The city of Nagasaki came into being when Portuguese adventurers came to Japan in 1542 and asked Lord Sumitada, who ruled the area, for the use of the beautiful harbor. Japan's most southern island, Kyushu, had long been the archipelago's principal crossroads for Silk Road traders, and, before that, prehistoric travelers, but their route took them through Hakata, an ancient port city, slightly to the north.
After a squabble with Ming China interrupted old commercial routes, the newly arrived traders became the Japanese elite's only source of Chinese silk, Indian and Persian luxury goods, and European guns. Military unifier Oda Nobunaga welcomed the European merchants and accompanying missionaries, aligning with them to create leverage against rival daimyos backed by powerful Buddhist temples in Kyoto. Franscisco de Xavier arrived with other Spanish Jesuits in 1549, and after two years, left behind behind 1,000 converts.
In 1582, after Nobunaga's suicide during a battle in Kyoto, power transferred to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who, inspired by European imperialism, launched an invasion of the Korean peninsula ten years later. Within six months, superior Korean strategists routed his troops (but not before they forcibly brought back tens of thousands of Korean master potters who created renowned Imari and Arita ceramics). Confounded by his loss and threatened by the power of Kyushu's daimyo traders and their European allies, Hideyoshi responded by issuing orders to execute Christians and instituting a draconian policy that came to define Japan: he began closing its borders to foreigners. By this time, hundreds of thousand Japanese in Kyushu had become Christian. Many of the conversions were nominal, ordered by daimyos; yet others would prove enduring.
After Hideyoshi died in 1597, his successor Ieyasu Tokugawa, restored trade with Korea, China, and European-controlled outposts throughout Asia. However the shadow cast by European imperial military power and Japan's growing community of native Christians proved too daunting for following shoguns who partially closed the archipelago's borders (allowing Chinese, Korean, Ryukuan, and Dutch exchanges at some ports).
Japanese Christians were forced to go underground, not to resurface until 1865 when several thousand Catholics from the fishing village of Urakami confessed themselves to a French priest in Nagasaki. In 1895, these descendents of Christians worshipping secretly for two centuries built the first cathedral in Asia in Urakami, a site of repeated earlier persecutions.
On August 9, 1945, clouds prevented an American B-29 from dropping a plutonium bomb on its original target, the weapons manufacturing center at Kokura. So the pilot aimed the bomb "Fat Man" towards their alternate target, the spires of Urakami Cathedral, the center point between his secondary targets, Mitsubishi's torpedo factory and steel and arms factory.
(People walking down a street in Nagasaki, unaware of the plutonium bomb explosion about to hit them.)
The plutonium bomb exploded over Japan's (and East Asia's) largest church at 11:02 a.m.—while a priest was beginning midday Mass. More Japanese Christians (8,000 among 70,000 mostly civilian victims) were killed in that moment than in all the previous shogunate persecutions of Christians combined.
In 1959, parishioners rebuilt the cathedral on the exact spot where it was destroyed, on Angelus Street. They decorated the new cathedral with charred angel faces from the bombed building, and left blackened and broken statues of saints (now covered with chains of colorful origami cranes) standing in the front, as a memorial.
After spending the night traveling on the Akatsuki ("Red Moon"), a slow night train that left Kyoto in the early evening and arrived in Nagasaki early morning, I hopped on a streetcar and found myself in Urakami just as Sunday morning mass at St. Mary's had started. All the seats in the church were filled, so I joined people standing in the entrance way. The women all wore white veils and nuns wore old-fashioned blue habits. In this quiet place, I experienced awe, witnessing a renewed faith community that had experienced archetypal devastation.
After the service, I asked a tall, young, bushy-haired, smiling priest where I could find the ruins of the old cathedral. He asked an older, also smiling parishioner, to show me the broken and charred statues of saints, all covered with chains of colorful origami cranes. Looking into the eyes of the parishioner, a peaceful, even joyful survivor of the atomic bombing, I thought of Dr. Martin Luther King's view that the universe is held together by an invisible force of unsentimental, unshakeable love.
The recreated community seems to prove that this love that binds people together—is alive in the people of Nagasaki—and more enduring than man's greatest weapon of mass destruction.
— Jean Miyake Downey (text & contemporary photos)
Multiple traumatic effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the thousands of nuclear test explosions worldwide; other uranium weapons; and nuclear plant meltdowns have not healed, even if survivors and their descendants have been able to renew their communities. Please support nuclear abolition.