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Nagasaki’s role in Japan’s emergence as a modern nation is as layered as it is tragic. Starting with the dramatic events of the ‘Christian Century’ (1549–1650), Nagasaki became Japan’s first gateway to the West, as well as its nearer neighbours in Asia. The arrival of an off-course Chinese ship in 1543, with guns and Portugese adventurers aboard, signalled the start of Nagasaki’s long period as Japan’s principal connection with the West.

The first visitors were soon followed by the missionary St Francis Xavier in 1560, one of many to follow. Although their visits were brief, these Portuguese contacts were to have far-reaching effects. Among the first Japanese to be converted to Christianity by the visitors was a minor daimyō (regional lord), Ōmura Sumitada, in northwestern Kyūshū. Under Ōmura, Nagasaki became the main arrival point for Portuguese trade ships. Although the Portuguese principally acted as intermediaries between China, Korea and Japan, the trade was mutually profitable, and Nagasaki quickly became a fashionable and wealthy city.

However, by 1587 Japanese authorities, who had begun to perceive the growing influence of Christianity as a threat, implemented a policy of persecution, expelling the Jesuits, and in 1597 crucifying 26 European and Japanese Christians. The upstart religion was officially banned in 1614. Catholic Portuguese and Spanish traders were expelled in favour of the Protestant Dutch, who were perceived as being more interested in trade and less in religion.

The final chapter of the ‘Christian Century’, the Shimabara peasant uprising of 1637–38, led the authorities to forbid any contact with foreigners, and to ban all travel outside Japan. The single exception, however, was the closely watched Dutch enclave on the island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbour. Through this small outpost a trickle of Western science and culture found its way into Japan, and by 1720, Nagasaki had become an important scientific and artistic centre. When Nagasaki reopened to the West in 1859, it quickly re-established itself as a major economic force, particularly in shipbuilding, the industry that made it a target on 9 August 1945.