Despite evidence to the contrary, we still celebrate, somewhat reluctantly, Columbus Day. But it leads me to think about the first Japanese person to enter America.
From History Today: 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.
Fast forward to his assimilation to the US, and ultimate return to Japan via Okinawa. The story is well chronicled in “The Manjiro Story” which you can google. Here is an excerpt:
Although he was somewhat of a curiosity at first, Manjiro was quickly accepted by folks in the area due to his polite manner and eagerness to learn. Once he had received a decent basic education he wanted to learn about navigation, which had intrigued him while he was on the whale ship. He had difficulty understanding how a ship could go far out to sea and later return to a precise point without being able to observe land.
Through a connection with a friend Captain Whitfield had him accepted to study at the Bartlett School where he could learn advanced mathematics, navigation and surveying. All of these skills along with coopering (which he learned through an apprenticeship in New Bedford) would later serve him and his fellow Japanese extremely well given that his country had been closed to the outside world for so long.
But he made a lasting contribution to both his adopted home in Bedford, MA, as well as his mother country. I think I need to visit his adopted home.
In the following years Manjiro was to share his knowledge of western technology in several ways:
- He translated Bowditch’s “The New American Practical Navigator” into Japanese
- He became Professor of Navigation at the Naval Training School
- He wrote,”Eibei Taiwa Shokei” (A shortcut to Anglo-American Conversation). This was the first English text published in Japan
- He initiated the first whaling industry in Japan based on his experiences
- He was the official translator for the delegation which crossed the Pacific to San Francisco on the Kanrin-maru (the first Japanese ship to do so)
- With the new Meiji government he was appointed professor to Kaisei Univ. later to become know as Tokyo Imperial University (Todai Univ.)
So, my deepest gratitude for Manjiro, who paved the way for my Grandfather to emigrate from Nagoya to California in 1896.