On February 17, 1904, a production opened at Milan’s La Scala that its composer thought would seal his reputation as one of opera’s greatest masters. He needed the career boost. The response to La Bohème had been mixed, and critics had a field day ravaging Tosca. But it was a confident Giacomo Puccini who went to the citadel of opera. And it was at La Scala that Puccini suffered the humiliation of having his masterpiece derisively booed by the audience. What would become one of the world’s most popular operas, Madam Butterfly, had got off to a really bad start.
Puccini’s classic is set in the city of Nagasaki in western Japan. And when he created his opera about feckless Pinkerton and faithful Madam Butterfly, Japan was very much in vogue. With the emerging of the country from a long period of national seclusion from 1639 to 1854, the West was fascinated by its exotic culture and customs. In the phenomenon known as japonisme, Japan’s arts had enormous influence on the painting and literature of Europe and America.
Some Westerners, though, were intrigued not so much by Japan’s culture as by the prospects of making money there. In 1859, a 21-year-old Scot named Thomas Blake Glover arrived in Nagasaki from Shanghai. Five years earlier, Japan had bowed under American pressure to open up to international trade, with Nagasaki being one of three ports where trade could be conducted. Glover was successful, and the entrepreneur settled in Nagasaki, building himself a bungalow, now known as Glover House, that is the oldest Western-style wooden building in Japan and one of Nagasaki’s top tourist attractions.
Though traders and merchants from many countries were attracted to Japan after its 1854 opening, during the previous two centuries the only non-Asians seen by Japanese were Dutch. Originally the Dutch carried out their trade from Hirado, in northwestern Nagasaki Prefecture, but after 1641 their trading post was transferred to Dejima. Following this move, the Dutch were confined to Dejima, and the 1.5-hectare, fan-shaped island connected to the mainland by a bridge, was mostly all they ever saw of Japan.
Though the original Dejima disappeared, owing to its historical importance the island is being restored. Dejima today is rather effective in showing how the Dutch coped with life on this cramped island. A reproduction of a room used by a clerk shows how the Dutchman gamely tried to make the best of things, with his Western furniture standing awkwardly on the tatami matting. Recreation for the Dejima Dutchmen seems to have been confined to the billiard table and, since they were obliged to go without their wives, the ladies of Nagasaki sent over to provide entertainment.
The Dutch were not, however, the only foreign traders in Nagasaki. Also engaged in commerce were the Chinese, and this trade was far more economically important. Nagasaki in the seventeenth century had around 10,000 Chinese residents. Like the Dutch, the Chinese had to live in their own settlement, though the Chinese were markedly freer in their movements around the city.
A Chinese temple, Sofukuji, is one of the more distinctive sights in Nagasaki today, its non-Japanese character immediately evident in the ornate roofs and bold-red gatehouse. Founded in 1629, this temple has in its Buddha Hall Nagasaki’s oldest building, erected in 1646 after being brought over from China. The Chinese origins of Sofukuji are clearly seen in the liberal use of gold calligraphy, red silk, decorous wooden lanterns and dragon motifs supporting the beams.
Within Nagasaki, the part of Chinese culture that is perhaps most popularly enjoyed is found in the city’s Chinatown. Along with Yokohama and Kobe, Nagasaki is one of three Japanese cities to possess a Chinatown, and Nagasaki’s is a colorful compact area of restaurants and shops selling Chinese clothes, souvenirs and knick-knacks, all to the background sound of the lovely, lilting erhu.
Prominent among the dishes served in Chinatown is that for which Nagasaki is best known. Around a hundred years ago, a Chinese resident created a noodle dish that came to be known as champon, which he served in his restaurant, Shikairo. Being inexpensive, yet tasty and filling, the dish soon became very popular. Different eateries vary the ingredients, but Shikairo includes pork, squid, prawns, cabbage, bean sprouts and hampen fish-paste cake in its champon. Though this odd range of ingredients sounds like something that a seven-year-old might knock together in the kitchen, the dish works surprisingly well.
Toothsome though Nagasaki’s famed dish may be, it is not of course for its food that this city has become one of the most familiar place names to non-Japanese. On August 9, 1945, a B-29 released the plutonium bomb nicknamed “Fat Man” in the northern section of Nagasaki, instantly devastating huge sections of the city. A visit to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum is a sobering experience, conveying only too clearly the horrific manner in which the blast within a few seconds obliterated over a quarter of the city’s population.
Located near the Atomic Bomb Museum is the Peace Park, which was created after the Second World War. The most prominent feature within the park is the 9.7-meter-tall Peace Statue, completed in 1955 using donations received from all over the world. This statue depicts a man whose right hand is raised to the sky, symbolizing the terrible threat of nuclear weapons, while the left is stretched out flat in a symbol of peace.
Though that harrowing blast left vast areas of the city a wasteland, and it must then have seemed that the city would never be able to recover, Nagasaki has of course built itself up from the ashes. The city today is a lively, charming place of around half a million people, and with its many hills running down to the long harbor, it is rather an attractive spot.
Back in 1889, when Japan was still a novel country, the British landscape painter Sir Alfred East, wrote upon his arrival, “As the passage into the harbour widened we had our first glimpse of Nagasaki town in the haze of the morning, nestled in a most beautiful inlet at the foot of wooded hills.” Nagasaki may have lost the quaint appeal it had when East visited. Yet it has managed to remain one of those places that rarely disappoint the visitor who does get to see it.
Tom Midwinter is a freelance writer and editor living in Tokyo.