The First Japanese Man in America
A teenager shipwrecked on a Pacific atoll helped transform relations between Japan and the United States.
A Japanese teenager named Manjirō, from an impoverished family in a tiny fishing village, found himself thrust into a struggle for survival after being shipwrecked on a Pacific atoll in 1841. Following a dramatic maritime rescue, Manjirō was catapulted into a decade-long series of adventures in which he became the first Japanese known to have lived in the United States, circumnavigated the globe and then participated in the California Gold Rush. Yet Manjirō never lost his desire to return home to ‘closed’, isolationist Japan. After a daring effort at repatriation, his knowledge of the United States made him a valuable resource for his native government at the moment that Japan faced the dilemma of ‘opening’ to the West. His story and its significance have been overlooked, but Manjirō (Japanese commoners at that time rarely had surnames) played an integral role in Japan’s relations with the West and its transformation into a ‘modernised’ state in the second half of the 19th century.
Manjirō’s odyssey began in January 1841, when, concerned about supporting his impoverished widowed mother and siblings, he journeyed from his village of Nakanohama, on Shikoku, smallest of Japan’s four main islands, to the larger fishing village of Usa (Nishihama) searching for work. He was taken on as a crewman on a small fishing vessel. At 14, Manjirō was the youngest of the five-man crew, which included his shipmates, the brothers Fudenojō, Jūsuke and Goemon, as well as their neighbour, Toraemon. The crew had little luck catching fish during their first couple of days at sea. Then, suddenly raking in a sizeable catch, they waited too long to move away from an oncoming storm. Hit by heavy winds and rains, the ship became disabled, drifting helplessly in the Pacific for about a week, until the crew spotted an island and rowed towards it using broken planks from their boat as makeshift oars. Attempting landfall the next morning, choppy waves made their landing hazardous as they drew close to the shore. Their boat was smashed into pieces by the rocks and rough surf and Jūsuke’s leg was badly broken.
With their boat destroyed, the crew began a search of their surroundings. The small volcanic island of Torishima was uninhabited and offered little in the way of edible vegetation. They found a small cave to provide them shelter, but it was a meagre existence and, as time passed, their health deteriorated badly. On 27 June 1841, a US whaling ship, the John Howland, passed within sight of the island and its crew noticed the stranded castaways waving frantically for help. After more than five months on Torishima, the Japanese fishermen were brought on board.
On pain of death
The John Howland was in the midst of an anticipated three-year whaling expedition, having left its home port of New Bedford, Massachusetts in late October 1839 with a crew of 28 men. Its captain, William Whitfield, suspected that the five rescued men were Japanese, meaning he could not return them to their country. For more than two centuries, Japan’s ruling Tokugawa shogunate had adhered to an isolationist policy that included a prohibition against Japanese returning home after having left their native country, on pain of death, as the Japanese castaways knew. The Japanese government’s policies likewise precluded a US ship like the John Howland from entering Japan’s ports. The Japanese fishermen thus remained on board while the John Howland continued its voyage, hunting whales in order to obtain valuable oil, used as a source of illumination among other purposes. Manjirō observed the US crew at work and learned the rudiments of the English language. The Americans took a liking to him and christened him ‘John Mung’. Five months after rescuing the castaways, the John Howland arrived in Honolulu, a popular stopping point for ships in the Pacific. Ships would often remain there for several weeks before heading back out to sea.
Whitfield made arrangements to help the Japanese begin new lives in Honolulu, but seeing promise in Manjirō, he offered to take him to Massachusetts. Although communication was limited by the language barrier that Manjirō was only beginning to overcome, it was clear that the childless, 36-year-old Whitfield was offering to make Manjirō something of a surrogate son. Manjirō accepted the captain’s offer, bidding farewell to his countrymen and remaining on the John Howland. After another season of whaling in the Pacific, the ship arrived in New Bedford on 7 May 1843. Manjirō made the US his country of residence, becoming the first known Japanese to do so. Still, he hoped at some future point to return home.
