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2023.12 A Legacy of Multiculturalism in Nagasaki Prefecture Explore a Unique Chapter of Japan’s History in Northwestern Kyushu

With its eclectic architecture, vibrant Chinatown and unique culture, Nagasaki is one of southwest Japan’s most exciting destinations. The city was the primary connection between Japan and the outside world for almost two hundred years during a time of strict isolationist policies. Due to limited interaction with foreign countries, the resulting deep connections with the Netherlands, Korea and China have given Nagasaki a sense of multiculturalism rare in Japan, and it has played a particularly interesting role in the story of Japanese Christianity and the dedication of the area’s “hidden Christians.”

Learn about Nagasaki’s international history and art

The Nagasaki of today retains a distinct international flavor that can be traced back nearly four hundred years. Nagasaki’s port served as a vital bridge between Japan and the outside world during the country’s two centuries of seclusion, when the Tokugawa shogunate kept tight controls on all foreign interaction. Nagasaki was open to Chinese and Dutch traders for that period, making it one of the few places in Japan where international culture gained a foothold. 

The city’s many Western-style buildings and Chinatown  district are perhaps the most famous vestiges of international influence, but it permeated the city’s art and literature, as well, and the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture records the impact of those elements. 

Its exhibits range from folding screens painted with scenes showing the earliest arrival of European ships dating back to the late 16th century to collections of works by painters and writers of the Chinese quarters. There is a particular emphasis on Dutch materials, as the semi-permanent settlement on the port’s artificial island of Dejima was an important route for European medicine and cultural exchange.

One fascinating result of the city’s multiculturalism was the development of a unique “Nagasaki School” of art incorporating Japanese, European and Chinese influences. Today, the museum’s collection includes works showcasing interesting pieces of Nagasaki traditional handicrafts like inlaid mother-of-pearl art, tortoiseshell crafts and embroidery.

Explore Nagasaki’s history of global ties at the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture.
Photo Credit: Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture


Nagasaki’s international flair also resonates in the collection at The Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum. The core of the museum’s permanent exhibit is the Suma Collection, which is one of the largest collections of Spanish art in the Orient and one of the few collections of its kind outside Spain itself. These pieces were donated by Yakichiro Suma (1892–1970) and his family after his death, and now number around 500 works. The museum also has a focus on Nagasaki-native artists across a variety of media, making for a diverse and fascinating collection. 

Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum showcases a diverse array of art.
Photo Credit: Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum

Discovering a rich cultural legacy at the Oura Church Christian Museum

Oura Church is both an active place of worship and a museum. The Former Late Rite Seminary and the Former Nagasaki Archbishop’s Residence houses the Oura Church Christian Museum, with exhibits on the history of Christianity in Japan and the vital role Nagasaki played in it. 

Any visit to Nagasaki, especially as part of a wider trip through Japan, will showcase the strong Christian influence in this city compared to the rest of the country. The city’s role as a connection to international culture early on in Japan’s history meant it was also a center for Christian outreach. 

The religion first arrived here in 1549 with Jesuit missionary Francisco Xavier, who managed to convert many Japanese, including local “daimyo,” or feudal lords. His success was so great, in fact, that the Tokugawa shogunate reacted by banning Christianity around 1612. From that point, Japanese Christians were forced to worship in secret, using a variety of methods to conceal their faith. These so-called hidden Christians – or “kakure kirishitan” in Japanese – developed a unique style of worship that was only recognized officially in 1865, after a group who came to visit the newly built Oura Church revealed their preserved Christian faith. 

Oura Church has been named a National Treasure of Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its historical importance. 

Oura Church represents a storied history of Christianity in Japan.
Photo credit: ©NPTA

Fukue Island and Japan’s last castle 

After taking in the sights, flavors and history of Nagasaki City, it is well worth expanding your itinerary to explore the surrounding area. 

One recommended excursion is to the outlying Goto Islands, particularly the main island of Fukue. Alongside picture-perfect beaches, these islands are also a surviving bastion of Nagasaki’s hidden Christians, with several historical churches still in use there. Dozaki Church, for example, dates back to 1868.

Fukue is an old castle town with a notable claim to fame: its castle by the sea, Fukue Castle, was the last ever constructed in Japan. The year after its completion, Japan’s feudal government was dismantled by the Meiji government and ended with the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Today, the castle is home to the local high school, although much of the remaining area is open to the public. 

With clear blue water and white sand, Fukue Island’s beaches are definitely worth visiting.


The legacy of hidden Christians on Hirado Island

Hirado Island is another historical Nagasaki spot with deep ties to the region’s hidden Christians. It was an early trading center for Dutch, British and Portuguese traders before restrictions moved all international commerce to Nagasaki City. However, its location also made it an ideal base for monitoring the local seas for unsanctioned international traders. 

Hirado Castle was built overlooking the sea for just that reason, and although the main keep was dismantled in 1871, the current reconstruction stands in the original location.

Reconstructed Hirado Castle still overlooks the sea.


This area was also home to a community of hidden Christians, and their history is preserved in the Hirado Kirishitan Museum and the Ikitsuki Island Museum Shima no Yakata. Ikitsuki Island lies just to the northwest of Hirado Island proper but is connected by bridge. 

During the Sengoku era (1467–1615), Christianity thrived on Ikitsuki Island, and following the ban on Christianity during the Edo era (1603–1868) the unique practices of the hidden Christians flourished there. Hirado City’s Ikitsuki Island Museum, known as “Shima no Yakata,” displays records and artifacts telling their story, and also has a variety of exhibits and materials about other local cultures, such as the Edo era fishing industry and the island’s unique agricultural practices.

Ikitsuki Island Museum Shima no Yakata has a diverse collection of artifacts, fishing tools and historical exhibitions.
Photo credit: ©NPTA

The beauty and drama of nature on the Shimabara Peninsula

In closing, the perfect way to cap off any trip to Nagasaki is a visit to the Shimabara Peninsula, part of the Unzen Amakusa National Park. This peninsula was formed by a volcano, Mt. Unzen, which is still active – and still powers the many local hot springs. 

Steam rising from the many hot springs around Unzen reflect the town’s lights at night.
Photo credit: ©NPTA


Much of the surrounding national park landscape is still wilderness. This location makes for wonderful hiking, particularly during peak cherry blossom or autumn foliage seasons, when the forested mountain slopes explode into color.

Many hot spring inns are gathered in Unzen, a town near the volcano’s peak, where clouds of steam rise from vents around town emitting subterranean heat. You can spend the day taking in the dramatic volcanic landscape, known as “Unzen Jigoku” – hot spring “hells” – before fishing the day with a relaxing soak in a natural hot spring bath at one of the town’s many inns and hotels.

Unzen Jigoku “hells” create a dramatic landscape.
Photo credit: ©NPTA




Nagasaki Museum of History & Culture


Nagasaki Oura Church – Christian Museum


Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum


Goto Tourism and Historical Materials Museum


Unzen Amakusa National Park



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