In the northern part of Hirado Island, stone scrapers from around 20.000 years ago were excavated. During further excavations some stone tools were found in a 100.000 year old soil layer. That makes them one of the oldest items found in Japan. Further investigations would be necessary but it suggest that people crossed over into Japan in this area.
From the 7th to the 9th century the Japanese government sent embassies to Tang China to study Buddhism Among the monks was Kobo Daishi (aka Kukai) , founder of esoteric buddhism in Japan. He stayed in Hirado in 804, before making the voyage to China. A statue commemorates his departure. It is said that upon return he performed the first esoteric buddism rite in Hirado, where Saikyo-ji temple is now located.
The 8th generation of the Matsura family, Minamoto no Hisashi, is appointed head of the tax and government outpost in the matsura region and changes his last name to Matsura. His direct descendants gradually expand their rule over the area, especially from the 12th century onwards.
By the mid-16th century Toyotomi Hideyoshi recognises them as rulers of the Hirado domain: the northern half of current Nagasaki prefecture and Iki Island. Their lineage still continues and you can admire their family collection in their former mansion; the Matsura Historical Museum.
Eisai is a famous monk who introduced Zen buddism to Japan. He returned from his studies in China in 1191 and landed in Hirado. He was given a building to perform his zen meditation, which was the first Zen temple in Japan. It was named Fushun-an. He also planted here the first seeds of the tea plant and taught how to make macha tea. The temple was later enlarged and renamed Senko-ji, which you can still find in Hirado. A small tea plantation also remains.
1200 -1350 AD
When rule over the area was still contested by several local families, many pirates were active in the area. People from the Hirado-Matsura area and from the Goto, Iki and Tsushima Islands raided the Korean coastline. Their activities declined around 1350.
In the 15th century the Matsura family was granted the right to trade with Ming China. Around that time piracy, or illegal trading, increased again. but this time the groups were mainly based in China. In the 16th century some Chinese traders established themselves in Hirado.
After illegal trade and piracy increased in China, a network formed under the leadership of Ochoku. Ming China tried unsuccesfully to expel this group from its coast. In 1541 the wealthy Ochoku seeked to trade in more official ways with Japan and set up base in Hirado with the help and protection of lord Matsura. Many chinese traders established themselves in Hirado, which led to a flourishing international trade between Hirado and China.
Ochoku's trading ships controled a large part of the seas between Japan and Vietnam. By request of lord Matsura their ships brought a Portuguese ship from Macao to Hirado. The Portuguese set up their trading base in Hirado. In exchange for the knowledge of gunpowder the Portuguese got permission for Christian missionary work in Hirado. Lord Matsura did not convert but ordered his subordinates to do so. In Hirado the Portuguese introduced many new things like bread, sugar and tabacco to Japan. Arguments over Christianity and trading led to the end of Portuguese trade in 1565. A statue in the harbour currently commemorates the place of landing.
After the first Dutch ship stranded in Japan in 1600, lord Matsura sailed some of the crew to a dutch outpost in Malaysia and invited them to trade in Hirado. The Dutch arrived in Hirado in 1609 and established the trading post. Trade increased over the years after other competing powers were banned or stopped trading. It became the most profitable Dutch trading post in Asia thanks to the trade between Chinese silk and Japanese silver. Hirado became know as "the Capital of the West" in Japan. However, the Dutch were banned to Dejima in Nagasaki in 1641 ending the era of international trade in Hirado. The first ever Western building in Japan from 1639 is now reconstructed and serves as a museum.
The only westerner to ever become samurai was Englishman William Adams who arrived as navigator on a Dutch ship. He managed to get the English to establish a trading post in Hirado in 1613. William Adams passed away in 1621 in Hirado where you can still find his grave. The English were unsuccesful in making the trade profitable and closed down the post in 1623 but not after introducing beer, sweet potatoes and other things to Japan.
The trading post was located besides the current stone Saiwai bridge. You can find an old monument on the opposite shore commemorating the start of UK-Japan relations here.
Zheng Chenggong (also known as Koxinga) was born in Kawachi village in Hirado between a Japanese mother and a Chinese father, an influential maritime trader operating out of Hirado. Zheng Chenggong later followed his father, moving to China on his own at the age of 8. He led the resistance to re-install the Ming dynasty against the upcoming Qin and set up base in Taiwan where he ousted the Dutch who ruled over Taiwan at the time. Zheng Chenggong established his own government and rule of law. He is revered as a hero in China and Taiwan. You can visit his birthstone and birthhouse in Kawachi Village.
1704 - 1718 AD
When the international trade was taken away from Hirado by the Japanese shogunate in 1641, the Matsura family had to rebuild the economy. After gaining trust from the Shogun they received permission to construct Hirado castle in 1704. It was completed in 1718. After the modernization of Japan in 1868, most of the castle was demolished, as were most other castles in Japan, but original parts remain and it was completely recontructed in the 20th century. It is now a museum with a magnificent view over Hirado.
1868 - Now
After the end of the feudal period, rule of the Matsura family was transfered to a municipal government. The first high school in Nagasaki Prefecture was founded in Hirado (Yukokan High School) in 1880. In 1955 the first museum in the prefecture was also founded in Hirado: the Matsura Historical Museum. Life on the island greatly changed after Hirado Bridge was built in 1977 and Ikitsuki Island was also connected by a bridge in 1991. The city of Hirado merged with Ikitsuki, Tabira and Ohshima to become the current Hirado City in 2005.