14 April 2022

The Marseille-Nagasaki Route

Soon after the opening of Japan’s ports to foreign trade in 1859, P&O, Pacific Mail and other foreign shipping companies started regular services from Hong Kong and Shanghai to the ports of Japan. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the number of foreign merchantmen and warships visiting Japan increased dramatically, making Nagasaki their first port-of-call and drawing the city into the network of maritime transportation stretching to the ends of the Earth.


By the late nineteenth century, Nagasaki was reaping the benefits, not only of commercial shipping, but also of a new trend in international travel: tourism. The ports of East Asia, once hidden behind a curtain of mystery and danger, were now easily accessible to foreign travelers following in the footsteps of Pierre Loti and other writers who had stirred the collective consciousness with tales of adventure and discovery in exotic lands outre-mer.


One of the regular services was operated by the French company Compagnie Des Messageries Maritimes. Founded in Marseille in 1851, the company started as a government-supported organization but went private in 1871, going on to become France’s major carrier of passengers, cargo and mail over a vast web of shipping lines extending from the Mediterranean Sea to Africa, India and East Asia. 


In 1876, the Compagnie Des Messageries Maritimes appointed a Norwegian merchant named H.M. Fleischer to serve as their agent in Nagasaki. Fleischer opened an office in the Western-style building at No. 3 Umegasaki in the Nagasaki Foreign Settlement. In addition to the French shipping company, Fleischer served as agent for the Bell Telephone Co. and conducted one of Japan’s first telephone experiments in Nagasaki in May 1878.


After Fleischer’s death in 1882, the Nagasaki agency transferred to Holme, Ringer & Co. run by prominent British merchant Frederick Ringer. From that year onward, Holme, Ringer & Co. handled all the related business, everything from the sale of steamship tickets and arrangements for the loading of cargo, to laundry, tourist information and the supply of coal, food and fresh water. Compagnie Des Messageries Maritimes announcements appeared regularly on the pages of Nagasaki newspapers, and the distinctive company flag, with the letters MM on a white background and red corners, became a familiar sight in Nagasaki Harbor.


Advertisement from The Nagasaki Press


The voyage from Marseille to Yokohama took about six weeks. The steamships crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Port Said (the Egyptian city at the northern end of the Suez Canal), traveled south to Djibouti in French Somaliland and traversed the Arabian Sea to Colombo, Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). The voyage continued across the Indian Ocean to Singapore, then north to Saigon (present-day Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam), the eastern hub of the Compagnie Des Messageries Maritimes and the major port in French Indochina. The final stopovers were Hong Kong, Shanghai, Nagasaki, Kobe and the terminus at Yokohama. 


Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes routes 
from Marseille to the ports of Japan

















In response to the popularity of the Marseille-Yokohama line and all the romantic connotations it garnered, the Compagnie Des Messageries Maritimes published a series of postcards depicting scenes from the various ports-of-call. The artist engaged to paint the illustrations was Charles Millot, a French naval officer who, aside from the Croix de Guerre and other decorations for outstanding military service, had won recognition for his prodigious artistic talent and the human touch of his watercolors depicting life in the navy. After retiring from active service in 1919, Millot had taken up the position of Official Painter of the French Navy, using the pseudonym Henri Gervese.


Entitled Croquis d’Escale or “Sketches of a Stopover,” Gervese’s postcards brim with the same warmth of his earlier work, portraying comical but realistic scenes from the exotic ports-of-call on the Marseille-Yokohama line. The motifs include a camel ride in Egypt, a native merchant selling trinkets on the deck of a steamship in Colombo, a Sikh policeman directing traffic in Singapore, a dragon dance in Saigon, Chinese women wearing fashionable clothing in Shanghai and sumo wrestlers in Yokohama, all conveyed with Gervese’s distinctive colors, fluid lines and attention to detail. One of the two postcards entitled “Nagasaki” shows a humorous episode in the vestibule of a Japanese restaurant, the other a crowded theater with old-fashioned box seats. The vivid content and authentic dress of the Japanese characters suggests that Gervese based the illustrations on personal experiences from his travels as a naval officer. The only stopover on the Marseille-Yokohama line not given a postcard was Kobe. The following are a few examples of Gervese's illustrations in the Croquis d’Escale series, the last two depicting scenes in Nagasaki.










