Japanese translator and diplomat Manjiro Nakahama (1827–1898) lived an adventurous life, rising from the Japanese peasant class to the rank of samurai, advisor, and translator to Japan's leaders at a key time in that nation's history. At age 14, he was lost at sea on a fishing boat and rescued by American whalers. His subsequent years in the United States afforded him education and experience and made him a valuable asset to Japan upon his return, years later.
Japan had been a closed society for 200 years before Manjiro Nakahama was born. Foreigners were not welcome, and those who arrived were treated badly. Japanese society was rigidly segregated by class, with the Shōgunate, or military dictatorship, supposedly serving the emperor but actually running the country. Peasants formed the lowest stratum of society, and no movement between classes was allowed. Because emigration from Japan was prohibited, Nakahama's life was indeed fated to be exceptional. His sojourn in the United States allowed his intelligence, curiosity, and good nature to flower, and he became a first-class whaler and navigator. When he decided to risk his life and return to Japan, wise leaders saw the opportunity to learn from him about the Western world. This created opportunities for Nakahama to further develop his skills and become a key player in the opening of Japan to foreign trade relations over the following decades.
Nakahama was born on January 27, 1827, to a peasant couple in Naka-na-homa, a village in the Tosa Province of Japan. His given name was simply Manjiro because peasants were only allowed one name; patronymic surnames were reserved for the upper classes. When elevated to samurai rank, years later, he chose Nakahama, a shortened version of his village name. His father, Etsuke, died when Nakahama was nine, making him responsible for supporting his mother, Shio, as well as his younger sister and sickly elder brother.
In 1841, now age 14, Nakahama left home to find work in Usa, a coastal village some distance away. He was hired as a helper on a small fishing boat and joined four other teens—brothers Goemon, Denzo, and Jusuke as well as Toraemon—to form a crew of five. On January 5, 1841, they embarked on a several-day trip off the coast, filling their nets with mackerel, bonito (a small tuna fish), and more. On their third day at sea, a storm hit, dragging the fishing boat farther away from the coast. Pulled by a powerful current, the boat was soon swept hundreds of miles out and left adrift on the Pacific Ocean.
The fishing boat drifted for a week at sea while its crew survived on their catch of raw fish and a small amount of fresh water. When a small volcanic island came into view, they managed to sail close, but their boat was dashed on the rocks near the island's shore. Although all five teens managed to make it to shore, their fish, tools, and other possessions were lost with their boat. Worse still, Jusuke had gashed his leg very badly on the rocks. For the next six months, the five young men lived on the island, eating mainly shellfish and albatrosses (big, slowmoving birds), drinking rainwater, and caring for their wounded companion.
On June 27, 1841, an American whaling vessel, the John Howland, appeared off shore, anchored close to the island, and lowered small boats to come ashore. The sailors were seeking fresh water to replenish the ship's stores and hoping to hunt wild turtles to feed the crew. To the five Japanese castaways, however, the prospect was frightening. They had been raised to believe that foreigners were barbaric and cruel, and these large, white-skinned men with their scruffy beards and different-colored eyes certainly looked the part. The whalers recognized the teens' plight and approached the gaunt, ragged group and, through handsignals, conveyed that the teens were welcome to join them on their ship.
On board the John Howland, Captain William Whitfield greeted the five castaways and provided them with food and clean clothing. Because he recognized them as Japanese, he made sure that the cook included rice in their meals, which was much appreciated. The teens were impressed by the size of the ship as well as by the crew, which included men of several nationalities. Nakahama, Goemon, Denzo, Jusuke, and Toraemon quickly became part of the crew, helping to hunt and process whales while the John Howland sailed the Pacific. Japanese fishing, at the time, was confined to smaller fish, and only along the coast, so deep-sea whaling was very new to them.
Nakahama proved to be adept at learning and was an eager, tireless worker. While the crew took a great liking to the boy, who quickly mastered several English words, Captain Whitfield took a special interest in him. During an extended stop in Honolulu, a town in the Hawaiian islands, in November of 1841, the Japanese teens had a choice to make. Finding a ship willing to take them home to Japan was unlikely due to the deep hostility that country had toward foreigners. It was also dangerous because a sentence of death awaited any Japanese who left and then returned. While his four shipmates opted to remain in Honolulu, Nakahama was offered another option: to travel to America with Captain Whitfield and his crew. He chose to remain with the ship, welcoming this new destiny.
