When Japan was a secret
Dec 19th 2007 | NAKANOHAMA AND RISHIRI ISLAND
From The Economist print edition
From The Economist print edition
Long before Commodore Perry got there, Japanese castaways and American whalers were prising Japan open
Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery
IF THAT double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale-ship alone to whom the credit will be due; for already she is on the threshold.Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”, 1851
The first English-language teacher to come to Japan landed in a tiny skiff, but before he did so, Ranald MacDonald pulled the bung from his boat in order to half-swamp her, in the hope of winning over locals with a story that he had come as someone who had fled the cruel tyrannies of a whale-ship captain and then been shipwrecked. The four locals who approached by boat, though certainly amazed, were also courteous, for they bowed low, stroked their huge beards and emitted a throaty rumbling. “How do you do?” MacDonald cheerily replied. This meeting took place in tiny Nutsuka Cove on Rishiri Island off Hokkaido on July 1st 1848, and a dark basaltic pebble from the cove sits on this correspondent's desk as he writes, picked up from between the narrow fishing skiffs that even today are pulled up on the beach.
Rishiri is about as perfect a round volcanic island, perhaps nine miles across, as it is possible for a schoolchild to draw. It is also just about as far north in Japan proper as it is possible to be: if you start climbing the volcano, the coast of Russian Sakhalin comes into view. MacDonald took an intentionally oblique route to get into closed Japan. And indeed, the locals who approached MacDonald were not Japanese at all, but rather the supremely hairy Ainu, whose women tattooed their upper lip.
The Ainu were the original inhabitants of much of northern Japan, while related groups had long settled Sakhalin and Kamchatka. One 19th-century British explorer and naval captain, Henry Craven St John, described the fair-skinned Ainu as “something like a strange drop of oil in the Ocean, being surrounded by Mongols [including Japanese] yet not one of them.” But just as European settlers were pushing the American frontier westwards—MacDonald himself was born in present-day Oregon of Princess Raven, favourite daughter of the Chinook king, and a Scottish fur trader with the Hudson's Bay Company—so the Japanese were pushing north. Modern-day Hokkaido (literally, the way to the northern seas) was then known as Ezo, whose written characters connote wildness and barbarity. Today, only vestigial communities of Ainu survive.
Far from fleeing a tyrant, MacDonald had in fact had to plead with a concerned captain of the Plymouth, a whaler out of Sag Harbour, New York, to be put down in the waters near Japan. MacDonald had an insatiable hunger for adventure, and the desire to enter Japan—tantalisingly shut to the outside world—had taken a grip on him. Both men knew of the risks, but the captain was less inclined to discount them. For 250 years, since the Tokugawa shogunate kicked Christian missionaries and traders out, only a tightly controlled trade with the Netherlands and China was tolerated in the southern port of Nagasaki, with a further licence for Koreans elsewhere. Though British and Russian ships had from time to time prodded Japan's carapace, an edict in 1825 spelled out what would happen to uninvited guests “demanding firewood, water and provisions”:
The continuation of such insolent proceedings, as also the intention of introducing the Christian religion having come to our knowledge, it is impossible to look on with indifference. If in future foreign vessels should come near any port whatsoever, the local inhabitants shall conjointly drive them away; but should they go away peaceably it is not necessary to pursue them. Should any foreigners land anywhere, they must be arrested or killed, and if the ship approaches the shore it must be destroyed.Two decades later the despotic feudalism of the Tokugawa shogunate was under greater strain. At home the land had been ravaged by floods and earthquakes, and famines had driven the dispossessed and even samurai to storm the rice warehouses of the daimyo, the local lords. Abroad, Western powers were making ominous inroads. After the opium war of 1840-42 China ceded Hong Kong to Britain. Meanwhile, thanks to a growth in whaling and trade with China, the number of distressed Western vessels appearing along Japan's shores was increasing. Moderate voices made themselves heard within the government. A new edict was softer:
It is not thought fitting to drive away all foreign ships irrespective of their condition, in spite of their lack of supplies, or of their having stranded or their suffering from stress of weather. You should, when necessary, supply them with food and fuel and advise them to return, but on no account allow foreigners to land. If, however, after receiving supplies and instructions they do not withdraw, you will, of course drive them away.MacDonald knew the risks, and approached Japan obliquely in order to minimise them. Even so, he spent the next ten months in captivity.