Whitfield lived in the town of Fairhaven, just across the River Acushnet from neighbouring New Bedford. Upon returning, he married a woman named Albertina Keith, to whom he had become engaged before departing on the John Howland. Manjirō and the Whitfields subsequently lived as a family in Fairhaven. Whitfield arranged a tutor for Manjirō and, despite the fact that he had had no formal education in Japan, Manjirō’s academic skills, including his command of English, were soon proficient enough that he was enrolled in a one-room schoolhouse in Fairhaven. Early in 1844, Whitfield managed to get Manjirō admitted to the more exclusive and prestigious Bartlett School for Mathematics, Navigation and Surveying in Fairhaven. Whitfield recognised that Manjirō’s time aboard the John Howland had a given him a love of life at sea. If Manjirō’s desire to return to his homeland were to have any chance of success, he would need to serve on ships headed towards Japan. Enrolment at the Bartlett School would help prepare Manjirō for further seafaring and promised to introduce him to western methods of navigation and seamanship, especially the ability to navigate while out of sight of visible landmarks, a practice then beyond the seafaring capacity of the Japanese. Whitfield also arranged for Manjirō to be apprenticed to a cooper during the summer academic break. Knowledge of cooperage held the potential for an important post on a whaling voyage, as an onboard cooper was necessary to ensure the integrity of the thousands of barrels in which the lucrative whale oil was stored.
In 1846, the 19-year-old Manjirō accepted a post as a steward on a whaling ship, the Franklin. Taking a course that was not unusual, the Franklin headed east across the Atlantic and around the southern tip of Africa, then onward to the Indian Ocean and, finally, the whaling grounds of the Pacific. Once the Franklin was east of Japan, Manjirō had at that point circumnavigated the globe. During its voyage, the Franklin stopped in Honolulu, where Manjirō looked forward to seeing his former shipmates. Toraemon informed him that Jūsuke had died, having never fully recovered from the leg injury he sustained coming ashore at Torishima. Meanwhile, Fudenojō (now known as Denzō, since the people on the Hawaiian island of Oahu had struggled to pronounce his name) and Goemon had left about a year earlier aboard a US ship hoping to return to Japan. Toraemon had opted not to go, partly because he feared execution if he returned to Japan. While the Franklin was in Honolulu, Denzō and Goemon came onboard: their attempt to return to Japan had been unsuccessful. Manjirō told them that he intended to earn enough money to allow them to return to Japan together.
Voyage to Japan
The Franklin arrived back in New Bedford in September 1849 and Manjirō was paid about $350 for the three-year-plus voyage. He was considering how to earn enough funds to finance a voyage home to Japan. At that time, the discovery of gold in California was the talk of the entire country. Gaining Whitfield’s approval, Manjirō decided to head for the gold fields. He secured passage on a ship bound for San Francisco, then took a steamboat to Sacramento. In just a few months in California, Manjirō made about $600 – enough, he felt, to get himself and his countrymen awaiting him in Honolulu back to Japan. Taking a ship from California, Manjirō returned to Honolulu in October 1850, ready to embark on a daring effort to return home. His plan was to come ashore on the Japanese coast in a longboat lowered from a larger ship. For that purpose he bought a used whaleboat, naming it the Adventurer. A US cargo ship docked at Honolulu, the Sarah Boyd, captained by Jacob Whitmore, was about to depart across the Pacific. He agreed to take Manjirō, Denzō and Goemon on board with their whaleboat. Toraemon again chose not to attempt to return to Japan.
The seas were noticeably choppy as the Sarah Boyd approached the Ryukyu Islands, stretching south of Japan’s main islands. They had been chosen as a landing site because of the tenuous nature of Tokugawa rule there. Whitmore encouraged Manjirō to abandon his plan, fearing that the Japanese men would perish if they attempted to reach land. But Manjirō would not be deterred and Whitmore ultimately agreed to have the Adventurer lowered into the water. Rowing furiously to fight the waves, it took Manjirō, Denzō and Goemon hours to reach the shores of what turned out to be the island of Okinawa. It was now early February 1851, ten years since their ill-fated fishing voyage.
