11 July 2019

The Eccentric Mrs. Barff


Kate Barff (nee Katherine Anne Clayton) was born in West Sussex, England in 1833. She married at an early age and accompanied her husband Samuel to Eastern Europe and later Greece, where the latter served as British vice consul in the port of Patras. She was the mother of three sons and a daughter when the family arrived in Hong Kong in 1870. Samuel took up the position of assistant postmaster in the colony, later rising through the ranks of the civil service as deputy registrar and accountant for the Supreme Court. In an 1884 document, the Barff family is listed as living in a house called “The Hut” on Castle Road in an affluent neighborhood of Hong Kong. In April the same year, Kate’s daughter Lucy died at the age of nineteen and was buried in the Happy Valley Cemetery, where her gravestone can still be seen today.

Shipping intelligence in the English-language newspapers shows Samuel and Kate Barff arriving in Nagasaki from Shanghai aboard the steamship Yokohama-maru on April 27, 1894. The couple’s motivation in choosing Nagasaki as a place of retirement is unclear, but they were certainly not alone. Many other foreign visitors were calling at the port and deciding to stay, captivated by Nagasaki’s moderate climate, beautiful scenery and peaceful multinational community. An added amenity was the Shimabara Peninsula near Nagasaki gaining popularity as a summer resort among the well-heeled expatriates of Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Still another factor may have been the Sino-Japanese War, a bloody clash between Japan and China that raged in regions close to Nagasaki from July 1894 to April 1895. Lionel C. Barff, the youngest son of Samuel and Kate, stayed with his parents in Nagasaki while serving as a correspondent for The London Illustrated News during the war and submitted numerous sketches to the magazine. Before returning to Victoria, Canada (where he had been working previously as a mining broker and art teacher) in May 1895, he held an exhibition in his parents’ residence, including paintings of Unzen, Aba and other areas near Nagasaki that the writer of an article in the local English-language newspaper praised as displaying “a delicate and refined scheme of colour wedded to a keen sense of composition.”

In early 1897, Samuel and Kate Barff acquired the lease to No. 15 Minamiyamate, a large hillside house known among foreign residents as Cliff Field. Samuel’s health deteriorated over the following months. He died on August 25 the same year, aged sixty-nine, and was buried at Sakamoto International Cemetery. The census conducted by Japanese authorities at the end of 1897 shows Kate Barff living at No. 15 Higashiyamate alone as a "widow." 

On January 4, 1898, while still living at No. 15 Minamiyamate, Kate Barff bought the opulent stone bungalow at No. 14 Minamiyamate, a house in use at the time as the U.S. Consulate. The building still exists today as the Former Alt House, a National Important Cultural Property preserved as part of the Glover Garden theme park. When she realized in December 1898 that the American government intended to move the Nagasaki consulate to another location, Kate posted an advertisement in The Nagasaki Press offering to sell or rent the bungalow at No. 14 Minamiyamate, with the rather odd postscript that "if preferred" she was willing to rent or sell No. 15 Minamiyamate (Cliff Field) instead. The result of the advertisement was not published, but related documents indicate that she found renters for Cliff Field and moved her own place of residence to No. 14 Minamiyamate. In February 1899, she held an auction of household furniture at No. 15 Minamiyamate, including several of her son’s oil paintings. 

Kate Barff received news in 1900 that her son Lionel, who had traveled to northern China to cover the Boxer Rebellion as a special correspondent for The Illustrated London News, had fallen gravely ill while following the march of allied troops from Tientsin to Beijing. She boarded a steamship to Shanghai, intending to rush to his bedside, but, upon landing, learned of his death due to typhoid fever. 

After the tragic death of her son, Kate became an increasingly eccentric and conspicuous presence on the Minamiyamate hillside, engaging in squabbles with her neighbors over property boundaries, submitting peculiar messages to the editor of The Nagasaki Press, and bothering the British consul with trivial complaints. In September 1901, she wrote to Nagasaki Prefecture Governor Arakawa Yoshitarō (addressing him incorrectly as Harakawa) announcing that she was paying her annual ground rent of 422 dollars for No. 14 and No. 15 Minamiyamate “under protest” because local authorities were planning to build a public road between the two properties. 