Ocean streamsMacDonald's curiosity about Japan had first been aroused as a child, with the arrival in 1834 of three Japanese castaways. More than a year earlier a full Japanese crew had set off in the Hojun-maru from the port of Toba with a cargo of rice and ceramics intended as annual tribute for the shogun up the coast in Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Very quickly they were blown offshore by a sudden autumn storm. Fourteen months later the crippled junk and its survivors were washed ashore on Cape Flattery, in current-day Washington state, along with the bales of rice and boxes of fine porcelain. A delighted band of Makah Indians seized what they could of the cargo and enslaved the survivors. The Hudson's Bay Company, who traded with the Makah, found the sailors and bought them.
Seafarers from the isles of Japan have been drifting eastwards in crippled vessels for hundreds of years, and perhaps millennia. Presumably, they mingled blood if they survived along the way—MacDonald himself felt he might be a recipient.
Their conveyor belt was the Kuroshio (Black) Current, named after the deep colour of its waters. The Kuroshio is the north Pacific's Gulf Stream, for it brings warm water from the tropics up east of Taiwan, north-eastwards along the Japanese coast and on towards the polar regions, sweeping east below the Aleutian isles and down the American coast (see map). To this day Japanese fishing floats and even monks' wooden sandals are washed up on the shores of the Pacific Northwest. Katherine Plummer in “The Shogun's Reluctant Ambassadors: Japanese Sea Drifters in the North Pacific” (Oregon Historical Society, 1991) relates the case of the ghost ship Ryoei-maru, a motorised but stricken coastal fishing boat found off Vancouver Island in 1927 with the parched corpses of the crew on board and a poignant diary of their last days.
Tokugawa xenophobia increased the risks of wreck or drift. To prevent sailors going abroad, shipbuilding rules restricted the seaworthiness of Japanese vessels. The coastal traders that brought grain and other tribute to Edo were in essence overloaded arks. They lacked stability. The wind caught their high sterns, hampering manoeuvrability. Meanwhile, they lacked the sturdy centre-mounted rudders of Chinese junks or Western craft, and Japanese rudders mounted to one side snapped readily in heavy seas, just when the craft most needed steerage.
Jukichi, reckoned to be the first recorded Japanese to land in America, returned home four years later, via Alaska and Kamchatka, and spent the first night in the village temple, as he had promised the gods. He spent the rest of his life begging funds for the memorial stone he had promised his crew.
The shogunate's hungry demand for tribute, which forced many vessels to set sail after the autumn rice harvest, no doubt increased the number of sea-drifters: that there was a word for them, hyoryumin, attests to their number. The plentiful supply of krill at the point where the warm waters of the Kuroshio meet Arctic waters, which attracted whales, no doubt increased the number of hyoryumin picked up by Western ships. A whaler from Brighton, Massachusetts, is reckoned to have been the first in Japanese waters, in 1820, when it came upon a pod of sperm whales. A year later 30 American ships cruised around Japan, and by 1839 the number of Western whalers had grown to 550, four-fifths of them American. It was off Japan, of course, that Captain Ahab lost his leg (“dismasted”) to the great white whale that was his nemesis, and in Herman Melville's imagination the mystery and danger of Moby Dick is fused with the land around which he swims.
As the north Pacific became more crowded, some of the Japanese sea-drifters were bound to help unlock the double-bolted land even before Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Edo Bay in 1853 demanding recognition for the United States. One such was Otokichi, the youngest of the three found enslaved near Cape Flattery. The Hudson's Bay Company factor had sent the crew to London, with a notion that they might be used as a means to open up trade with Japan. They were then shipped to Macau, where they helped Karl Gutzlaff, an indefatigable missionary with a Hong Kong street still named after him, to translate St John's gospel into Japanese. They hoped to return to Japan in an American trader, but the vessel met with cannon fire in Edo Bay and Kagoshima. Rebuffed, they resumed their life in Macau.
Otokichi went on to Shanghai to work for a British trading company, married an Englishwoman—perhaps the first Japanese to do so—and prospered; after her death he married an Indian. As a British subject, John Matthew Ottoson was to return twice to Japan, the second time with the Royal Navy in 1854, to act as translator during the negotiations that opened Japan up to British trade. He is buried in the Japanese Cemetery in Singapore.
Manjiro, who made it backThe most famous sea-drifter is known in the West and even Japan as John Manjiro. Two days after Melville set off in early 1841 from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, on the whaling adventure that provided the material for “Moby Dick”, Manjiro, the youngest of five crew, set out fishing near his village of Nakanohama on the rugged south-western coast of Shikoku, one of Japan's four main islands. On the fourth day, the skipper saw black clouds looming and ordered the boat to be rowed to shore. It was too late. Over two weeks they drifted east almost 400 miles, landing on Torishima, a barren volcanic speck whose only sustenance was brackish water lying in puddles and nesting seabirds. In late summer even the albatrosses left. After five months, while out scavenging, Manjiro saw a ship sailing towards the island.
