12 September 2020

New Book on the Former Alt House


The latest blast of information (waste of good paper?) from Flying Crane Press is a book on the former Alt House, one of the National Important Cultural Properties preserved on their original sites in the Glover Garden theme park in Nagasaki. The theme park is located in Minamiyamate, the hillside residential neighborhood of the former Nagasaki Foreign Settlement. Although it tends to hide in the shadow of the former Glover House, the former Alt House remains as the oldest building of Western-style stone construction in Japan and the most imposing private residence in Nagasaki, past and present. 

The former Alt House evokes the style of a bungalow in British India, with sandstone walls and a row of Tuscan pillars marching along the front of a wide stone-paved veranda, and with all the nostalgic nuances of the elegant if incongruous European colonial presence in East Asia. Despite the well-preserved physical condition of the building, the interior suggests that the decorators had scant information about the original position of furniture and ornaments or the function of individual rooms: desks are placed in former bedrooms, chairs have their backs to fireplaces, and walls once covered with paintings and photographs are oddly blank. Similarly, most of the pamphlets and books available on the subject of Glover Garden look almost exclusively at architectural features. 

Built circa 1867 by British merchant William J. Alt (1840-1908), the house served as a residence for the Alt family and later the family of Alt's business successor Henry J. Hunt. It was rented for two years from 1880 by the Methodist Mission School Kwassui Jogakko, during which time it was the site of the earliest Western music education in Japan. From 1893 to 1898, it accommodated the Nagasaki U.S. Consulate and figured in the story of Madame Butterfly, which took the world by storm as a novelette, stage play and later Giacomo Puccini opera. In 1903, the house was acquired by the prominent British merchant and community leader Frederick Ringer (1838-1907). Ringer's eldest son Freddy lived there until his death in 1940, and his widow Alcidie, arrested by the Kempeitai military police on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack (December 8, 1941 Japan time), became the last foreign inhabitant of the iconic building. Sold off as enemy property, the house and spacious garden were purchased by the Kawanami family, who operated a wartime shipyard. The property remained uncontested by Ringer descendants, turning at one point into a rundown tenement, until being sold to Nagasaki in 1970 and refurbished as a tourist attraction.

The Former Alt House as it looks today (photograph by the author)
Every year, more than a million visitors pay the entrance fee and follow the paths to the former Alt House, where they marvel at the uncanny style of the building and peer into the cold, deserted rooms. The area around the Italianate fountain at the front often accommodates outdoor wedding ceremonies and parties catered by a local hotel, but none of the guests remember a time when wealthy British and American residents lounged on the veranda gazing at Nagasaki Harbor, their optimistic view of Japan complicated by a sense of cultural difference and wistful thoughts of faraway homelands.

For the first time in any language, The Former Alt House: Biography of a Nagasaki Landmark introduces former inhabitants and functions of the building and outlines the events that crisscrossed there from the year that Japan awakened from a long slumber and opened its doors to international engagement, until the postwar period when Nagasaki cleared the rubble of wartime destruction and chose tourism as a step to recovery. Copies can be obtained here.


25 July 2020

The U.S.S. Haven in Nagasaki, September 1945


On September 11, 1945, the American hospital ship USS Haven, accompanied by several warships, steamed into Nagasaki Harbor to rescue the thousands of Allied prisoners-of-war released from captivity after the war’s end but still stranded in some 25 former camps around Kyushu. After sweeping the entrance to the harbor for mines, the task force continued to the middle of the harbor and dropped anchor. Only the USS Haven pulled up to Dejima Wharf, a landing place used since 1924 by the sister-ships Nagasaki-maru and Shanghai-maru on the regular NYK service from Kobe to Shanghai via Nagasaki. Both the wharf and the railway station behind it had been abandoned after the two ships sank during World War II.  
 
The NYK passenger steamer Nagasaki-maru at Dejima Wharf circa 1930.

The Sato Antique Shop issued a map circa 1930 showing the way to the shop from Dejima Wharf. The railway line stretches from the left. All of the consulates closed at the outbreak of war. 

The Nagasaki-maru at Dejima Wharf circa 1937. The line of the mountain in the background has been smudged in accordance with orders from military police censors. 

The view from the wharf was bleak: many buildings had been destroyed by fire and their carcasses left to the mercy of the wind and rain; those still standing were invariably ramshackle and grime-laden. At night, the entire city was shrouded in darkness because the electrical grid had still not been restored. Other essential facilities such as water and gas supply lines, hospitals, schools, transportation, banks, and government offices languished in a similar state of paralysis.

The above scenes may have been appalling, but what the Americans could not see from their ship was the section of Nagasaki directly exposed to the wrath of the atomic bomb. Most of the tens of thousands of corpses lying in the charred rubble or festering on river banks had been collected and cremated, but the stench of death and conflagration hung in the air as though permanently imprinted there. The northern half of the city was so devastated that it was difficult to discern even the line of former streets. The surrounding hillsides were stripped of vegetation, and the soil was contaminated with residual radiation.

