Beyond the Memorial: Nagasaki is Japan’s Most International City

Chinatown, Dutch settlement are examples

By Brian Covert

NAGASAKI, Japan — For even the most worldly of travelers, this port city on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu is a web of contradictions.

As an ancient urban center with a long history as a contact point with the outside world, Nagasaki is acknowledged as one of Japan’s most “internationalized” cities, but its independent ways also place it among the most controversial communities in Japan. With green mountains cradling its busy port, the city is among the most beautiful places in Japan, yet it has paid the ultimate price in environmental and human destruction.

The legacy of the atomic bomb that exploded here in August 1945 accounts for much of Nagasaki’s tourist traffic. But the most lasting impression this city makes is that, with its history as one of the first Japanese cities to open itself to foreigners, Nagasaki is a major attraction for foreign tourists quite beyond its status as a curiosity of modern history.

The best place to start a Nagasaki trek — a lesson in world history in itself — is in
Chinatown, home of the oldest Chinese community in Japan. While not as glamorous as, say, its San Francisco counterpart, Chinatown is best seen, or rather tasted, at lunch time. The aroma of champon, traditional Chinese ramen noodles, almost literally yanks a wanderer by the nose into one of the district’s many restaurants.

In one way, Nagasaki displays in undiluted form the influence China has had throughout the Japanese archipelago. The depth of China’s presence here can be seen most clearly in the many temples scattered around the city. The most notable among them were built in the early 1620s and have stood the test of time and wars:
Kofukuji Temple, the oldest in Japan of the Obaku Buddhist sect, and Sofukuji Temple, with its striking Ming architecture.

Next stop is the European community, or at least Nagasaki’s version of it. The Dutch settlers of the early 1600s were the first to begin trading with the Japanese via Nagasaki, and Dutch tradition, planted firmly throughout the city, is easily detected in its food and souvenir shops. Notably absent are the massive displays of trendy American-style memorabilia that dominate in the rest of Japan.

The first “Hollanders” in Nagasaki became, in effect, the representatives of the outside world for the Japanese of that period. The hillside “Dutch Slopes” settlement and the site of the
former Dutch Trading Post at Dejima Island, off Nagasaki’s shores, are only two of many traces of that lasting European influence.

But Japan was far from ready to welcome foreigners with open arms, as witnessed by the hilltop “
Site of the Martyrdom of the 26 Saints,” where European and Japanese Christian missionaries were said to have been crucified by the authorities in 1597 in a purge of Western religious influences.

One example of Nagasaki’s worldly touch is the Sakamoto International Cemetery, which is reached by a 15-minute walk up a residential road. On a quiet autumn day, with the skies overcast and threatening rain, a walk through the graveyard reveals foreign residents of various nationalities and religious persuasions laid side by side — some of them more than a century ago.

By far the most popular spots for visitors to Nagasaki are the Peace Statue and Peace Park, commemorating the victims of the atomic bomb dropped here a few days after the first explosion in Hiroshima. The rain is pouring down by now on this particular day’s visit, but many birds remain perched atop the nearly 10-meter-tall (about 30 feet), 35-year-old Peace Statue, which portrays a Herculean figure praying for peace.

The atmosphere in and around the park, disturbed only by the occasional noise of traffic, is both solemn and chilling. Ducking into the nearby
Atomic Bomb Museum provides little shelter from the reminders of the “black rain” of radioactive soot that covered Nagasaki soon after the blast 45 years ago.

Nagasaki is clearly a city that evokes many moods. Who is responsible for this? If anyone, it is Mayor Hitoshi Motoshima, a devout Catholic who has used his 11-year tenure to actively promote the international culture found throughout his city. He is also credited with keeping Nagasaki’s legacy alive as the second, and he hopes last, city in the world to suffer as an atomic target. The 68-year-old mayor’s vision of “peace without armaments” has won him the respect of many of his city’s 440,000 residents.

While admired by the outside world, Motoshima’s drive for internationalization has gotten him into hot water at home. He has criticized the wartime role of the late Emperor Hirohito, challenged the national government’s limit on the number of foreigners hired at local city halls, slammed beauty contests as discriminatory toward women, accepted Asian refugees when no one else in Japan would, and demanded that the central powers in Tokyo apologize and provide aid to North and South Korean victims of World War II. The mayor was nearly silenced for his remarks in January 1990, when a rightist gunman tried to assassinate him.

“If Japan is to become a nation that is trusted by the world, we have to go through such things,” Motoshima said in an interview. “I think many more people should speak out as I’ve done and create a more open atmosphere throughout the country. That way, Japan would gain acceptance in the world.”

How does a traveler sort out all the contradictions that make Nagasaki one of the most fascinating cities in Japan? For this visitor, the best way was to
ride a ropeway car on a sunny weekday to the top of Nagasaki’s Mount Inasa and stroll among the butterflies and beneath the free-flying hawks. The only sounds to be heard were the horns of tanker ships as they wove their way through the cluster of nearby islands into the port, while the rest of the city went about its business, safe beneath the surrounding hills.

From up here, all the seeming contradictions become one: the natural beauty, the Chinese and European influences, the phoenix spirit that rebuilt this city from the ashes of the atom bomb, and the historical role the city is destined to play. Few places in Japan fill the traveler’s soul with so many questions and answers.

Brian Covert is a freelance journalist based in Osaka.