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The history of Nagasaki, Japan, has been inexorably tied—both positively and negatively—to European expansion and Western colonialism. The founding of the port of Nagasaki was directly related to the initial wave of European expansion into Asia. Portuguese explorers rounded the tip of Africa and sailed into Asia just after the turn of the sixteenth century in search of trade goods and opportunities to proselytize. By 1511 they had established fortified stations at Mozambique, India, and Malacca (in present-day Malaysia), and in 1555 they finally built a base at Macao in southeastern China.

By this time, Portuguese traders had already reached Japan. In 1543 Portuguese sailors had drifted ashore at a small island south of Kyushu. Six years later, Jesuit missionaries went to Japan in an effort to convert as many Japanese as possible to Catholicism. The Jesuits exhibited early proselytizing successes in Japan. Part of this success was attributable to the promise of the annual Portuguese China Ship coming from Macao to ports in Japan, where the local daimyo supported Christianity. At the time, the Ming government of China had banned foreign trade, thus allowing the Portuguese an opportunity to control the silk-for-silver trade between China and Japan as third-party intermediaries.

In 1571 a permanent home for the Portuguese China Ship was established at Nagasaki, a heretofore small fishing village with a shallow harbor that had recently been dredged by the Jesuits. A port town was constructed at Nagasaki to handle the needs of foreign trade and to serve as a haven for harassed Christians in Japan.

Christian churches were built on the former sites of Buddhist temples and by the end of the first decade, the local Christian daimyo, unable to protect Nagasaki against attacks by non-Christian daimyo and desirous of the benefits of Western trade, agreed to donate the port town to the Jesuits. The Jesuits administered the town until 1587, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598), the military ruler of Japan, issued an edict calling for the expulsion of Christian missionaries and the destruction of all Christian churches in Nagasaki. Some churches were torn down, but the expulsion order was not enforced. After bribing the necessary officials, the missionaries were able to continue their work, albeit with more discretion. Hideyoshi, while condemning the missionaries, appreciated their role as interpreters and intermediaries in Western trade, and did not want to jeopardize this profitable venture.

Nagasaki was made a public territory, with Japanese officials coming to the town from time to time, but, in actuality, foreign missionaries and local Christian merchants continued to handle day-to-day administrative concerns and foreign trade. Spanish Franciscan, Dominican, and Augustinian missionaries from Manila soon joined the Jesuits in Nagasaki and proselytizing efforts expanded. They were followed in 1609 and 1613 by Dutch and English traders, who established themselves on the island of Hirado, just north of Nagasaki.

For a short time, the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and British traded side by side, but Japanese government crackdowns on Christianity and poor business decisions by the English resulted in the departure of all but the Dutch from Japan by 1639. In 1641 the Dutch were forced by Japanese officials to move from Hirado to the manmade island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor. At the same time, Japanese leaders imposed a maritime prohibition policy (sakoku) on its own people, prohibiting them from leaving the country and restricting foreign trade to a few designated merchants.

Later in the seventeenth century, both the Portuguese and English tried to reestablish trade relations with Japan but to no avail. The policy remained in effect and all foreigners who strayed into Japanese waters were taken to Nagasaki, where they were imprisoned until they could be deported. Christianity was strictly prohibited upon punishment of death; therefore, all remaining Japanese Christians went underground with their beliefs.

By the early nineteenth century, the Russians, English, and Americans were all knocking on Japan's door, but Japanese officials refused to alter the country's maritime trade policy until forced to do so by Commodore Matthew Perry (1794–1858) and his armed American fleet in 1853 and 1854. Perry's forced opening of Japan, along with the British defeat of China in the Opium War a decade earlier, represented the beginning of the second phase of Western imperialism in Asia.

A commercial treaty followed in 1858, which opened three Japanese ports, including Nagasaki, to foreign trade and residence in July 1859. Landfill was brought in from neighboring islands to fill in the eastern side of the harbor, and a foreign settlement was constructed. The Russians, who later used Nagasaki as a winter port for its Asiatic Fleet, lived in a separate area across the harbor. Soon the settlements were filed with missionaries, sailors, merchants, and government officials. The latter were needed because extraterritoriality—the right to try westerners according to Western law—was a provision of the new treaties. Also included in the treaties were a "most-favored nation" clause and the right of Western nations to determine tariff duties on most Japanese goods. Nagasaki remained a designated treaty port until the so-called Unequal Treaties were revised in 1899.

Even though Nagasaki became a free port in 1899, the number of westerners in the city continued to grow until the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). It was also at this time that Nagasaki became renowned as the setting of Giacomo Puccini's (1858–1924) famous opera Madama Butterfly (1904), which came to represent to some the West's colonial attitude toward East Asia.

From 1905, however, Nagasaki's fortunes began to decline, and by the end of World War I most European and American merchants had left and fewer warships called at the port. This left only a limited number of missionaries and government officials to cope with the rising influence of militarism, as Japan itself became an ever-stronger imperial force in the struggle for East Asia and the Pacific.

Nagasaki was spared from much of the conventional bombing that most Japanese cities suffered during World War II, but on August 9, 1945, a 10,000-pound (4,536-kilogram) plutonium bomb was detonated over the city, killing more than seventy thousand people. A week later, the war was over, and by September American occupation officials had arrived to take control of Nagasaki. American officials stayed until 1952, when Japan regained its independence. Since this time, Nagasaki has depended on Mitsubishi Shipyards and historical tourism to support its economy.

see also Empire, Japanese; Japan, Colonized.


Boxer, Charles. The Christian Century in Japan, 1549–1650. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.

Burke-Gaffney, Brian. Starcrossed: A Biography of Madame Butterfly. Norwalk, CT: EastBridge, 2004.