The three men encountered locals, who gave them food and drink, but soon a few officials arrived, tipped off about the presence of the three strangers. Manjirō and his friends were taken into custody to be questioned and kept in what amounted to house arrest. For six months, local authorities on Okinawa questioned them about their experiences: their misadventure at sea a decade earlier, their rescue, their lives thereafter and the conditions surrounding their return to Japanese soil. Eventually, the three were summoned to Kagoshima, the castle town of the Satsuma domain (whose claims included the Ryukyu Islands) on the south-west tip of Kyushu, where they underwent six more weeks of questioning before the shogunate summoned the three to Nagasaki to be questioned by a panel of officials representing the shogun. Manjirō’s explanations of western culture and technology often confounded his interrogators, who at times dismissed Manjirō’s descriptions of the telegraph, for example, as too far-fetched to be true. Potential dangers lurked in other lines of questioning as well. Prompted to explain what he knew about the US political system and American daily life, Manjirō spoke in seemingly positive tones about US democracy and the greater spirit of social egalitarianism there. The detainees were also required to denounce Christianity, which the Tokugawa had outlawed in the 17th century. On another potentially perilous subject, Manjirō spoke frankly about his desire to see Japanese policy changed to allow foreign ships to access assistance or supplies. At the conclusion of the interrogation sessions, the three men were kept in custody in Nagasaki while the government decided their fate.
Manjirō, Denzō and Goemon waited another nine months before being told that they would be taken back to Shikoku. Once there, though, their questioning continued under the leadership of Yamauchi Toyoshige, the daimyō, or lord, of the Tosa domain, a region which encompassed their villages. After more than two additional months of questioning (and more than a year and a half since their landing on Okinawa), the men were released. On 1 October 1852, they travelled to Denzō and Goemon’s home village of Usa before Manjirō set off alone on the longer journey to his village of Nakanohama. Upon reaching the village of his birth, Manjirō, now 25, realised his dream of reuniting with his mother and the rest of his family.
Manjirō had been back in Nakanohama for just three days when he was ordered to report back to Lord Yamauchi. More reform-minded than some of his peers, Yamauchi appointed Manjirō as an instructor to teach the sons of local elites (young samurai, mostly) about various topics with which Manjirō was familiar from his time abroad. A lowly fisherman could not hold such an esteemed post, so Manjirō was made a retainer of the daimyō, which elevated him to the status of a samurai. Manjirō taught western technology, navigation and whaling. He introduced his students to the English alphabet, becoming Japan’s first English teacher; he would later publish the first textbook of English-language instruction in Japan. He did so, despite the fact that, since he had no formal education in Japan, Manjirō was all but illiterate in his native language.
In the following year, 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan with his ‘Black Ships’, demanding on behalf of the US government the opening of Japanese ports. Perry promised to return the following year to receive an answer, leaving the shogunate desperate to determine how to respond. At that moment, Manjirō was the only Japanese with expertise about the US. A matter of days after Perry’s departure, the shogunate summoned Manjirō to Edo (now Tokyo) to advise the authorities. Although Manjirō could provide information about the Americans that no other Japanese possessed, some Tokugawa elites viewed him with suspicion, feeling that Manjirō’s lengthy time abroad and favourable disposition towards the US made him untrustworthy in representing Japanese interests. Because powerful figures in the government objected to Manjirō having any official role in meetings or negotiations with the Americans, he was not allowed to participate directly in subsequent talks between US and Japanese representatives upon Perry’s return. Nonetheless, the shogunate did reward and retain Manjirō for the information he provided and, eventually, the work he would be assigned on the regime’s behalf. He was elevated to a samurai of the shogun, with a high enough rank to take on a surname – he chose Nakahama, in homage to his home village of Nakanohama.
Manjirō gave great service to the Tokugawa regime over the following years. He assisted in the design and construction of ships that were larger than those used previously by the Japanese. He completed a Japanese translation (with assistance, since his own knowledge of written Japanese was still developing) of The New American Practical Navigator by Nathaniel Bowditch. Manjirō had studied this important book, from which he had learned the secrets and methods of western navigation, at the Bartlett School in Fairhaven and he had acquired a copy shortly before returning to Japan. As his country’s foremost expert on navigation and seafaring, he was appointed to teach at a newly established naval institution created by the Tokugawa regime. Later, he taught whaling at another school and led Japan’s first commercial whaling expedition.