The castaways' saviour, William Whitfield, captain of the John Howland, a Fairhaven whaler, took a shine to the sparky lad. In Honolulu he asked Manjiro if he wanted to carry on to Fairhaven. The boy did, studied at Bartlett's Academy, which taught maths and navigation to its boys, went to church and fell for local girls. He later signed on for a three-year whaling voyage to the Pacific, and when he returned, joined a lumber ship bound round Cape Horn for San Francisco and the California gold rush. He made a handsome sum and found passage back to Honolulu.
By early 1851—the year of “Moby Dick” and two years before Commodore Perry turned up—Manjiro was at last back in Japan, and things were already changing. He and two of the original crew had been dropped in their open sailing boat by an American whaling ship off the Ryukyu Islands. They were taken to Kagoshima, seat of the Satsuma clan. The local daimyo, Shimazu Nariakira, grilled Manjiro, but the tone was inquisitive more than inquisitorial: please to explain the steamship, trains, photography, etc. In Nagasaki, Manjiro had to trample on an image of the Virgin and child. He was asked whether the katsura bush could be seen from America growing on the moon. He described America's system of government, the modest living of the president and how New Englanders were so industrious that they used their time on the lavatory to read. Amazingly, he dared criticise Japan's ill-treatment of foreign ships in need of wood and water, and made a heartfelt plea for the opening of Japan, going so far as to put the American case for a coal-bunkering station in Japan to allow steamships to cross the Pacific from California to China.
Leeds Museums and GalleriesRather than being kept in prison, he was freed to visit his mother—in Nakanohana she showed him his memorial stone—and was even made a samurai. In Tosa (modern-day Kochi), he taught English to men who were later influential during the overthrow of the shogunate and the establishment of constitutional government in the Meiji period, from 1860. During negotiations in 1854 with Perry, Manjiro acted as an interpreter. Later, in 1860, he joined the first Japanese embassy to America. But as Christopher Benfey explains in “The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics and the Opening of Old Japan” (Random House, 2003), if the terror of being lost at sea was the defining experience of Manjiro's life, then his greatest gift to the Japanese was his translation of Nathaniel Bowditch's “The New American Practical Navigator”, known to generations of mariners as the “seaman's bible”.
As for Ranald MacDonald, though he was handed over by the Ainu and taken by junk to Nagasaki for interrogation, he was treated decently. With a respectable education and a gentle presence, he was clearly a cut above the usual rough-necked castaway, and he was put to teaching English. Some of the students who came to his cell later flourished as interpreters and compilers of dictionaries. The most notable, Einosuke Moriyama, served as the chief translator in Japan's negotiations with Perry, as well as interpreter to America's first consul to Japan, Townsend Harris.
In the spring of 1849 the American warship Preble arrived in Nagasaki, its commander, James Glynn, ignoring the imprecations from assorted Japanese craft to “go away, go away”. The American government had heard that the Lagoda, an American whaler, had been wrecked on the Japanese coast and a number of crew taken prisoner. (Historians now think the crew, whose numbers had diminished in prison through sickness and a suicide, were deserters.) The Preble was dispatched from Hong Kong to rescue them, the government thinking no doubt this was also a useful exercise in testing Japan's exclusionary resolve. To Glynn's surprise, he learnt that MacDonald, who had been presumed dead, was also in Nagasaki. The Preble carried the exultant adventurer to Macau, where he promptly signed on a ship that took him to Australia's goldfields.
A secret no moreVery soon after, Japan opened to the world. Its adoption of industrialisation and Western constitutional government was perhaps the most abrupt transformation of a country in history. That is well recorded. Less noticed was the change to sailors around Japan's coasts. Yet St John, the British explorer, relates a foreign shipwreck on Hokkaido just two decades after MacDonald left Nagasaki. The captain of the Eliza Corry was found by locals close to death on the shore. In short order, they made European clothes for him, even finding him a wide-awake hat. A table, fork and small and large spoon were fashioned for him, while a junk, dispatched in a hurry, returned with three Californian apples and three sheets of foreign notepaper to complete his contentment.
As for whaling around Japan, vestigial echoes reverberate. Every northern winter, Japan faces barbs for sending a whaling fleet into Antarctic waters. And why, asks the mayor of Taiji, a small whaling port, should Japanese ships have to go so far, suffering international outrage? Because, he says, answering his own question, the Americans fished out all the Japanese whales in the century before last.