Doeff, Hendrik. Recollections of Japan. Translated and annotated by Annick M. Doeff. Victoria, British Colombia: Trafford, 2003.

Hoare, James E. Japan's Treaty Ports and Foreign Settlements: The Uninvited Guests, 1858–1899. Folkerstone, U.K.: Japan Library, 1994.

Marx, Joseph. Nagasaki: The Necessary Bomb? Toronto, Ontario: Macmillan, 1971.

Paske-Smith, M. Western Barbarians in Japan and Formosa in Tokugawa Days, 1603–1868. Kobe, Japan: J. L. Thompson, 1927.


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Originally a fishing village in western Kyushu, Nagasaki became an important trading port with the arrival of the Jesuits and Portuguese traders in Japan in the 1550s. As a means of gaining favor in the trade, a local daimyo granted Nagasaki to the Jesuits in 1570. This move was later revoked in 1587 by Japan's unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598). When Hideyoshi authorized overseas voyages by Japanese ships starting in the early 1590s, trade through Nagasaki increased, but it also became subject to greater controls, which were exercised through the Nagasaki magistrate. These controls evolved as institutional precedents of the later seclusion edicts of the 1630s, which banned overseas travel and the return of Japanese abroad. By 1641 the Dutch, then the only Europeans specifically authorized to stay in Japan, were made to reside in Dejima, an artificial islet in Nagasaki harbor.

The principal cargoes handled at Nagasaki were silver exports to China and silk imports, mostly from China. Export restrictions, not entirely enforceable, were placed on silver as well as gold later in the seventeenth century, but by the early eighteenth century copper bound for the Chinese mint grew in volume. Overall, trade increased rapidly after the 1680s when China liberalized its trade. The number of Chinese ships coming to Japan increased until the 1710s when Japan imposed limits on the number of ships allowed to come to Nagasaki. The government also made more restrictive its silk-importing guild (itowappu) as the country moved toward an import-substitution policy. By this time, though, the Chinese quarters in Nagasaki had expanded to the point where it was ten times larger than the Dutch station on Dejima.

When Japan reopened trade with the West in the 1850s Nagasaki became a center of exchange for officials of British trading companies who brought in models of Western factories and weapons used in Japan's Restoration Wars of the 1860s. In general, though, at this time most of the country's trade was controlled through the Chinese who were still resident in Nagasaki. Through the early years of the Meiji period (1868–1912) Japanese traders now free to go abroad faced stiffer competition from the Nagasaki-based Chinese than they did from Westerners. Nagasaki itself became for a time the key port of embarkation for shipping routes to nearby Asian ports such as Shanghai, Inchon, and Vladivostok, and the port grew as trade expanded through the nineteenth century, though it was soon overtaken by Yokohama and Kobe as a major international port.

By the 1890s, however, Nagasaki's function as a port was superseded by its role as the key center of Japanese shipbuilding. The Nagasaki shipyard had originally been established by the Tokugawa Bakufu in the late 1850s. The Meiji government subsequently sold it to Mitsubishi in 1885. When large-scale government subsidies began in the late 1890s, Mitsubishi set about building standardsize, oceangoing vessels, and Nagasaki became a center of exchange for raw materials and manufacturing. The atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World War II landed far from the shipyard, which quickly recovered its prominence in the 1950s. Later, Nagasaki again became a key port in regional trade with Northeast Asia.

SEE ALSO Agriculture; Canton System; Cargoes, Freight; Cargoes, Passenger; Chambers of Commerce; Coen, Jan Pieterszoon; Compradors; Containerization; East India Company, Dutch; EntrepÔt System; Ethnic Groups, Cantonese; Ethnic Groups, Fujianese; Factories; Free Ports; Harbors; Japan; Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (METI);Perry, Matthew;Port Cities;South China Sea;Women Traders of Southeast Asia.


Elisonas, Jurgis. "The Sixteenth-Century Unification." In The Cambridge History of Japan, vol. 4: Early Modern Japan, ed. John Whitney Hall. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Innes, Robert L. "The Door Ajar: Japan's Foreign Trade in the Seventeenth Century." Ph.D. diss. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1980.

Komachi, Noriko. "The Chinese in Meiji Japan and their Interaction with the Japanese before the Sino-Japanese War." In The Chinese and the Japanese: Essays in Political and Cultural Interactions, ed. Akira Iriye. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.

William Wray


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NAGASAKI , port in S. Japan. With the opening of Japan to international relations in the mid-19th century, Nagasaki gradually grew into a center of foreign trade. In the 1860s a small number of Jews, mainly from Eastern Europe, settled in the city. In the following years they organized religious and communal activities, built a synagogue, and maintained a burial ground. In the late 19th century (when the community numbered around 100) many of them earned a livelihood by catering to the needs of Russian sailors whose ships called regularly at the port. When this business ceased with the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, many of the Jews moved elsewhere, and the organized Jewish community came to an end.

[Hyman Kublin]


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Nagasaki Seaport and prefecture on w Kyushu island, sw Japan. In the 16th century, Nagasaki was the first Japanese port to receive Western ships and became a centre of Christian influence. During Japan's isolation (1639–1859) it was the only port open to foreign trade. On August 9, 1945, a US atomic bomb destroyed the inner city, killing more than 70,000 people. Industries: shipbuilding, heavy engineering, fishing, mining. Pop. (2000) 438,635; 1,532,235 (prefecture).


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Nagasaki a city and port in SW Japan, on the west coast of Kyushu island. It was the target of the second atom bomb, dropped by the United States on 9 August 1945, which resulted in the deaths of about 75,000 people and devastated one third of the city.