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Reconsidering John Manjiro

Introducing John Manjiro
by Prof. Tetsuo Kawasumi, Keio University

Reconsidering John Manjiro

by Prof. Tetsuo Kawasumi, Keio University

During the Edo Period, which extended from 1600 to 1867, many Japanese seamen on coastal freight boats or fishing boats encountered storms which blew their vessels into the Pacific far from Japanese waters. Unable to return to Japan, they eventually found themselves in places as far from their home as the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands in the North, and points as far East as Canada and the North Western United States. Those who drifted South fetched up in Taiwan, Luzon, Annam, or one of the many islands in the South Pacific.

Seamen driven out of Japanese coastal waters experienced indescribable hardships. Most died, and those who survived in the ocean were either rescued by foreign ships or were washed ashore in unknown countries. When a foreign ship attempted to return Japanese castaways to their native land, the government would have its coastal troops bombard the ships and drive them away, or it would accept the survivors only to punish them as criminals who had contravened the national prohibition on foreign travel. During this period of forced isolation, no group of people in the world were as pitiful and as helpless as Japanese castaways.

Fukuzawa Yukichi (1834 - 1901), a late 19th century Japanese intellectual and educator, harshly criticized this inhumane government policy with the statement, "This cannot be described as the way a government ought to treat its own citizens."

Beginning shortly after the 1820s, American whalers and commercial vessels began to rescue Japanese seamen who were unable to return to Japanese waters. This brought the Japanese into contact with foreigners, revealed a different culture to them, and provided them with the chance to learn a foreign language. They abandoned Japan's feudal ways of thought as the modern world was revealed to them. The castaway, John Manjiro, experienced this transformation.

Born in Nakanohama in Hata Province in Tosa in 1827, John Manjiro lost his father when he was only 8 years old. In 1841, when he was fourteen, John was shipwrecked while fishing with 4 other people. They were rescued by the crew of an American whaler, The John Howland.

American whaling ships of the day were microcosms of life in international society. The five Tosa fisherman abandoned the daily customs of Japanese feudal society and began to live as members of international society. John Manjiro adapted easily to the foreign lifestyle of the Americans, began to learn English, and was even able to imitate whaling skills. Captain Whitfield took a strong liking to the eager and able youth, John Manjiro. He decided to leave the other four castaways with officials in Hawaii, and to take John to America to educate him.

John left his four companions in Hawaii and boarded the John Howland once again. People began to call him John Manjiro at this time. After another 6 months of whaling near Japan, the John Howland returned to the United States, reaching New Bedford in May 1843.

John settled in the town of Fairhaven, where the Captain, a man of unlimited good intentions, brought John up with all the affection he would have bestowed on his own son. He personally cultivated John's independent spirit and taught him that all men were equal.

At the local school, John learned mathematics and how to read and write English. He also studied surveying and navigation, and even mastered the skills required to make barrels to hold whale oil.

In accordance with Captain Whitfield's plans, John boarded a whaler bound for the fishing areas around Japan after spending a full three years in Fairhaven. Still yearning to see his mother again, John agreed to this plan which would give him the opportunity to return to Japan.

John's experiences during the 3 year 4 month voyage of the whaler Franklin made an important contribution to his maturation as a member of international society. Although he was unable to return to Japan and see his mother again, he was elected first mate after the Captain fell ill. This experience gave him the self-confidence and assurance that he could support himself independently as a whaler in American society. But John Manjiro had another dream.

This voyage made John Manjiro aware of how irrational and inhumane Japan's policy of national isolation appeared in the eyes of the people of the world. He decided that he would make it his personal mission to appeal directly to the Shogun to establish a port open to American whaling vessels in Satsuma, which was a province in Southern Kyushu, or in the Ryukyu Islands. He would have to abandon his secure and rich livelihood as a whaler, and risk his own life to carry out his plan. But he believed that by doing so he would not only be repaying both the captain who saved his life, and the American whaling industry that had provided him with a living; he would also be serving Japan's best interests.

After earning the money he needed to return to Japan, John put his plan into action. In late November 1849 John left New Bedford for Sacramento where he earned six-hundred dollars working in a gold mine. He travelled to Hawaii, and persuaded the four men castaway with him to return to Japan. With the assistance of Reverend Damon, they arrived in the Ryukyu Islands on February 3, 1851, a full ten years after they were shipwrecked. As John and his companions had expected, they were charged with breaking the exclusion law, and interrogated over and over again through many months in the Ryukyu Islands and in Satsuma, at Nagasaki, and finally in Tosa. When he was finally able to return to his home town of Nakahama on October 5th 1852, he found his mother in good health. The mother and son were deeply moved and unable to speak when they met for the first time in 12 years. Forbidden to travel outside of the Tosa region, John Manjiro felt as if he was exiled to an isolated island.

But John's country soon needed his knowledge. When Commodore Perry arrived in Japan in June 1853, John was summoned to Edo, where he appeared before the Bakufu leader Abe Masahiro and other officials. Undaunted by their rank, he told them about conditions in the United States: the practice of electing the President, the President's duty to obey the country's laws, and so on.

Next he informed Abe that the United States had wanted to establish friendly relations with Japan for a long time, and asked him to open a harbor where American whaling vessels could take on firewood, fresh water, and food in southern Kyushu, on one of the small islands under control of the Satsuma Domain, or on one of the Ryukyu Islands. He then added that the United States was not only a generous nation, it was a very modern country, and therefore had absolutely no intentions of invading any other country. It is reported that John's words gave the Bakufu the confidence it needed to open Japan to the outside world.

John Manjiro had fulfilled his duty by making these statements. He probably felt that he had at last been able to repay one ten-thousandth of the debt he owed to Captain Whitfield and the American whalers. In fact the "Record of the Investigation of John Manjiro," a report of the description of actual conditions in America he gave to Abe Masahiro, clearly indicates how strongly he felt about the opening of Japan.

The February 5, 1860 entry in the diary of Colonel Brook, a man who travelled with John Manjiro on the Kanrin-maru contains the words, "I am delighted that it was our John Manjiro contributed more than any other person to the opening of Japan."

The information provided by John Manjiro became the image of America held by Japanese in the last years of Tokugawa rule and the beginning of the Meiji era, and deeply influenced the pioneers of modernization in Japan: men like Sakamoto Ryoma, Katsu Kaishu, and Fukuzawa Yukichi. But despite his service as interpreter on the Kanrin-maru, and his appointment as a teacher at the Kaisei College (predecessor to the University of Tokyo) after the beginning of the Meiji Era, John Manjiro was never given a position appropriate to his talents. Japan was unable to achieve a sufficient degree of enlightenment to accept an internationalized person like John Manjiro (a more appropriate term might be Toshisuke Tsurumi's coinage, "citizen of the world," and it is still unable to accept persons like John Manjiro. This is what we can learn by looking back on the life of John Manjiro.

When John Manjiro's third son, Keisaburo went to the United States in 1898, his father asked him to find the Whitfield house. Keisaburo succeeded in finding the address through a friend who was living in America. The captain had already passed away (1886) leaving the house to his eldest son, Mercelas(?). The John Howland had been lost during a voyage in Arctic waters in 1883; and Reverend Damon had passed away in 1885. Keisaburo promptly sent this information to his father in Japan. But John Manjiro himself passed away before the letter arrived. In this manner relations were re-established between the Whitfield and Nakahama families. This relationship has endured up to the present time: the 150th anniversary of the shipwreck of John Manjiro and the other four Tosa fishermen.


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Page last updated Aug 15, 1999. Copyright 1998-2002, The Manjiro Society.