Frank McNally on Jonathan Swift, Japanese Christians, and the bombing of Nagasaki
St Mary’s cathedral in Nagasaki was once the biggest Christian church in the Far East
It’s a fun fact, useful to know if you do table quizzes, that the only real country visited by the hero of Gulliver’s Travels is Japan.
That of course is distinct from the real places the book satirised under cover names, including the flying island of Laputa (which means something rude in Spanish but was clearly meant to represent Great Britain) and its victim city of Lindalino, which as Isaac Asimov deduced, was Swift’s own Dublin, as rebranded via a pun on “double lin”.
But apart from its being far away and exotic enough to be fictionalised, the main reason that Japan features in the novel is as a vehicle for an elaborate joke at the expense of another real country, the Netherlands, for what Swift (with his dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral hat on) saw as its blasphemous pursuit of foreign trade.
Nagasaki had been known as 'little Rome' for a period, before the religion was banned, under punishment of death, in 1614
At the time he was writing, the 1720s, Japan was closed to the outside world, except for the Dutch, who were allowed limited access.
It was also fiercely intolerant of Christianity and to flush anyone who might be practising that faith, had a test called e-fumi, which required suspects to trample on a religious icon, usually of the Virgin Mary or Jesus.
This was no obstacle to the Dutch profit motive – or at least that was Swift’s joke. In order to pass through Japan safely, the British Gulliver must pretend to be from Holland, a ruse exposed when he declines an invitation from the emperor to trample a crucifix. The astonished monarch duly excuses him but, having never seen such scruples from a Dutchman before, begins to doubt his cover story.
Three centuries on, Swift’s novel continues to enjoy great global fame.
Among the consequences he could hardly have imagined is that modern Japan was for a time home to a theme park inspired by his hero. Alas, this was not nearly as successful as the book.
Built in the 1990s and featuring as centrepiece a giant, prostrate Gulliver, tied down by the Lilliputians, it was one of the government-backed “bridge to nowhere” construction projects designed to lift the Japanese economy out of the slump that followed the 1989 credit crunch.
It may always have been destined to become a white elephant, but its misfortunes included being located near the headquarters of a doomsday cult – the one behind the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo – where they manufactured the noxious chemical.
The park opened in 1997 but closed in 2001 and has since been mostly demolished.
If Swift could not have imagined that, he would certainly struggle to comprehend the fate of another thinly disguised city that featured in his book. For when Gulliver is granted safe passage to the port of “Nangasac”, from which he hopes to get a ship home, this is clearly meant to be Nagasaki, to which the Dutch trade was then limited.
Nagasaki was also the home of Christianity in Japan, being close to where the Jesuit missionary St Francis Xavier landed in 1549. It had been known as “little Rome” for a period, before the religion was banned, under punishment of death, in 1614.
More than two centuries of persecution later, it was discovered that there were still thousands of Christians in Nagasaki who had been practising their faith in secret. Another mini-purge followed. But in 1873, the ban was finally lifted. And the part of the city where the Christians were most concentrated, Urakami, in time became the site of a huge Catholic cathedral, St Mary’s. Featuring twin spires 64 metres in height, it was the biggest Christian church in the Far East.
As in the religious building boom that followed Catholic Emancipation in Ireland, many smaller churches also sprang up in Nagasaki prefecture and beyond from the 1870s onwards. Only last year, a number of surviving examples were formally added to the list of Unesco world heritage sites.
But the cathedral at Urakami was the focal point of a 12,000-strong community that made Nagasaki the Christian capital of Japan before the second World War. Unfortunately, it was also the focal point, or very close to it, of the atomic bomb dropped on the city on August 9th, 1945.
Japanese Christians thereby became disproportionately represented in the death toll. Some 6,000 St Mary’s parishioners died instantly and another 2,500 later. What Swift might have said about this, we can only wonder.
But one US commentator has summed up the bitterest of ironies thus: “What the Japanese Imperial government could not do in 250 years of persecution […] American Christians did in mere seconds.”