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John Manjiro

Reconsidering John Manjiro
by Prof. Tetsuo Kawasumi, Keio University

The Life and Times of John Manjiro
by Donald R. Bernard

Drifting Toward the Southeast
The Story of Five Japanese Castaways

A Translation by Junya Nagakuni and Junji Kitadai

Introducing John Manjiro

by Prof. Tetsuo Kawasumi, Keio University

In 1841 at the age of 14, John Manjiro, whose fishing vessel was wrecked in Ashizuri-oki, landed on Torishima Island, where he was rescued by a U.S. whaler and brought to America. He became the first Japanese to set foot on American soil.

Manjiro, taking the name "John Manjiro," was welcomed by the citizens of Fairhaven and New Bedford where he disembarked. With the warm interest of Captain Whitfield, he became the first Japanese student to receive an American elementary and intermediate education as well as a high school education in English, Mathematics, Navigation and Shipbuilding, History, and Geography. He also acted as First Mate on a whaling ship's 40-month journey around the world.

At 24, his thoughts turning to the importance of opening Japan and to his mother, he resolved to return to closed Japan, even at the pain of death. He departed Hawaii and landed in the Ryukyu Islands in 1851. Undergoing investigation there, he then went further in the Ryukyus and on to Nagasaki and Tosa, where he was repeatedly interrogated for the crime of contravening the nation's policy of isolation. He was finally permitted to return to his home in Nakanohama in October of 1852, and mother and son enjoyed a moving reunion after their 12-year separation.

The Tosa government initially forbade him to leave his home town, "for travel abroad, needless to say, and for ocean-bound fishing journeys." It appeared that the order must dispel Manjiro's dream of appealing directly to the Shogun and becoming a force for the opening of Japan, but the urgency of the times demanded the technical and general knowledge that Manjiro had brought from America. Manjiro had just three days and nights with his mother before he was called back by Yamanouchi Yodo, Lord of the Tosa Domain. He became a teacher at the Tosa School, lecturing on American democracy, on freedom and equality, on the independent spirit, and on his travels on the world's seas, and it is said that he greatly influenced Sakamoto Ryoma and Goto Shojiro.

In 1853 America's Admiral Perry came demanding the opening of Japan. The bakufu speedily ordered Manjiro's appearance and he became a Shogunal retainer, dedicating himself to some of the nation's most pressing problems. "America greatly hopes to enjoy a deep and abiding friendship with Japan," he told the Shogunate. "America does not come with suspicious designs but with a full and open heart." With this encouragement, the Shogunate discarded the laws of over 200 years' standing and took the first step toward opening the country. It is impossible to measure the service rendered by Manjiro in enabling Japan to accept the Japan-United States Friendship Treaty.

America's 30th president, Coolidge, was later to say, "When John Manjiro returned to Japan, it was as if America had sent its first ambassador. Our envoy Perry could enjoy so cordial a reception because John Manjiro had made Japan's central authorities understand the true face of America."

Manjiro became translator and interpreter for the Shogunate, traveled throughout Japan to give instruction in shipbuilding and navigation, translated the 20-volume "U.S. Navigation Science" he'd brought with him, and edited English conversation texts. It is said, too, that he taught naval science to Katsu Kaishu, instructed Sakamoto Ryoma in U.S. politics and navigation, and discussed the spirit of rationalism with Fukuzawa Yukichi.

Perhaps most significant, to the Japanese of the late Tokugawa and early Meiji eras, "America" was the America of Manjiro's descriptions.

The Shogunate sent a delegation to America in 1860 to exchange ratifications of the Japan-U.S. Commercial Treaty. Manjiro boarded the Kanrin-maru as instructor and translator. The Kanrin-maru was intended to train Japanese to navigate the seas on their own; the captain, Katsu Kaishu, entrusted Manjiro with "full navigational authority," and in truth, Manjiro acquitted himself admirably.

The success of the Kanrin-maru voyage across the Pacific impressed the U.S. side with the skill and abilities of the Japanese, and became a basis for the success of later bilateral diplomatic negotiations.

Having thus visited San Francisco after his absence of 10 years, Manjiro, upon returning to Japan, did not again enter the political arena. He variously led the Ogasawara Islands surveying teams on behalf of the Shogunate, lectured at the Shogunal Naval Academy, taught English, Mathematics, Navigation and Shipbuilding at the Satsuma Kaisei School, and again became instructor at the Tosa School, devoting himself to the education of those who would lead the way to the dawning of a new era.

Upon its establishment, the new Meiji government brought Manjiro to Kaisei College, the predecessor of today's Tokyo University, and there he made his goal the education and training of Japan's future leaders.

He believed that the most heartfelt response he could make to the goodwill and friendship of the Americans who had raised him, would be to pass on to young Japanese the education that had underlain his own experience. Without an eye to glory or status, he educated people who would later become bridges in Japan-U.S. relations, and hoped that they would form the foundation of a new Japan.

Manjiro died quietly on November 12, 1898, at the age of 71. His remains are in Zoshigaya Cemetery Toshima-ku, Tokyo.

The service Nakahama Manjiro rendered will never be fully known. What would Japan's opening have been had he not lived? Truly, "It is Fate that nurtures men, and men who change their world."

In early Showa, when Japan-U.S. relations were deteriorating, America's 32nd president Franklin Roosevelt sent a personal letter to Manjiro's eldest son Nakahama Toichiro, inviting him to the United States to act as a bridge in improving relations between Japan and America. However, even these best of intentions were not understood by Japanese society.

When Japan lost the Second World War, it found itself much like Manjiro, shipwrecked and stranded at Torishima. No one can doubt that it is America's goodwill at that time and beyond that has enabled Japan to achieve its present prosperity.

Manjiro's life revealed the kind of spirit that opens the way to new times and that joins itself to international society. It is this spirit that our country can no longer afford to do without.

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Page last updated Nov 5, 2003. Copyright 1998-2002, The Manjiro Society.