The outcome of Kate’s protest is unclear, but Nagasaki authorities went ahead with the construction of public roads on the hillside—to such an extent that it is difficult today to discern the original features of the neighborhood.   

In February 1903, now living in her original house at No. 15 Minamiyamate, Kate Barff transferred No. 14 Minamiyamate to the influential British merchant and longtime Nagasaki resident Frederick Ringer and his wife Carolina.

Kate Barff showed no intention to leave Nagasaki, preferring to remain alone in her hillside refuge. But her erratic behavior came into the spotlight in 1912 when she caused a commotion over an unpaid debt, dragging the British Consulate into a dispute and even involving the governor of neighboring Saga Prefecture. In a letter to the British Embassy on the case, acting consul G.H. Phipps describes Kate Barff as “a very well-known character in this port. Her eccentricities are notorious and have increased with the passage of years, until it may be doubted whether she can now really be said to be responsible for her actions. She receives a small monthly allowance from her son, who is resident in Shanghai, and lives on that and such sums that she can ‘borrow’ from various local foreign residents.”

According to Phipps, Kate stayed in the Kaihin-in Hotel in Karatsu, a seaside resort in Saga Prefecture, for a period of three months in the summer of 1912 and ran up a bill of over 200 yen. When she attempted to leave Karatsu by train the innkeeper intercepted her at the railroad station and demanded payment. She claimed later that she was assaulted and forced to leave her luggage in the railroad station as ransom. She also insisted that she had been offered free accommodation at the hotel in exchange for promoting it as a resort for foreign travelers, although she was unable to provide any evidence of such an agreement. Phipps tried to get to the bottom of the matter by communicating with Fuwa Hikomaro, the governor of Saga Prefecture. In a subsequent report, the latter refuted the claim of violence and assured that the luggage would be returned immediately, but he warned that the innkeeper would take legal action if the bill remained unpaid. The files in the British Consulate archive end there, indicating that the issue came to a peaceful conclusion, probably with the intervention of Kate’s son in Shanghai. 

The gravestone of Samuel and Kate Barff at Sakamoto International Cemetery, Nagasaki
The eccentric lady, who had spent most of her life in the distant outposts of the British Empire, lived quietly in Nagasaki until her death on May 5, 1922 at the grand old age of eighty-nine. She lies with her husband today under a single gravestone at Sakamoto International Cemetery.


(The above is an excerpt from a work in progress entitled The Alt House of Nagasaki: An Architectural Biography

23 April 2018

First Champagne in Japan?

From the earliest days of the Christian Period, Europeans arriving in Nagasaki brought foods and drinks for their own consumption in addition to merchandise for trade. The drinks of course included alcoholic beverages. For the Portuguese it was wine, as evidenced by the wine glasses regularly unearthed during excavations in the old downtown neighbourhoods of Nagasaki. The Dutch, who followed in the mid-17th century but hailed from the northern part of Europe where grapes could not be cultivated, brought a steady supply of beer and gin to drink in their trading post at Dejima. Gin in particular was an important fixture on the Dejima dinner table. The monotonous daily life on the island — characterized by historian Charles Boxer as “beginning with gin and tobacco in the morning and ending with tobacco and gin at night”— could probably not have continued without the infusion of that indispensable spirit. 

Since Nagasaki served as Japan’s earliest receptacle for the exotic beverages carried on the Portuguese and Dutch carracks, the people of the city were the first in the country to taste them, although, from all accounts, they prized the unusual bottles more highly than the liquids inside.

After the opening of Japan’s doors in 1859, a new and diverse wave of foods and drinks arrived in Nagasaki Harbor and inundated the dining rooms of foreign residents and the hotels and bars established in the foreign settlement. The earliest record of the alcoholic beverages brought to Nagasaki can be found in advertisements carried by The Nagasaki Shipping List and Advertiser, published in 1861 as Japan’s first English-language newspaper. One enthusiastic importer was a Briton named J. Collins who opened a store in Hirobaba, the street in front of the old Chinese Quarter where European merchants launched business activities before the completion of the foreign settlement ground works.