Nagasaki Prefecture Governor Nagano Wakamatsu and other local representatives met the American officers and agreed to cooperate in the release of prisoners-of-war and to make all necessary preparations for the arrival of Occupation forces, expected before the end of the month. The governor issued orders to the heads of cities, towns and villages for citizens to stay away from the areas demarcated for use by the Occupation forces and to desist from picking up any of the foodstuffs and other supplies dropped by American airplanes into former prisoner-of-war camps. 
 
The USS Haven at Dejima Wharf.

The task force immediately commandeered the Dejima wharf offices and waiting rooms and constructed a row of showers, as well as makeshift facilities for the reception and examination of POWs. Electricity and steam were supplied from the hospital ship. Over the following days, several thousand bedraggled former POWs arrived from various parts of Kyushu, stepping off the train only to shed tears of joy at the sounds of Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All HereBeer Barrel Polka and the other welcoming numbers played by the band from the USS Wichita. After their first warm shower in years, the former POWs were given fresh clothing and, depending on their physical condition, either transferred to one of the warships for repatriation or admitted for treatment to a ward in the hospital ship. Further information and photographs related to the task force can be seen here.

Although their sole mission was the rescue of POWs, the medical staff did not ignore the atomic bomb victims. A few of the USS Haven officers traveled out to the hypocenter and also paid a visit to a hospital (probably the relief station established in Shinkozen Primary School) where they witnessed the carnage caused by the bomb and gathered information about the late effects of radiation exposure. The report penned by Dr. Tom Harris, one of the American officers, can be accessed here

None of the sailors belonging to the task force seem to have ventured far from Dejima Wharf or engaged in interactions with Japanese citizens. However, the Nagasaki Prefecture government issued a set of ten directives specifically to women and girls, evidence of the deep-seated fear that the Occupation forces would go on a rampage of rape and murder as soon as they stepped ashore. In fact, many women and girls had already fled to rural areas. The directives were as follows:

1)  Be conscious of your pride as Japanese women and under no circumstances be off guard in the presence of foreign military personnel.
2)  Always wear mompé (baggy cotton trousers) and do not go outdoors in a summer dress or underwear.
3)  Do not go out at night or walk alone on mountain paths or in parks or shadowy places.
4)  Never go about naked or half-naked indoors, let alone outdoors.
5)  Always bathe in a shielded place.
6)  Do not show your bare legs on the veranda or at windowsills.
7)  Do not breast-feed your baby on the train or in other public places.
8)  Women should not respond when approached with [the English words]  “hello” or “hey” or in broken Japanese.
9)  Let men give directions on the street.
10)  Avoid being alone at home whenever possible.
(From the Sixty-Five Year History of Nagasaki City [Nagasaki, 1959] p.966. Translated from Japanese by the author)
The formal occupation of Nagasaki began on Sunday, September 23, 1945 with the arrival of more than 20 warships carrying the 2nd Marine Division of the Sixth Army, stationed to date in Saipan. Hundreds of soldiers poured out of the transports and took formation on the waterfront. The people of Nagasaki watched with a sense of relief and resignation as the troops marched in good order through the city. Courtesy prevailed, despite the lingering grudges of war and the apprehensions felt by a defeated country and a devastated city. 

Mission accomplished, the USS Haven steamed out of Nagasaki Harbor two days later and headed to Okinawa.

(Copyrights reserved by the author) 

02 May 2020

William Napier Bickham

William Napier Bickham was born in England about 1834, the son of a calico printer in the textile production hub of Manchester. After a visit to Australia where he had a cousin, Bickham secured a position in the Hong Kong firm Johnson & Co and traveled to China by steamer, arriving in Shanghai in April 1860. He served as a clerk and silk inspector in Shanghai and made frequent excursions into the interior to purchase raw silk for export to England. In addition to numerous letters, he penned extensive records of his travels that are preserved today at the National Library of Australia.
William Napier Bickham (1834-1862)
In September 1862, suffering from the lingering heat of summer and a bout of dysentery, Bickham decided to travel to Nagasaki to recuperate. He reported the journey in a letter to his mother dated September 26th, using the first pages to relay news about the so-called Namamugi Incident, i.e. the attack by samurai retainers on a British riding party near Yokohama on the 14th of the same month. All of the four Britons involved in the attack (three men and one woman) were acquaintances of Bickham. In fact the one person killed, Charles L. Richardson, was a fellow silk buyer and former Johnson & Co. colleague in Shanghai. Bickham goes on to describe Nagasaki, which he reached the previous day: 

Nagasaki is located in a nearly landlocked little harbour very pretty all around and a perfect contrast to the mudflat Shanghai. It is indeed a lovely spot and I shall enjoy my 10 days or so. Amazingly, I had a salt swim this morning and enjoyed it above a little. I have established myself in the house of an old Shanghai friend, so that costs nothing and I am so jolly. Diarrhea etc. clean gone*.