The war between Japan and China in the 1930s caused a sharp drop in the number of foreign passenger ships visiting Nagasaki, including the venerable steamships of the Compagnie Des Messageries Maritimes, and after World War II airplanes replaced steamships as the principal means of international travel. Regular ocean services are now mostly a thing of the past, but Henri Gervese’s illustrations continue to evoke the romance of leisurely travel at sea and the excitement of cultural discovery in faraway lands.

07 May 2021

The Untold Tale of the Ringer Family and Sutherland Lodge


Founded in Nagasaki in 1868 by British merchants Edward Z. Holme and Frederick Ringer, Holme, Ringer & Co. was the foremost foreign enterprise in western Japan, involved over the decades in everything from the import and export trade to Lloyds’ agency, newspaper publishing, petroleum storage and hotel operation. After the death of Frederick Ringer in 1907, the entrepreneur’s two sons Freddy and Sydney succeeded the family business and took over their father’s role as a leader in the foreign community of Nagasaki and bridge into Japanese society. 

From around the 1920s, it became the custom of the two brothers to take turns running the business and taking leisurely furloughs in England. Freddy’s wife Alcidie joked that the company name should be changed to "Home Ringer" because one of the brothers was always back home. While in England, Sydney and his wife Aileen and two sons Michael and Vanya rented Sutherland Lodge, a country manor on the edge of the North York Moors. Constructed of Yorkshire sandstone with a Welsh slate roof, the grand Victorian house boasted nine bedrooms, a crenellated watchtower and several outbuildings including a coach house, storage rooms and servants’ quarters, all set in seven acres of pristine pasture and woodland. 

An early photograph of Sutherland Lodge

Although the Ringer women may have thought differently, this pastoral location was ideal for Sydney and his many guests because it allowed them to indulge freely in their favorite pastime, namely bird hunting. Family photographs capture Sydney and his sons relaxing with friends at the gothic door of Sutherland Lodge, apparently prepared for hunting excursions to the woods nearby. Other photographs show the young brothers sitting on the stone steps on the slope in front of the building. Both the stairs and the door remain intact to this day, whispering forgotten tales of the Ringer family sojourn. 

With friends at the door of Sutherland Lodge (from right: Vanya, Michael and Sydney Ringer)

Vanya (left) and Michael on the steps in front of Sutherland Lodge 

In 1936, Sydney and Aileen Ringer and their two sons, now 21 and 19 years old, respectively, made their last trip to England to holiday at Sutherland Lodge, traveling east across the Pacific Ocean on a Canadian Pacific Railway Co. steamer, traversing the vast expanses of Canada on the CPR transcontinental route from Vancouver to Montreal, and boarding another steamer for the trans-Atlantic voyage to Liverpool. 

During the stay at Sutherland Lodge, Vanya met and fell in love with Prunella Frank, the daughter of a prominent family in Pickering, only a few miles from the Ringer family retreat. By accepting Vanya’s marriage proposal, Prunella swam bravely against the current, agreeing to come to Japan at a time when the drums of war were pounding loudly and the employees of foreign companies, businesses and consulates were busy buying tickets to sail in the opposite direction. 

The wedding ceremony was convened at the Nagasaki British Consulate in January 1937 and followed by a celebration in the family house attended by dozens of foreign and Japanese guests. Photographs taken at the time show the newlyweds posing beside a Christmas tree left intact for the occasion and friends mingling with glasses in hand near tables strewn with wedding gifts. This Ringer wedding reception was to be the last of the grand parties held on the Minamiyamate hillside since the early years of the Nagasaki Foreign Settlement. 

