- 17 Jan 2004
The year was 1841. Japan was still the closed country it had been for two centuries by order of the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate; for a Japanese to go abroad, or return from abroad, were capital offenses. The arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry's four black-hulled steamships in Edo Bay -- and the regime change they would soon usher in -- was still more than a dozen years ahead.
John Manjiro in 1880, at age 53
In January of that year, around the same time as young Herman Melville sailed from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, as a greenhorn aboard the whaling ship Acushnet, three fishermen and two teenage boys from Tosa (present-day Kochi Prefecture in Shikoku) were shipwrecked far out in the Pacific. It was their good fortune, however, to make it by dinghy to a small volcanic island 600 km south of Edo called St. Peter's (aka Hurricane Island or Torishima Island). There, several months later, they were rescued by the John Howland, an American whaling ship from New Bedford, Mass., across the Acushnet River from Fairhaven, under the command of one William H. Whitfield.
Among the five Japanese, the youngest was a 14-year-old from the village of Nakanohama. After the whaler docked in Hawaii and disembarked the castaways in Oahu, it fell to this boy -- called Manjiro -- to become the first Japanese ever known to visit the United States.