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Friday, July 2, 2010

Journey to Nagasaki #2

So, picking-up again with Urakami Cathedral...

Kyushu was, since the 1500s, the point of entry for Portuguese Christian missionaries. (The writings of one of them, the Jesuit St. Francis Xavier, provided Europe with the first in-depth descriptions of Japan.) Due to the profits which could be had from trade with Europeans, missionaries operated rather freely in the mid-16th century and even managed to convert a few local daimyo. However, the Sengoku period of warring fiefdoms came to an end in the 1580s with the emergence of the Shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi, one of the more colorfully-unbalanced warlords imaginable.

On a side note, perhaps Toyotomi's most notorious accomplishment was his failed but bloody attempts to conquer Korea in the 1590s. (Today, one can check-out the site of the mound of severed ears he erected in Kyoto or his lesser-known nose mound in Okayama; Japanese people don't like to talk about these for some reason.) The invasions bogged-down, turned into a seven-year fiasco, nearly drove the country to bankruptcy and resulted in a humiliating retreat. But on the bright side, Koreans can kvell about the naval victories of Admiral Yi Sunsin.

At any rate, Toyotomi (perhaps correctly) surmised the Christians as a threat and initiated a wave of religious repression. Monetary rewards were offered to villages which turned-in kirishitan; those who were caught were made to trample on crosses and sign documents disavowing their faith. Those who refused were frequently tortured and executed in inventive ways.

In the midst of this, Nagasaki was the site of the repression's first (but not largest) mass-crucifixion. Today, the site of the 26 Martyrs has been preserved with a monument marking the spot. (Note the 12 and 13-year old kids who were included on the bas-relief.)

Some Christians around Kyushu nonetheless continued practicing in secret and formed underground churches. One cluster of such "hidden" kirishitan existed in the village of Urakami in the present-day northern part of Nagasaki city; in the 1860s they were outed and 3,500 of them were subjected to the Tokugawa shogunate's final spasm of religious repression, resulting in the deaths of some 650 people. A few years later, the shogunate fell and religious freedom was eventually enshrined in law by the Meiji government. And so... Urakami cathedral was built by the survivors.

All in all, not a particularly happy story. It's not the kind of place you go for a pick-me-up.

Finally, we headed to: Dejima, the site of the Dutch East Indian Company's trading post from the 1600s until the mid-1800s.
After the expulsion of the Portuguese and Spanish, the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) and local merchants in Nagasaki managed to convince the Shogun's circle that the Dutch wouldn't try to engage in missionary work. To faciliate trade, a fan-shaped artificial island with spike-topped walls and a heavily-guarded bridge was built in the harbor, becoming Japan's only point of contact with the western world. Chinese traders in Nagasaki used a similar artificial island located practically next door, where the city's not-so-impressive Chinatown is presently located.

Naturally, extensive development in subsquent centuries caused the site to be forgotten. But in the 20th century, the general outlines of Dejima were partially-restored with some reconstructed buildings and you can get a taste of what it was like:

Well, boring, is the word which came foremost to mind. Dejima was about the size of a city block and about a quarter of it was a garden. Most of the buildings were warehouses for stuff like sugar. A dozen or so Dutchmen and maybe a few Indonesians lived there for a few years at a time. A trade ship would set sail from Batavia in Java perhaps once or twice a year and the only news they got from the outside world was what was submitted in the captain's report.

The rest of the year, the only people they had contact with were a handful of Nagasaki merchants, translators and some courtesans. If a Dutchman showed signs of learning Japanese, they were asked to leave on the next ship. But they did have a billiard table, so it wasn't all dullsville.

Dejima's end was rather anticlimactic. By the late 1700s, the profits made through the Japan trade were scant. Eventually the VOC got sucked-dry by its shareholders by the 1800s and was nationalized. When other ports around Japan were forced-open in the 1850s, the land was resorbed to Nagaski's expanding port and foreigners' settlement.

So the enterprise, that which gave Japan its sole access to western knowledge for two and a half centuries, wound-down with a whimper.

Next: Mari and I visit Seoul! Stay tuned!


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