrivals from overseas fell in love with Nagasaki. The romance of this time is depicted in Puccini's opera “Madame Butterfly”. The successful merchants built Western-style mansions, some of which still stand at their original sites and convey the romantic atmosphere of the 19th century. One such site is Glover Garden, named after Thomas Glover, a successful Scottish merchant who developed a variety of enterprises ranging across trading, shipbuilding in collaboration with Mitsubishi, and coalmining on islands near to Nagasaki Port. Glover’s coalmining island, Takashima, the Mitsubishi-operated Hashima coalmine (also known as Gunkanjima, which featured as the villain’s lair in the James Bond movie ‘Skyfall’ - more info), and other islands around Nagasaki Port, played a key role in fuelling the modern industrialization of Japan.
Glover also supported the Meiji Restoration by selling weapons to young samurai as well as helping them to study abroad. One of these young men would later become the first prime minister of Japan following the eventual end of the era of the Samurai. The Glover House is the oldest example of Western-style wooden architecture existing in Japan. For Westerners visiting East Asia, Unzen became one of the most popular tourist destinations to spend holidays. Pearl S. Buck and Helen Adams Keller also visited and enjoyed the natural beauty of Unzen.
Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum
On August 9th 1945, as World War II was coming to an end, Nagasaki became the second and last target for atomic bombing. The lives of some 73,884 people were lost, and another 74,909 were injured. The people of Nagasaki united for the recovery of the city and the restoration of its beauty and natural surroundings. Now, this beauty has been recognized as having one of the world’s best night views. At the same time, many relics of the atomic bombing have been preserved and are on display to the public, with the aim of realizing the survivors’ wish that the tragedy should never happen again.
The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, renovated in 1996, stands alongside the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, built in 2003. Together, they are the most visited sites for learning about what happened and quietly commemorating the souls of the departed. Every year, a Peace Ceremony is held at the Peace Park. In addition to the Peace Statue, the park is full of art works donated by countries all over the world in support of Nagasaki’s prayer for peace.
About 500 meters west from the atomic bombing hypocenter is located Shiroyama Elementary School, where a small exhibition of artifacts is housed in a bomb-damaged school building. Urakami Cathedral is located about 500 meters to the northeast, where a wooden figure of the Virgin Mary which miraculously survived the heat of the nuclear bomb, welcomes you.
Nagasaki has also survived several natural disasters.
The Great Floods of Isahaya City (in 1957) and Nagasaki City (in 1982) claimed a number of lives as did the eruptions of Mt. Unzen in 1922 and 1990. The people of Nagasaki overcame these disasters and have learnt to coexist with nature.
Throughout its long history, Nagasaki has experienced significant historical events, embracing cross-cultural interaction and the influx of modern technology, and weathering the storms of tragic events. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the open and friendly people of Nagasaki themselves make a visit worthwhile.
"The Fallen Dome" of Urakami Cathedral. The dome was blown off by the atomic blast.
Items which spread from Nagasaki into the whole of Japan
Foreign goods and culture first brought into Nagasaki spread all over Japan and are now part of Japanese life.
Japan’s first steam ship, the “Kankoumaru”
Presented to Japan by the Dutch government in 1855. A carefully-rebuilt version of the ship now offers sightseeing tours around Nagasaki Port.
Japan’s first flying balloon
Flown in Nagasaki by Russians in 1805.
Japan’s first steam train
Thomas B. Glover demonstrated a running steam train to the Japanese for the first time in 1865.
Japan’s oldest asphalt road
Located in Glover Garden.
Japan’s oldest Western-style dock
The first Western-style ship repair facility in Japan, constructed by Thomas Glover and associates. The dolly and track system used to hoist ships up the slipway looked similar to Japanese abacuses, called “soroban”, and so this was also referred to by the popular name “soroban dock”.
Japan’s first professional cameraman
Some of Ueno’s photographs are exhibited at the Nagasaki Old Photograph Museum in Nagasaki City and in the online database presented by Nagasaki University Library
The first Christian text in Japanese
Printed in Nagasaki by Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe, O.F.M. Conv.
Other Nagasaki ‘firsts’s
Japan’s first newspaper in English, Japan’s first international telephone call and more…
A Portuguese ship brought the first bread to Japan, to Hirado City in 1550.
A British ship brought the first beer to Japan, to Hirado in 1613.
Japan’s first coffee was drunk in Dejima in the 17th century.
In the 1880s French priest Marc Marie de Rotz established a macaroni factory in Sotome, Nagasaki City.
Japan’s first Western style restaurant
In 1863, “Jiyu-Tei” was opened in front of Irabayashi Shrine. The restaurant’s founder studied cooking skills under one of the Dutch residents of Dejima. Currently, the restaurant is relocated inside Glover Garden and operates as a coffee shop serving original coffee and Castella sponge cake.
Japan’s first iron bridge
Japan’s first Western-style hotels, in Nagasaki City and Unzen City (1862)
Japanese Tea & Japanese Zen
Senkou-ji Temple in Hirado City, founded in 1191.
Eisai, the founder of the Japanese Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, stayed in Hirado for several months on his way back from the Chinese Song Dynasty in 1191 and used the Fushun-an Temple as a base to spread his faith. He also planted the tea plant seeds he brought from China on the hill behind the temple and taught the Japanese about the manufacture and usage of tea.
Manufacture of Japanese incense
1668 in Nagasaki City
Tsukiyomi Shrine on Iki island is said to be the origin of Japanese Shinto, started in 487.
Kendama is said to have originated in 1777, when the European-style Cup & Ball game arrived in Nagasaki City from China and was adapted.
Japan’s first public golf course
Unzen Golf Club
including billiards, bowling, and badminton.
Japan’s first national park
Unzen-Amakusa National Park