One of Collins' neighbors was an American resident named Henry Gibson who established the "International Bowling Saloon" in a Japanese building in Hirobaba, a facility recognized today as Japan’s first bowling lane. Gibson also posted an advertisement in The Nagasaki Shipping List and Advertiser, assuring readers as follows: "The undersigned respectfully begs leave to inform the Community that his bowling saloon is now open for the reception of visitors.  A fresh supply of the best description of Wines, Spirits, &c., &c., will be sold at very moderate prices.  The Proprietor trusts that by strict attention to business he will merit and receive a portion of the Patronage.  HENRY GIBSON. Nagasaki, 22nd June, 1861."

The Hirobaba street as it looked before being widened in a recent urban redevelopment project.
The exact location of the establishments run by J. Collins and Henry Gibson is unknown.

Collins' advertisement in The Nagasaki Shipping List and Advertiser
At the top of Collins’ advertisement are the words “Superior Champagne Crème de Bouzy in pints.” This shows that—only two years after the opening of the port and undoubtedly for the first time in Japan—France’s famous sparkling wine was filling glasses to toast the prosperity of trade and cultural exchange in Nagasaki. The other articles in Collins’ advertisement include cognac, gin and sherry as well as “assorted pickles” and candles made from whale blubber. All of these rare items found their way into Nagasaki stores and then into markets throughout the country, exerting a lasting effect on Japanese lifestyles.

11 July 2017

Early Christian Gravestones: Relics of Heartbreak and Persecution


Officially opened for trade with the Portuguese in 1570, the sleepy fishing village of Nagasaki turned into a boomtown, with aspiring merchants and laborers streaming in from other parts of Japan. In 1580, the trade was so lucrative that local daimyo Ōmura Sumitada transferred jurisdiction of the port and environs to the Society of Jesus. By the middle of the 1580s, the village had grown into a bustling international port studded with Catholic churches, frequented by European traders and missionaries, visited without hindrance by Chinese and Korean opportunists, and populated almost exclusively by native Christians who ate meat and bread, drank wine from glass goblets, played chess and backgammon, and otherwise carried on in a manner unimaginable in other parts of Japan. Aside from churches, the Portuguese sponsored the construction of stone embankments and canals and the laying of flagstones on streets and lanes, using sandstone from local quarries and giving Nagasaki all the look of a Lisbon suburb.

An atmosphere of cooperation and freedom predominated in Nagasaki, but Japanese leaders began to view the religion professed by the Europeans as a threat to national unity and stability. In 1614, the Tokugawa regime issued a complete national ban on Christianity. The shock could not have been felt any greater than in the almost exclusively Christian city of Nagasaki. By the end of 1619, the authorities had destroyed all churches and—except for a few dauntless priests remaining in hiding—deported all the European missionaries, Japanese priests and nuns, and leading Japanese Christians. The Jesuit Provincial Matheus de Couros, who concealed himself in Nagasaki, reported in a letter dated March 20, 1620 that local authorities had ordered the exhumation of corpses from all of the Christian cemeteries in Nagasaki. It is likely that almost every gravestone with a recognizable Christian epitaph in the port town of Nagasaki had been destroyed by 1639, just as commercial interaction with the Catholic countries had been terminated and all Portuguese residents and their families driven from Japan.

In outlying areas, however, a number of Christian gravestones escaped the purge, often lost under growing vegetation, reused as building materials or simply overlooked. Research conducted in recent years by Ōishi Kazuhisa and colleagues revealed 192 Christian gravestones remaining from the period leading up to the ban on the foreign religion. A total of 146 or some 76% of the gravestones are located in Nagasaki Prefecture, a figure that reflects the predominance of Christian communities in Nagasaki and neighboring regions. The other gravestones are located in the following areas: four in Oita Prefecture, fourteen in Kumamoto Prefecture, eight in Osaka Prefecture and twenty in Kyoto Prefecture. Many of the gravestones are embellished with crosses and inscriptions in the Roman alphabet. Ōishi classified the gravestones into six different types, including standing gravestones, slabs lying flat, and stones carved in a semicircular shape.

Ink rubbing from the side of a semicircular Christian gravestone found at Shōkakuji Temple in Amakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture. The letters IHS are embellished with a cross and flanked by inscriptions in Japanese.