On its voyage home, the John Howland continued hunting and processing whales for oil and blubber, stopping to trade at many South Pacific islands. Nakahama set about learning all that he could and was especially mystified by navigation: how the captain could traverse vast distances, encounter every kind of weather and current, and arrive with pinpoint accuracy at his destination. Once arrived in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, Whitfield and his wife undertook the care of the Japanese teen, renaming him John Mung and enrolling him at the Bartlett School of Mathematics, Navigation & Surveying. The Bartlett School required that its students be proficient in written English, and Nakahama worked with a private tutor to acquire the suitable language skills. As a student at the school, he excelled academically and, while shy, was friendly and well-liked by his fellow students and teachers. Supplementing his education, he spent a year apprenticed to a cooper, or barrel maker, adding yet another skillset to the collection of talents he would one day share with his fellow Japanese.
While in the care of Captain and Mrs. Whitfield, Nakahama resided on their farm and helped care for William Junior. He also learned to ride horses, a pastime which, in Japan, was reserved for samurai warriors and government officials. At first viewed as a curiosity, he impressed most of the locals with his courtesy and good manners. Problems came during Sunday services, when the Whitfields were told that the young immigrant had to sit in a special section at the back of the church, with other non-white churchgoers. Outraged, the couple left that denomination and joined a more welcoming Unitarian congregation.
In 1846, at age 19, Nakahama got his first opportunity to try returning to Japan. Although he loved his American friends, he deeply missed his homeland and believed that there must be some way to return without punishment. A colleague of Captain Whitfield's invited him to join a whaling expedition on his ship the Franklin, which would sail as far as Japan. When they arrived in Japanese waters, they met local fishermen well offshore. Nakahama attempted to communicate but found that they spoke a different dialect of Japanese and could not understand him. Deeply disappointed, he remained on the Franklin and continued the voyage, which now took him to the Hawaiian Islands. There, he was reunited with his former shipmates, now reduced to three with the death of Jusuke, who had never recovered from his injury. Nakahama promised himself that he would find a way whereby they could all return to their families in Japan.
A stop in San Francisco provided his next opportunity. Gold rush fever was high in California, so Nakahama took his share of earnings from the voyage ($350) and set out for the gold fields located beyond Sacramento, in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Here his luck and work ethic served him well; six months later he returned to San Francisco, $600 richer and ready to plan his trip to Japan. Returning to the Hawaiian Islands, he proposed to his shipmates that he buy a small rowboat and book passage for the four of them and the boat on a ship bound for China. They could use the small boat to reach Japan after launching it as the ship passed a few miles off shore. It would be a great risk, given the rules at home forbidding the return of exiles, but it would be a risk worth taking for a chance to see their families again.
One of the group, Toraemon, declined because he was now married and wanted to stay in Honolulu, but Denzo and Goeman opted to join him. Nakahama booked passage on a merchant steamer bound for China. As they approached Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu islands off Japan, a storm struck, and the captain had to maneuver in raging seas to the island's least stormy side. There the three young men managed to clamber into the rowboat and pull with all their might to get to shore. Arriving safely ashore, they were at last on Japanese soil. It was 1851, ten years after their ill-fated fishing expedition.
Shortly after Denzo, Goeman, and Nakahama made themselves known to the local villagers, regional authorities arrived and took them into custody, interrogating them for six months regarding their experiences. While viewed with suspicion, the three young men had much information about the West that was of potential value to Japan. For this reason, they were eventually transferred to Kagoshima and personally questioned by feudal ruler Shimazu Nariakira, who was greatly interested in the technology of the West. Nariakira questioned Nakahama, in particular, about steamships, trains, telegraphy, and photography and treated the three young men as his guests.
The next round of interrogation would be far less friendly. In Nagasaki, at the very highest level of government, the Shōgunate were disturbed by the three returnees. For ten months the young men were imprisoned and repeatedly questioned. The samurai worried that they were enemy agents and had been converted to Christianity, a crime punishable by execution under Japanese law. Finally, the Shōgunate were satisfied that the young men were being truthful, and Denzo, Goeman, and Nakahama were released. Returning to their home in Tosa Province, the three young men were held for 70 more days while clan leaders subjected them to a final round of interrogation.
