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
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
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
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
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
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
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.