Ōura Creek facing east circa 1865. The foreign cemetery
is visible at the foot of the hill in the distance (center).
The “old Shanghai friend” was Edward Harrison, a former employee of the Shanghai firm Blain, Tate & Co. Harrison had established a branch office in Nagasaki and later joined Thomas Glover in Glover & Co. The reclamation of land for the Nagasaki Foreign Settlement had reached completion in April. Euro-American residents were now ensconced within the borders of their exclusive quarter, and the English Episcopal Church, the first Protestant church in Japan, was nearing completion on the Higashiyamate hillside when Bickham’s ship sailed into Nagasaki Harbor.

In the above letter to his mother, Bickham describes the Japanese residents of Nagasaki, calling them “a most remarkable race very like the Chinese in some things and totally different in others, both men and women.” He seems to have taken a special interest in the latter:

I can’t admire the black teeth of the women yet though perhaps it is want of taste on my part. The features of the people are generally distinct from those of the Chinese and yet like them all have black hair and eyes. They are quite European in feature and body, all but the color which is the same as the Chinese, a light brown, though some of the women are as fair as an English girl… The women don’t cramp their feet or wear breeches but have a petticoat or garment that wraps so closely round their legs that they can only take very short steps, and they seem rather proud or at all events not [at] all ashamed of showing the charms of their persons down to their waists, which the Chinese always keep covered. 

Bickham seems in high spirits, excited about his planned 10-day holiday in Japan, and he ends his letter with a promise to write his mother again soon. However, the “blue death” of cholera, which had taken Nagasaki by storm earlier that year, was calling at his door. 
            
Until 1859 when the Ansei Five-Power Treaties came into effect, Nagasaki was the only port in Japan officially open to foreign trade. In that capacity it served as a gateway, not only for merchandise and information, but also for pathogens unknown to date in the country. Called mikka korori (drop dead in three days) in Japanese, cholera first reached Nagasaki in 1822, probably on a Dutch ship sailing from Batavia (Jakarta). It returned in 1858 when the U.S.S. Mississippi visited Nagasaki and American sailors suffering from the disease came ashore. The bacteria quickly spread throughout Nagasaki via tainted water and swept eastward across the Japanese archipelago causing thousands of deaths. Cholera outbreaks occurred again the following year and in 1861, but the epidemic of 1862 proved to be the most fatal of all those recorded in the Edo Period.
            
Already weakened by his previous attack of dysentery, William Napier Bickham contacted cholera under unknown circumstances and died on October 3, 1862, only six days after arriving in Nagasaki. He was 28 years old. The Nagasaki British Consulate Death Register identifies the place of death as the “Blain Tate House,” no doubt the Edward Harrison residence at No. 8 Higashiyamate. Harrison, who reported the death, arranged for the burial of Bickham’s remains in the foreign cemetery at the head of Ōura Creek and the installment of a large gravestone. 

In 1883, a friend of the Bickham family named Lucilla Sharp visited the cemetery with her husband and found the gravestone intact and the area meticulously managed. She reported the visit in a letter to Bickham's mother in England and enclosed wildflowers growing near the gravestone. Writes Sharp:

A sweeter little bijou of a place than the cemetery at Nagasaki I never saw. It is on the side of a hill and is laid out in terraces. Lovely flowers and shrubs and over-hanging trees abound and it is kept in the most fastidiously neat order… The day was lovely, the sun shining brilliantly, the birds warbling, and large bright-hued butterflies were fluttering in all directions… A little weeping willow that was planted on the next grave peacefully droops its pendant boughs on your boy's marble, and all around grow many of our sweetest English wildflowers... I could but think that if you had been in my place you would have been more than thankful to see your dear son’s final resting place so carefully tended and in so sweet a spot.  
  
Sketch of the gravestone by Bickham's nephew, 
William Hitchcock-Spencer

The former Blain Tate House at No. 8 Higashiyamate where William Napier Bickham died was later purchased by the British government and used as a consular residence. Acquired by the Reformed Church in America in 1886, the building was eventually torn down and the lot incorporated into the campus of present-day Kaisei High School. 

Ōura International Cemetery was used by the foreign community of Nagasaki until 1888, when a new foreign cemetery was established in the Urakami district north of Nagasaki (present-day Sakamoto International Cemetery). William Napier Bickham's gravestone stands intact on the upper level of the cemetery, its inscription obscured by lichens and eroded by decades of wind and rain.


 (Above left) Bickham's gravestone is intact but badly eroded. (Above right) The view of the gravestone from behind, with the houses of Hinode-machi climbing the hillside in the background. (Below) The cemetery is maintained by Nagasaki City, but many of the gravestones are in a serious state of decay.  

* I thank James Buchanan for kindly sharing the photograph of William Napier Bickham and the sketch of the gravestone, as well as the letters quoted in this article. 


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 railway station and demanded payment. She claimed later that she was assaulted and forced to leave her luggage in the railway 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 Former Alt House: Biography of a Nagasaki Landmark scheduled for publication from Flying Crane Press) 

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.