Christianity completely disappeared from the port town of Nagasaki, but some of the faithful fled to the hinterland and formed underground communities. The Hirado-Ikitsuki area where Christianity had first flourished in Japan is particularly well known. Christian enclaves also endured in the Urakami district and coastal areas such as Kaminoshima and Sotome. Moreover, the latter part of the Edo Period saw a migration of underground Christians from Sotome to the Goto Islands, while others settled in the Tachiarai and Amakusa areas of modern-day Fukuoka and Kumamoto prefectures, respectively.

The secret communities worshipped images of Mary disguised as the Buddhist deity of compassion (“Maria Kannon”) and gathered in secret to recite prayers called orasho (from the Latin oratio). While following the order to register as parishioners of a Buddhist temple and even acquiescing to the ritual of efumi (trampling on a Christian image to demonstrate renunciation of the religion), they steadfastly maintained the faith of their ancestors despite complete isolation from the Catholic Church.

As a matter of course, all gravestones erected in the country had to adhere strictly to the Buddhist style, with an inscription showing a kaimyō (posthumous Buddhist name). Funerals conducted by a Buddhist priest were also mandatory and universal, and the remains of the dead had to be placed in a fetal sitting position in a ceramic cask. In some cases, the underground Christians living in remote locations managed to resist the decree and bury the dead lying face up and place rectangular gravestones without inscriptions called nagabaka (lit. “long grave”), a style originating in Rome and introduced to Japan by European missionaries the previous century.

From time to time, however, the underground Christian communities were exposed and ruthlessly persecuted. In 1790, as a result of a crackdown on the underground Christian community of Urakami, a large number of nagabaka were discovered and destroyed. For fear of their lives, the underground Christians had to refrain from the placement of overtly European-style gravestones thereafter, but just as they secretly sidestepped the efumi ritual, they managed to camouflage gravestones by marking burial sites with natural stones or by placing the side of the stone with the inscription face down.


In 2011, the Sotome Christian Research Group reported the discovery of 64 nagabaka in Kakiuchi, a remote part of the Taira district northwest of Nagasaki. The event was hailed as the first time that such a large cluster of underground Christian gravestones had been discovered intact. Located at the edge of a burial site of some 120 square meters in area thought to date back to the middle of the 17th century, the rectangular gravestones lie in an orderly formation some 40 to 50 centimeters apart, all flat stones with no inscriptions. A representative of the Sotome Christian Research group surmised that the gravestones had been overlooked during the Edo Period because of the location of Kakiuchi, a detached territory of the relatively lenient Saga Domain.

Underground Christian graves, all marked with flat natural stones, were found recently at Kakiuchi near Nagasaki.    

Historians agree unanimously that Christianity disappeared in the old city surrounding Nagasaki Harbor after the expulsion of the Portuguese in 1639 and that all Christian gravestones were destroyed. Family graves established in subsequent decades were indeed wholly Buddhist in style. To this day, however, the graves in the neighborhoods of central Nagasaki exhibit a feature found nowhere else in Japan, namely a small stone tablet, installed side by side with the main gravestone, showing the two characters土神 meaning “earth deity.” The custom is attributed to the influence of Chinese culture—and no scholar in the past seems to have questioned that assumption—but surely the 17th-century Japanese residents of Nagasaki had a much more pressing motivation than playful imitation. Moreover, it is generally the custom in China to place an invocation to the earth deity at the front entrance to a house, not in a graveyard.

Your writer would like to propose that, while dutifully obeying orders to apostatize and embrace Buddhism, the former Japanese Christians of Nagasaki used the Chinese character for earth () to hide a cross and that they placed the tablet on the family grave as a form of penance for abandoning the religion of their ancestors. Since the custom was couched in extreme secrecy, it is no wonder that its true nature has been forgotten even among the people of Nagasaki who continue to place the tablets beside their family gravestones. A similar example can be found in the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, Rome where inscriptions featuring boat anchors and other symbols were used to disguise the Christian cross.

A typical family grave on the grounds of a Buddhist temple in Nagasaki. The round tablet to the right of the main gravestone is inscribed in red with the letters meaning "earth deity." Does the character for earth () conceal a cross?    

Further research is needed to shed light on the burial customs of the early Christian communities in Nagasaki and other parts of Japan and to clarify and preserve the legacy evident in gravestones and burial sites.