Friday, January 13, 2012

"Turkish rice" or "Why we should care about Nagasaki"

When I told friends that I was moving to Nagasaki back in 2007, some wondered aloud if I would be exposing myself to nuclear radiation from the atomic bombing of the city in 1945. In fact 80% of the residual radiation released after the bombing was exhausted within 24 hours; within a week the strength of radiation was one millionth that of the initial burst. Today Nagasaki and Hiroshima have radiation levels no greater than any other cities in the world, but they still carry an irritating legacy; the most famous thing about either city is that they were nuked.

It really shouldn't be so. Nagasaki played a pivotal role in Japanese history, as a Japanese friend just reminded me by remarking that she wanted トルコライス - a weird Japanese dish called toruko rice: Turkish rice.

Cooking Christians
By the 16th century Japan had collapsed into a network of warring kingdoms with no central power. The Emperor lived, but by this time his role was largely symbolic and religious, the real power lay with local samurai lords. One such lord, Oda Nobunaga, began the violent reunification of Japan through conquest, a campaign that led to a strange kind of alliance with the ascendent powers of the day, the Portuguese and Spanish Christians.
Nobunaga had been locked in a bitter struggle against Buddhist sectarians, so he was content to let Iberian Jesuits preach Christianity in a bid to undermine them. He was a pragmatist, and was eager to learn from the Iberians, especially valuing their advanced firearms technology. While Nobunaga was rising, Christianity flourished and the Iberians rose with him.

Then Nobunaga died, and the unification of Japan was completed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became suspicious of the foreign Christian presence. Gradually Hideyoshi and his successors clamped down on Christianity. A good many of the Christians, and a good deal of the repression, happened around Nagasaki. In 1597 Hideyoshi had 26 Christians crucified in Nagasaki city. In the town of Unzen, just a few miles from the coastal town of Obama where I lived and taught, Christians were tossed into the screaming volcanic vents to boil alive in the sulphurous water. A modern visitor centre in Unzen has an image of the horror:
And it is remembered in the stained glass windows of the Catholic church in another local town, Shimabara.
Shimabara would give its name to a violent rebellion by overtaxed farmers and Christians around Nagasaki, in 1637. Led by a charismatic teenager, thousands of Christians and locals laid siege to castles in the region before finally being attacked by a massive government army, who besieged the rebels at a dismantled castle called Hara. The rebels held back a superior army for months before being overrun and exterminated: the shogun had all 37,000 rebel men, women and children butchered, persecution of Christianity was intensified, the few remaining Christians fled and hid their belief for centuries unknown to the authorities, and Japan sealed its borders to outside trade. When the Portuguese sent 61 envoys to remonstrate with the Japanese, every one of them was beheaded and a handful of crew were spared to return the message.

Catholics out, Protestants on a leash
Japan sealed most of its borders, to most trade. Nagasaki alone was still open to the outside world: Nagasaki. Trade was limited to Korea, China and the Netherlands, the latter considered less threatening that the hated Iberians because of their anti-Catholic Protestantism. The Dutch had even sent two ships to shell the Christian rebels during the Shimabara Rebellion.

Still, the Japanese authorities thought the Dutch alien enough that they were forced to quarter on an artificial island called Dejima, carefully segregated from the Japanese lest they contaminate them with foreign ideas. Few Japanese were ever allowed to cross from Nagasaki to Dejima; an exception were the courtesans sent to service Dutch traders.

Until the opening of Japan in the mid-19th century, Nagasaki was the only open port in Japan, and as a result it alone absorbed foreign cultures.

Relics of diversity
Today elements of those historical connections with the outside world still linger. I was in Nagasaki city for the annual Lantern Festival in 2008, a Chinese New Year festival that has become a wider Japanese celebration in the city. A Japanese friend and I performed a kind of pilgrimage, a walk between four Buddhist temples in the old Chinese quarter.

Everything gleamed red and gold, intricate and ornamented. The temples held statues to Buddhist deities, wild and coloured and multi-armed, hinting of India and China, starkly different to the wooden simplicity of Japan's Shinto shrines.

Near the temples were Chinese acrobats performing for a happily gobsmacked Japanese audience.
And during the night we went out to explore the massive Chinese lantern displays and what I understand is a shrine offering a feast of pig heads to the gods.

The foreigners also left their mark in food, like the Portuguese sponge cake called 'bread from Castille' and which would become the Japanese カステラ, castella, still available in Nagasaki today. Or the beloved Japanese tempura which began as another Portuguese style of fried food. One of my favourite foods was ちゃんぽん, champon, a delicious, brothy seafood noodle soup allegedly invented by a Chinese chef in Nagasaki in 1899.

From Turkey with confusion
So this brings me back to トルコライス, toruko rice. This is another weird Nagasaki dish, a collection of curry rice, spaghetti and pork. Its origins are unclear, though it is clearly a hybrid of Eastern and Western tastes. I heard one confusing rumour that this was a combination of European spaghetti, Chinese pork, and Japanese rice. I certainly can't be sure of that and in any case, why Turkish rice? Some mix-up because the curry is Indian (remembering that the first Portuguese visitors were mistaken as Indians too)?

One theory is that toruko rice was thought to bridge European and Asian foods in the way that Turkey bridges the European and Asian continents. For whatever reason, toruko rice was founded in Nagasaki as typically weird and delicious cross between East and West. I have fond memories of cycling down into the town after work on an empty stomach, calling into a quiet restaurant run by a polite and quiet couple, and finally feasting on this steaming carb-rich dinner. And this reinterpretation of Western culture, this unity of Europe and Japan, finally, is why we should remember Nagasaki for more than being nuked once.


  1. Maybe the rice they are talking about looks like this:

  2. Oh I'm pretty sure it is pilaf rice, yes!

    "The English term pilaf is borrowed directly from Turkish and/or Uzbek, pilav, which in turn comes from (Classical) Persian pilāw (پلو), and ultimately derives from Sanskrit pulāka- (पुलाक)"

    - Well that makes more sense, thanks! :D


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