How does a fourteen your old Japanese boy beach his wrecked fishing boat on a remote island, survive a Robinson Caruso existence for six months, is rescued by an American whaler, but cannot return to Japan under the penalty of death and yet … twelve years later, greets Captain Matthew Perry as the Shogun’s voice negotiating Japan’s first treaty with a Western nation?
In early 1841, Nakahama and four friends set sail from a Shikoku village to catch bonito. Caught in a violent storm, they are blown off course. After two weeks drifting mastless, they crashed on tiny Tori-shima, meaning Bird Island, four hundred miles south of Tokyo.
After subsisting on rain water, fish, and the raw meat of albatross for six months, the gaunt survivors were rescued by the whaler, John Howland, captained by William Whitfield. Initially frightened by huge rough looking sailors, the Japanese were soon calmed by Whitfield who provided clothing and rice dishes.
The kindly Whitfield took a liking to the industrious Nakahama, now called John Manjiro, who quickly pitched in harvesting oil and butchering blubber from the landed whales. Over the next half year at sea, the captain, having no son of his own, gave the bright youngster English lessons in his cabin. Little did the teacher or student know that this burgeoning mentoring would have a profound affect on an historical event twelve years hence.
While welcomed warmly upon landing in Honolulu in November 1841, John accepted Whitfield’s invitation to continue on to Massachusetts while his four companions stayed in Hawaii. He lived on the captain’s Fairhaven farm as America’s first Japanese immigrant.
Whitfield convinced the local school teacher to accept Manjiro, who never had seen a classroom, into her one room school house. Try to imagine a fifteen-year-old reading “Jack and Jill went up the hill” with kids half his age. A quick and dedicated learner, not only did Manjiro graduate from an American high school three years later, but the town took to the ambitious stranger in their midst. Friends came easy to Manjiro’s pleasant personality.
With Whitfield’s encouragement, Manjiro next attended navigation school. Upon graduation, Whitfield found a whaler willing to sign on Manjiro. When the captain had a mental breakdown in the Far East, the first officer took over the ship and the second officer moved up requiring a new second officer. The mainly all white rugged sailors voted for the man most likely to help them return safely and profitable … Manjiro. Upon returning from the forty-month voyage in early 1850, he received his $350 crew profit share. ($9-12K in today’s dollars)
Despite American hospitality, Manjiro worried about his widowed mother. He also dreamed of briefing the shogun. If only the shogun knew the reality of America, Japan would drop their fear of foreigners and foreign domination. But would he go back to Japan with its death edict proscribed for returnees? Yes, decided Manjiro with the hubris to brave the risk.
Needing a larger stake, Manjiro headed for California’s gold rush. Panning in the mountains, he added $600 to his nest egg. In October 1850, he worked for his passage to Hawaii where he convinced two of the original survivors to return home with him. Manjiro bought a second hand whale boat for $125. Then he convinced a ship captain plying the China tea trade to carry the boat and drop it, with him on board, near Okinawa. Manjiro knew no foreign ship could dock in Japan whose policy was to confiscate any such ship. He landed on Okinawa in February 21, 1851 and was taken into custody but treated well.
After being integrated in Okinawa, then Nagasaki, and then allowed to return home in October 1852, where he was interrogated again by his daimyo, Manjiro was told not to leave his home town. So much for his aspiration to bring Japan into the modern age.
This might have been the end it, but for the arrival Commodore Perry and his black ships entering Tokyo Harbor July 8, 1853. After Perry presented his demands to sign a treaty opening Japan to trade, he left promising to return early the following year for an answer. The Shogunate had no modern navy to challenge Perry’s cannon laden squadron, but ordered harbor defenses to be built.
The panicked shogunate summoned Manjiro to Edo as Tokyo was then called. Manjiro told the Bakufu, the shogun’s military administration, “America greatly hopes to enjoy a deep and abiding friendship with Japan. America does not come with suspicious designs but with a full and open heart.” Over months of debriefing, Manjiro took full advantage of enlightening the Bakufu’s suspicion men of the wonders of the modern world and the benefits of joining it.
When Perry’s ships returned in February 1854, he was greeted by Japan’s new interpreter, Manjiro who had been appointed to the rank of hatatmoto, a two sworded samurai retainer of the shogun. Manjiro soon migrated to the shogun’s diplomatic corps and helped negotiate the Convention of Kanagawa that ended Japan’s two and half centuries of isolation.
Six years later, Manjiro was part of Japan’s first delegation to Washington. In 1870, as the military attaché representing the new Meiji government committed to modernize its army, he observed the Franco-Prussian war. On the way back from Europe, he stopped to pay his respects to Captain Whitfield. One can imagine Whitfield’s pride in the success of the former castaway in whom he had a hunch … that this was man of great potential in need of a mentor to develop it.
Manjiro settled in as a professor at Tokyo’s famed Imperial University where he taught Japan’s first generation of post feudal leaders. At age 71, he passed away on November 12, 1898.
What if there had been no Manjiro? Or suppose Manjiro had not possessed the latent intellect ready to burst under the right tutelage. Or suppose Captain Whitfield had been a stern man raised in slave holding America?
Without Manjiro’s soothing advice, the Shogun would have rebuffed Perry. In that case, Perry had orders to open his cannons. This display of gunboat diplomacy would have forced an unequal treaty under conditions that would fostered the same type of anger the Chinese still feel today over the concessions they made with the smoke of gun powder still in the air.
But there was a Manjiro (And a Captain Whitfield) and history has been the better for it.