045. A Tale of Two Cathedrals

Nagasaki feels like Wellington.  Green hills rising sharply out of valleys, set around a superb harbour.  It has a grittier feel that the other Japanese cities I have been in: rustier if you will, but also bustling and hustling.

LittleDavyOne, no surprise, found a fabulous shopping arcade with a second-hand designer dresses boutique.

Nagasaki shopping arcade


The southern part of Kyusuhu is a cosmopolitan region, for centuries a trading centre with the surrounding islands and Korea and China. An entry point for other cultures and foods and religions, including the Portuguese who arrived in 1543, and the Jesuit Francis Xavier in nearby Kagoshima in 1549.

The local daimyo Omura Sumitada authorised the construction of a port for the Portuguese in Nagasaki in 1569, which was economically successful but politically difficult.  This was the period when Toyotomi Hideyoshi was bending the daimyo to his will, unifying Japan under a centralised government, and he understood the peril of foreign influence, as well as its profit. In 1596 Catholicism was suppressed, and on 5 February 1597 twenty-six Christians (20 Japanese and six foreigners) were crucified in Nagasaki pour encourager les autres.

When Japan began re-opening to the world in the 1860s, and Christianity was legalised, the French priest Father Bernard Petitjean arrived in Nagasaki and built the charming Oura Cathedral on a small hill overlooking the harbour in 1863-4. It’s quite small and quite plain, and in 1933 it was the first Western-style building to be accorded the status of National Treasure.

Oura Church, Nagasaki

In 1865 Fr Petitjean was approached by a small group of Japanese who asked him to open the church. An old woman said to him “We have the same feeling in our hearts as you do.  Where is the statue of Mary?”

These were the Kakure Kirishitans from Urakami, who had practised their faith in secret for 250 years.

Urakami is, was, a small village about 3 kms up the valley from the harbour.  In Wellington terms, think Newtown in relation to the Beehive.

The Urakami Christians started building their own neo-Romanesque church there in 1895, also on a small hill. It was completed in 1925.

It was destroyed at 11.02am on 9 August 1945.

The hypocentre of the second atomic bomb is about 500 metres away.

Nagasaki was not the primary target that day.  But Kokura, at the north end of Kyushu, was covered in cloud and smoke, so the B-29 Bockscar flew on to the secondary target, Nagasaki.

Through a gap in the cloud the bombardier recognised the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms plant, and released the plutonium bomb which exploded with a force of 21 kilotons at an altitude of 1500 feet.

The only smallest consolation – none at all, really – was that the hypocentre was therefore in one of the valleys rather than the centre of the city.

No consolation at all to the 75,000 killed and 80,000 injured.

A Mass to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary was held on the site of the destroyed cathedral on 15 August 1945.

The Urakami cathedral was rebuilt in 1959.

Urakami Cathedral, Nagasaki

The church’s statue of Agnes, which survived the bombing, now stands at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.


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