Nagasaki lies at the head of a long bay which forms the best natural harbor on the island of Kyūshū. The main commercial and residential area of the city lies on a small plain near the end of the bay. Two rivers divided by a mountain spur form the two main valleys in which the city lies. The heavily built-up area of the city is confined by the terrain to less than 4 square miles.
Founded before 1500, Nagasaki was originally secluded by harbors. It enjoyed little historical significance until contact with European explorers in 1542, when a Portuguese ship landed nearby, somewhere in Kagoshima prefecture. The Spanish Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier arrived in another part of the territory in 1549, but left for China in 1551 and died soon afterwards. His followers who remained behind converted a number of daimyo (feudal lords). The most notable among them was Omura Sumitada, who derived great profit from his conversion through an accompanying deal to receive a portion of the trade from Portuguese ships at a port they established in Nagasaki in 1571 with his assistance.
The little harbor village quickly grew into a diverse port city, and Portuguese products imported through Nagasaki (such as tobacco, bread, textiles and a Portuguese sponge-cake called castellas) were assimilated into popular Japanese culture. Tempura, while not Portuguese in origin, takes its name from the Portuguese word, 'Tempero,' another example of the enduring effects of this cultural exchange. The Portuguese also brought with them many goods from China.
Due to the instability during the Warring States period, Sumitada and Jesuit leader Alexandro Valignano conceived a plan to pass administrative control over to the Society of Jesus rather than see the Catholic city taken over by a non-Catholic daimyo. Thus, for a brief period after 1580, the city of Nagasaki was a Jesuit colony, under their administrative and military control. It became a refuge for Christians escaping maltreatment in other regions of Japan. In 1587, however, Toyotomi Hideyoshi's campaign to unify the country arrived in Kyūshū. Concerned with the large Christian influence in southern Japan, as well as the active and what was perceived as the arrogant role the Jesuits were playing in the Japanese political arena, Hideyoshi ordered the expulsion of all missionaries, and placed the city under his direct control. However, the expulsion order went largely unenforced, and the fact remained that most of Nagasaki's population remained openly practicing Catholics.
In 1596, the Spanish ship San Felipe was wrecked off the coast of Shikoku, and Hideyoshi learned from its pilot (so says the Jesuit account) that the Spanish Franciscans were the vanguard of an Iberian invasion of Japan. In response, Hideyoshi ordered the crucifixions of twenty-six Catholics in Nagasaki on February 5 of that year (the Twenty-six Martyrs of Japan). Portuguese traders were not ostracized, however, and so the city continued to thrive.
In 1602, Augustinian missionaries also arrived in Japan, and when Tokugawa Ieyasu took power in 1603, Catholicism was still grudgingly tolerated. Many Catholic daimyo had been critical allies at the Battle of Sekigahara, and the Tokugawa position was not strong enough to move against them. Once Osaka Castle had been taken and Toyotomi Hideyoshi's offspring killed, though, the Tokugawa dominance was assured. In addition, the Dutch and English presence allowed trade without religious strings attached. Thus, the hammer fell in 1614, with Catholicism officially banned and all missionaries ordered to leave. Most Catholic daimyo apostatized, and forced their subjects to do so, although a few would not renounce the religion and left the country as well. A brutal campaign of persecution followed, with thousands across Kyūshū and other parts of Japan killed, tortured, or forced to renounce their religion.
Catholicism's last gasp as an open religion, and the last major military action in Japan until the Meiji Restoration, was the Shimabara rebellion of 1637. While there is no evidence that Europeans directly incited the rebellion, Shimabara had been a Christian han for several decades, and the rebels adopted many Portuguese motifs and Christian icons. Consequently, in Tokugawa society the word "Shimabara" solidified the connection between Christianity and disloyalty, constantly used again and again in Tokugawa propaganda.
The Shimabara rebellion also convinced many policy-makers that foreign influences were more trouble than they were worth. The Portuguese, who had been previously living on a specially-constructed island-prison in Nagasaki harbor called Deshima, were expelled from the archipelago altogether, and the Dutch were moved from their base at Hirado into the trading island. In 1720 the ban on Dutch books was lifted, causing hundreds of scholars to flood into Nagasaki to study European science and art. Consequently, Nagasaki became a major center of rangaku, or "Dutch Learning". During the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate governed the city, appointing a hatamoto, the Nagasaki bugyō, as its chief administrator.
Consensus among historians was once that Nagasaki was Japan's only window on the world during its time as a closed country in the Tokugawa era. However, nowadays it is generally accepted that this was not the case, since Japan interacted and traded with the Ryukyus, Korea and Russia through Satsuma, Tsushima and the north of Honshū respectively. Nevertheless, Nagasaki was depicted in contemporary art and literature as a cosmopolitan port brimming with exotic curiosities from the Western World.
In 1808, the Royal Navy frigate HMS ''Phaeton entered Nagasaki Harbor in search of Dutch trading ships. The local magistrate was unable to resist the British demand for food, fuel, and water, later committing seppuku as a result. Laws were passed in the wake of this incident strengthening coastal defenses, threatening death to intruding foreigners, and prompting the training of English and Russian translators.
The Tōjinyashiki or Chinese Factory in Nagasaki was also an important conduit for Chinese goods and information for the Japanese market. Various colorful Chinese merchants and artists sailed between the Chinese mainland and Nagasaki. Some actually combined the roles of merchant and artist such as 18th century Yi Hai.
U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry landed in 1853. The Shogunate crumbled shortly afterward, and Japan opened its doors once again to foreign trade and diplomatic relations. Nagasaki became a free port in 1859 and modernization began in earnest in 1868.
With the Meiji Restoration, Nagasaki quickly began to assume some economic dominance. Its main industry was ship-building. This very industry would eventually make it a target in World War II, since many warships used by the Japanese Navy during the war were built in its factories and docks.
On August 9, 1945, Nagasaki was the target of the world's second atomic bomb attack at 11:02 a.m., when the north of the city was destroyed and an estimated 40,000 people were killed. According to statistics found within Nagasaki Peace Park, the death toll from the atomic bombing totalled 73,884, as well as another 74,909 injured, and another several hundred thousand diseased and dying due to fallout and other illness caused by radiation.
The city was rebuilt after the war, albeit dramatically changed. New temples were built, as well as new churches due to an increase in the presence of Christianity. Nagasaki is the seat of a Roman Catholic Archdiocese led by Archbishop Joseph Mitsuaki Takami. Some of the rubble was left as a memorial, such as a one-legged torii gate and an arch near ground zero. New structures were also raised as memorials, such as the Atomic Bomb Museum. Nagasaki remains first and foremost a port city, supporting a rich shipping industry and setting a strong example of perseverance and peace.
The Prince Takamatsu Cup Nishinippon Round-Kyūshū Ekiden, the world's longest relay race, begins in Nagasaki each November.
Kunchi, the most famous festival in Nagasaki, is held from 7-9 October.