When 14-year-old Manjiro set off on a fishing excursion on January 5, 1841, he and his four companions packed only light provisions—rice, fresh water and firewood—in their small boat, expecting to return home to southern Japan in a few days. Manjiro’s widowed mother, Shiho, relied on him to help support the family.
But unforgiving weather can quickly dispatch with travelers’ plans, and that day, the sea turned against Manjiro and his friends. They were blown off course by winds that smashed their sails, split their rudder and snatched their oars, leaving them adrift and unable to navigate. “Their provisions exhausted, they were unbearably hungry and thirsty,” an official account later reported. “They felt hopeless.”
After floating for days in the open water, the men spotted a small, rocky, uninhabited island under a cloud of swirling albatrosses. Known as Torishima, or Bird Island, it was hundreds of miles off course but would suffice as a refuge—inhospitable but preferable to certain death. For six months, Manjiro and the other men—Toraemon, Denzo, Goemon and Jusuke—barely survived, huddling in a cave and eating albatrosses to survive.
Raised in a Japan that had been resolutely sealed to the outside world for more than two centuries, the shipwrecked men knew the odds of spotting a passing trade ship were slim. Foreign engagement was viewed as a threat to the Tokugawa shogunate, which restricted trade and banned most foreigners from entering the country.
But on June 27, a large ship appeared. Its American sailors spoke incomprehensible words, but they saved the lives of the desperate castaways. That rescue set Manjiro’s life on an a radically different trajectory—one that helped push open Japan’s long-closed doors. “When John Manjiro returned to Japan,” said United States President Calvin Coolidge decades later, “it was as if America had sent its first ambassador.”
Two days before Manjiro and his companions set out in search of fish, a young man named Herman Melville boarded a ship in New Bedford, Massachusetts, seeking inspiration more than income. The whaling ship John Howland, which would become Manjiro’s savior, had left the same port more than a year prior on a long whaling journey under the command of Captain William H. Whitfield.
New Bedford and Fairhaven, its neighbor on the other side of the Acushnet River, were a far cry from Manjiro’s small coastal hometown of Nakanohama. In the first half of the 19th century, these New England towns became the whaling center of the country, lighting homes with their steady supply of whale oil.
The rewards were significant: By 1850, New Bedford had the highest per capita wealth in the U.S. But myriad dangers awaited men in whaling waters. The ill-fated Essex, whose harrowing fate inspired Melville’s seminal 1851 novel, Moby-Dick, exemplified the cornucopia of catastrophes that could befall a whaler. In 1820, a thrashing whale attacked the Essex, leaving its crew stranded at sea on boats. The men eventually descended into cannibalism and madness. Still, the insatiable need for whale oil compelled many a whaler to chase these powerful creatures.
Whitfield’s log entry from June 27, 1841, chronicles the privation and terror he and his crew stumbled upon at Torishima that day: “Sent in two boats to see if there were any turtles [to eat]. Found five poor distressed people on the isle. Took them off. Could not understand anything from them more than that they were hungry.”
The stranded sailors were hundreds of miles from home, but returning would be risky for other reasons: Those tainted by foreign contact could face the death penalty if they went back to Japan. At the time, “it was normal to be killed if you came back after being washed away or marooned somewhere,” says Samuel H. Yamashita, a historian at Pomona College.
Instead, Manjiro and his companions were nourished back to strength as the John Howland sailed east toward the island of Oahu, then part of the independent Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. Despite his recent travails, Manjiro exhibited a keen interest in his new surroundings and the whaling process, leaving an impression on Whitfield. “His curiosity was insatiable, and the captain recognized that and said, ‘Wow, with that kind of curiosity, imagine what he could do if he was able to go to school,’” says Gerry Rooney, president and CEO of the Fairhaven-based Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society. The rescuers agreed that Manjiro would travel back to Fairhaven under Whitfield’s care while the other castaways remained and worked in Honolulu.
Manjiro first laid eyes on his new home, once again in bewilderingly new surroundings, in May 1843. He is thought to be the first Japanese person to permanently reside in the U.S., where he was known as John Mung.
The teenager proved to be a prodigious student, learning English and studying mathematics and navigation at the nearby Bartlett School. Many in the community embraced him, having already lived and worked in the local whaling industry alongside fugitives from slavery and Portuguese immigrants.
But when the teenager’s presence in the Whitfield family church pew elicited suggestions that he should sit with Black congregants, the captain refused. Instead, the Whitfields joined a Unitarian church, which they attended alongside a prominent community member named Warren Delano II. “I well remember my grandfather telling me all about the little Japanese boy who went to school in Fairhaven and who went to church from time to time with the Delano family,” wrote then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Manjiro’s eldest son, Toichiro Nakahama, in 1933.