In October of 1852, their patience was rewarded and the three young men were released. Nakahama returned to his village, almost 12 years after leaving home, shocking his mother, who had long assumed he was dead. After a reunion lasting three days, he was summoned to the city of Kochi by the regional lord of Tosa, a clan ruler who desired him to teach English to young samurai and other government officials at the clan castle. Because it was not fitting that a peasant teach such a high-ranking person, Nakahama was made a low-ranking samurai. So began his career as a teacher, and many of his students went on to become leaders of modern Japan.
In July of 1853, four dark-hulled U.S. naval warships under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into the bay near the capital city of Edo (later Tokyo). Commodore Perry carried a letter from U.S. President Millard Fillmore requesting that Japan open its ports to foreign trade. This forceful request threw Japan very rapidly into the modern age, causing a national emergency and the arming of the Bay of Edo. Conflicts soon broke out between those who wanted to modernize and engage with the wider world and those who wanted Japan to remain isolated.
The next few decades saw many changes, and Nakahama was called on to play multiple roles: advisor, translator, teacher, innovator, designer, whaling captain, and more. When Commodore Perry returned to Japan for his answer, he sailed at the head of a fleet of nine warships, and Nakahama advised the shōguns to accept the American president's offer. Now a new fight broke out as some government officials argued against allowing him to translate for the Americans. There were accusations that Nakahama had been a plant all along and he would translate to the Americans' advantage. After the modernists prevailed, he was made a full samurai and allowed to translate and advise at the highest levels of government. He was also allowed to adopt a family name, Nakahama. However, to appease traditionalists, Nakahama was ordered to take a behind-the-scenes role and remain out of sight of the Americans. He proved himself very useful nonetheless, and a treaty between Japan and the United States was signed at the end of March 1854.
Over the next several years, Nakahama designed ships and taught navigation so that Japan could also engage in global trade. Under orders, he translated into Japanese a classic navigational textbook he had brought back from the United States. He also wrote a textbook for English learners. In 1859 he was tasked with helping start the Japanese whaling industry. From 1860 to 1890, he took on other roles, traveling to Europe to study military science, becoming a naval instructor, and captaining the first Japanese whaling vessel. In his later years, Nakahama settled into teaching English at the Kaiseijo School (later Tokyo Imperial University). His most cherished assignment, however, was being included in an official voyage to the United States in 1870, during which he traveled to Fairhaven and visited his old friend, Captain Whitfield.
Nakahama had a profound, lasting influence on his native land even though some in the ruling class and shōgunate never trusted him. He was an egalitarian and treated everyone with equal respect, be they lord, officer, or peasant. Because this went against the grain of centuries of Japanese tradition, it gained him enemies, and his superiors sometimes assigned him bodyguards. Fortunately, such harm did not come, and on November 22, 1898, Manjiro Nakahama died quietly at his home in Tokyo, then age 71.
Nakahama's descendents, as well as those of Captain Whitfield, remained in communication over the coming years. Beginning in 1987, the Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society of Fairfield, Massachussetts commemorated this relationship each October by hosting a Manjiro Festival.
Kaneko, Hisakazu, Manjiro, the Man Who Discovered America, Houghton Mifflin, 1956.
Manjiro Nakahama, Drifting toward the Southeast: The Story of Five Japanese Castaways, translated by Junya Nagakuni and Junji Kitadai, Spinner Publications, 2003.
Nakahama Manjiro's Hyōsen Kiryaku: A Companion Book (exhibition catalogue), Rosenbach Museum & Library, 1999.
Japan Times, March 21, 2004, Tai Kawabata, “One of a Kind.”
National Public Radio Backseat Book Club, http://www.npr.org/2012/05/31/153918185/meet-manjiro-japans-unlikely-teenambassador (May 31, 2012), “Meet Manjiro, Japan's Unlikely Teen Ambassador.”
Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society, Inc., http://www.whitfield-manjiro.org/the-manjiro-story.html (October 21, 2017), “The Manjiro Story.”□