Spotting European Influences in Japan

Trip Start May 28, 2006
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Trip End May 17, 2007


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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Like Hiroshima, the Japanese city of Nagasaki, is known to most people only as the site of the detonation of a devastating atomic bomb, but it wasn't the only reason we visited - it has a rich cultural heritage and long association with European merchants as for a long time it was Japan's only point of contact with the outside world.

Just three days after dropping the Uranium bomb on Hiroshima, the Americans unleashed a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki. We spent some time wandering around the peace park and visited the highly informative museum - we found the testimonies of eye witnesses astonishingly matter-of-fact when you pause to think about the horrors they saw. The displays take you through the build-up to war, the war effort in Japan, the bombing and the consequences.
There's also a section on the history of nuclear technology - its evolution, the multi-million dollar Manhattan Project that saw America develop the bomb and ultimately decide to use it against the Japanese. As a thought-provoking postscript there's an additional printed note saying: "On the 9th October, 2006 North Korea announced it had successfully tested a nuclear weapon".

The city wasn't actually the intended target, but because of bad visibility, the industrial city of Kokura on the northeastern coast of Kyushu was spared and Nagasaki received a direct hit. The numbers are staggering - 75,000 of the city's 240,000 residents were killed. Most were women, children and senior citizens; another 75,000 were injured (with estimates suggesting that as many people have died since as a result of the bomb). There was also widespread devastation with a third of the city completely destroyed after the explosion and subsequent fires. We both found it very moving indeed and agree with someone we met who suggested all world leaders should be made to visit.

While we were at least partially aware of the horrors that Nagasaki saw in WWII, what we were both ignorant of was the role the city played in opening up Japan to foreign influences - both Asian and European - throughout the decades. The accidental arrival of an off course Portuguese ship in 1542 signalled the beginning of Nagasaki's long period as Japan's principal connection with the West. We visited a couple of areas of the city where you can see their influence: an old artificial island where a Dutch trading post used to be and a park full of later European-style buildings.

The Dutch trading post was really interesting: a handful of merchants worked on the island and were Japan's only contact with the outside world for a few centuries up to the mid-19th century. Before that the Shogun, who amongst other things was fed up with Christian missionaries trying to convert the Japanese, had banned all other foreigners from Japan. The Dutch themselves were only allowed off their (very small) island occasionally so they must have had a pretty dull time of it!

When Nagasaki re-opened to the west towards the end of the Shogunate in 1859, the city welcomed many European and American immigrants and thrived financially. Wandering the hilly streets of the Dutch Slope and Glover Garden you get to glimpse the traders' opulent houses. One of the mansions we got to walk around was the setting for Pucini's 1904 opera, Madame Butterfly.

The Glover mansion was built by a Scotsman who came to Japan via Shanghai in the 1860s - he was responsible for building the first train line in the country, installing the first private telephone and setting up the first brewery - which is known in its current guise as Kirin Brewery. His house was relocated to a park, although with other notable European style building thought worth preserving - the gardens are nice enough, if a little Disney-fied. The moving stairways up the hill, fountains and oldie-worldie gift-shoppe which bizarrely sold Cadburys chocolate (which of course we bought loads of!), Walkers all-butter Scottish shortbread and Welsh flags (which we limited ourselves to one of!) all made it an outing to remember.
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