Vanya and Prunella Ringer, Nagasaki 1937

The foreign population of Nagasaki dwindled after the outbreak of war between Japan and China in July 1937. The rosters in the Chronicle and Directory reveal the exodus of Westerners in the last years of the decade: many foreign businesses are listed as closed, and the Euro-American community, once numbering several hundred, is comprised of a tiny band of American and French missionaries and a few brave employees of companies such as the Standard-Vacuum Oil Co. and Great Northern Telegraph Co. In late 1939, only three foreigners remained in the employ of Holme, Ringer & Co.: Sydney Ringer and his two sons. 

By early 1940, Holme, Ringer & Co. and other foreign enterprises were facing pressure to close down and leave Japan. On July 27, Vanya Ringer was taken into custody by the Japanese military police as he set out to visit the Empress of Russia, which had called at Nagasaki on its regular voyage from Hong Kong to Vancouver. Michael Ringer was detained in Shimonoseki the same day, as were several other British businessmen accused of participating in a spy ring. The Nagasaki District Court did not bring Vanya to trial until September 17, nearly two months after his arrest. The judge hearing the case imposed a fine of 150 yen and eighteen months of penal servitude, with a five-year stay of execution, on the grounds that Vanya had asked someone about the name of a ship anchored in Nagasaki Harbor and thus violated the New Military Secrets Protection Law. The court also found him guilty of illegally storing 1,500 shotgun shells in one of the company warehouses. The confiscation of the shells brought an abrupt and ironic end to the sport of bird hunting pursued so avidly by Frederick Ringer and his descendants since the early years of the foreign settlement. In Shimonoseki, Michael Ringer was found guilty of similar charges and sentenced to 14 months of penal servitude and a fine of 120 yen. The charges were tantamount to an order to quit Japan. 

The Ringer family in front of their private residence in Shimonoseki circa spring 1940  (from left: Sydney, Aileen, Vanya, Elizabeth, Prunella and Michael)

Vanya was now the father of a three-year-old daughter named Elizabeth Sutherland Ringer, the middle name gleaned from Sutherland Lodge where Vanya and Prunella had met and fallen in love. The family assembled in the house at No. 2 Minamiyamate to discuss their alternatives. This was to be the last, and the saddest, gathering of the Ringer family in Japan. On September 29, 1940, two days after Germany, Italy and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact and formalized the Axis Powers, the Ringer brothers left Nagasaki for China and traveled to India to undergo training as cadets in the British Indian Army, Michael as an intelligence officer and Vanya as a lieutenant in the elite Punjab Regiment. Prunella and Elizabeth accompanied Vanya and stayed with him at camps in India, Burma and Malaya until he was called to duty.

Vanya bid farewell to his wife and daughter in Singapore in late 1941 and went off to join his regiment. Prunella, pregnant with her second child, and Elizabeth boarded a steamship from Singapore before the outbreak of war and made the long voyage back to England via Australia, the Panama Canal, and the troubled waters of the Atlantic Ocean. 

The now 25-year-old Vanya Ringer — born and brought up in Japan, regaled by Japanese servants, employees and friends, and poised to assume control of one of Japan’s best established foreign enterprises — took up arms and prepared to assist in unleashing a barrage of gunfire at Japanese soldiers storming southward toward Singapore. After the outbreak of war on December 8, 1941, the British forces struggled to maintain positions and defend towns against the invading Japanese armies. They engaged Japanese divisions at the Battle of River Slim in January 1942 and suffered terrible casualties, finally retreating into the jungle to regroup. Vanya Ringer died of fever two weeks later. 

Prunella Ringer did not receive official notification of her husband’s death until after the war’s end. 

(The above is an abridged excerpt from the author’s book Holme, Ringer & Co.: The Rise and Fall of a British Enterprise in Japan, Brill {Global Oriental Imprint}, 2013.)

The former Ringer House in Nagasaki

Sutherland Lodge, currently up for sale.

Today, the former Ringer house at No. 2 Minamiyamate — a quasi-Western-style building of stone construction erected around 1868 — is preserved on-site in Nagasaki’s Glover Garden as a nationally designated Important Cultural Property. Sutherland Lodge, uninhabited for several years, is currently on the real estate market. Photographs of the property can be seen at: https://www.rightmove.co.uk/properties/61209950#/ 

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.