Following Perry’s mission and subsequent negotiations, Japan and the US reached a treaty agreement. A Japanese delegation was sent to the US in 1860 to ratify it. Manjirō was chosen to be part of this first Japanese mission to the US as an interpreter. The principal delegation would travel aboard one ship, with other members on a second, escort ship, the Kanrin-maru, on which Manjirō would travel. For much of the crossing, the ship met with violent storms and rough seas. As his fellow Japanese fell ill from seasickness, overwhelmed by the rough conditions, Manjirō helped to get the ship across the Pacific. A US naval officer on board, John Brooke, wrote glowingly in his journal about Manjirō and noted that he ‘had more to do with the opening of Japan than any other man living’.
Once the US had secured a trade agreement with Japan, other nations demanded their privileges as well. Japan’s struggles with western encroachment led to unrest and the emergence of a movement to depose the shogun and replace him as head of state with the emperor of Japan. After the events of the Meiji Restoration made this a reality from 1867, Manjirō’s services continued to be in demand under the new regime: for instance, as an instructor at a school that was the forerunner of the University of Tokyo. The Meiji embarked on a programme of industrialisation and modernisation, including the creation of a mechanised, westernised military. Pursuing knowledge of western military affairs, the Meiji organised an expedition to Europe during the Franco-Prussian War, observing the conflict first hand; Manjirō was part of the delegation. The mission journeyed across the Pacific to the US before going on to Europe. The itinerary included a five-day stay in New York, where Manjirō was granted permission to depart from the delegation for two days to travel to Fairhaven. On an autumn afternoon in October 1870, Whitfield answered a knock at his door and was stunned and elated to see Manjirō for the first time in more than 20 years.
Withdrawal from public life
After the mission returned to Japan, Manjirō was reprimanded for venturing away from the delegation. He withdrew from public life, in part due to this censure, but also as a result of health problems. Thereafter, he was not sought out as much for his knowledge of the West; the Meiji government’s greater engagement with the rest of the world meant that Manjirō’s experience and knowledge were no longer unique. Over time, his contributions to Japan’s ‘opening’ to the West and its modernisation in the second half of the 19th century faded from memory. While the descendants of Manjirō and Whitfield maintain a relationship that continues into the 21st century, by the time of Manjirō’s death aged 71 in 1898, his story had been largely forgotten outside of the places he called home on Shikoku and in Massachusetts.
Manjirō’s obscurity is vexing not only because of the singular nature of his experience, but also because of the continued influence of his actions, ideas and teaching. His pioneering text on the teaching of English for Japanese speakers continues to influence the instruction of English in Japan to the present day. In addition, a number of Manjirō’s students became influential figures. Fukuzawa Yukichi, who learned English from Manjirō, became a leading figure in Japan’s modernisation and founded Keio University, considered the oldest institution of higher education in Japan – he is featured on Japan’s 10,000-yen bill. Another of Manjirō’s students was Iwasaki Yatarō, who used the knowledge he gained about ships and navigation from Manjirō to start his own shipping company, which blossomed into Mitsubishi. Similarly, Manjirō’s descriptions of US democracy and its constitutional political system influenced some of the leading figures behind the Meiji Restoration and, subsequently, the Meiji Constitution of 1889.
When Perry pressed the shogunate for a treaty agreement in the 1850s, Manjirō’s credibility in subverting the long-disseminated stereotypes of westerners as barbarians was considerable, as was his ability to offer first- hand observation and informed knowledge about the West. In part due to Manjirō’s lobbying, Japan embarked on a path of international engagement and modernisation after its centuries-long isolation. From that perspective, it is ironic that the policies that Manjirō advocated in an effort to foster harmonious relations with the US and the West led, decades after his death, to a vicious war between the two nations that Manjirō had worked so hard to bring together.
Adam Stanley is Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.