Manjiro possessed an extraordinary ability to adapt, but the material comforts of his new environment could not erase the emotionally wrenching separation he had experienced at a young age. According to Manjiro: The Man Who Discovered America, a 1956 account of his life by Hisakazu Kaneko, classmate Job C. Tripp once told a story about finding Manjiro crying into the remnants of a kimono made for him by his mother.
It was this longing for his mother that drove Manjiro to return to Japan to see her, despite the dangers posed by his time in America. At the start of the 17th century, Japan forced missionaries out of the country and banned Christianity, which was seen as a threat to the reigning Tokugawa shogunate. Officials tortured and killed foreigners who remained, in addition to targeting Japanese converts to Christianity. As Japanese internal commerce flourished, the government continued to restrict international trade to the Dutch and the Chinese. Attempts by the Russians, British and Americans to visit Japan’s shores were promptly rebuffed. In 1837, just a few years before Manjiro and his fellow fishermen were marooned on Torishima, the American ship Morrison was fired upon during one such attempt.
Like Manjiro’s journey to Massachusetts, his voyage back to Japan proved long and challenging. Beginning in 1846, he spent several years working aboard the whaling ship Franklin. He wrote back to the U.S. whenever he was able, always expressing fondness for the Whitfields. “Captain, how can I forget your kindness. When can I pay for your fatherly treatment,” he wrote during an October 1848 stop in Honolulu, where he reunited with the companions left behind when he accompanied Whitfield to New England. “Thank God 10,000 times and never will forget.”
After Manjiro’s extended voyage on the Franklin, he returned to Massachusetts. His stay was brief. Another pathway to Japan beckoned, this time through the gold frenzy that had seized California. In the fall of 1849, Manjiro set sail again on the sea route around Cape Horn, spending several months among the gold-seeking “49ers.” From California, he was able to earn enough to board another westward vessel.
Stopping again in Honolulu, the main resupply point between the U.S. and Asia, Manjiro visited his fellow castaways and contemplated his return to Japan. Jusuke had died of injuries sustained during the shipwreck, and Toraemon had settled into life on Oahu, but Denzo and Goemon agreed to join their friend on his perilous journey. Another longtime acquaintance, the Reverend Samuel Damon, called for support for Manjiro’s journey in the missionary publication the Friend.
In December 1850, the men set sail aboard the Sarah Boyd. Upon reaching Japan the following month, the trio switched to a smaller boat, aptly named the Adventurer, rowing ashore to tiny islands off Okinawa. In an ironic turn, they alarmed the local inhabitants with their foreign clothing and appearance.
Manjiro and his compatriots’ reappearance in Japan in 1851 triggered their detainment and the start of a prolonged period of questioning. It was only in October 1852 that Manjiro was finally allowed to travel home to see his mother, who joyfully welcomed him. As he later told Damon, who reprinted the account in the Friend, she had “mourned me as dead; under that impression, she had built for me a tomb.”
Their reunion was long-awaited—and short-lived. Manjiro was called away just three days later to the city of Kochi. He would be uprooted several times as word of his knowledge spread within the ranks of Japan’s government. “He brought so many ideas [after] having been away for so long and in the Western world,” says Rooney.
Manjiro’s rise to prominence in his home country stemmed from his knowledge of the English language, familiarity with American culture, and expertise in the whaling and ship industries. It coincided with a U.S. effort to push for trade with and resupply ports in Japan in line with America’s own national expansion.
Previous foreign forays into Japanese waters had failed; though some in the governing elite wanted to move toward more open relations, Japan remained closed to the outside world. But in the summer of 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry and his squadron of “Black Ships”—so named for their heavy coat of black paint, which elicited a sense of foreboding—appeared on the horizon of Edo (Tokyo) Bay. Perry carried a letter from President Millard Fillmore that underscored his mission of polite coercion:
We know that the ancient laws of your imperial majesty’s government do not allow of foreign trade, except with the Chinese and the Dutch, but as the state of the world changes and new governments are formed, it seems to be wise, from time to time, to make new laws.
America’s demonstration of sea power left little doubt about the showdown’s outcome. “The [letter] was not an invitation,” says Yamashita. “It was a demand that Japan be opened.”
After Perry’s arrival, “Manjiro was called up, but there was some suspicion that [because] he was so fluent and seemed so familiar and easy with the Americans, he might be a spy,” says Yamashita. Instead, the negotiators relied on convoluted translations from English to Dutch to Japanese, and vice versa. The veil of mistrust wasn’t simply metaphorical. Manjiro provided interpretation and advice while hidden from sight behind a screen. Nonetheless, Tripp recalled him having a role in vouching for Perry behind the scenes.
When Perry returned the next year for Japan’s expected answer, the country’s reply conveyed its reluctant assent: “We are governed now by imperative necessity.” On March 31, 1854, the two sides signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, paving the way for port access and trade and, by extension, the gradual start of diplomatic relations.
The treaty did not erase centuries of distrust overnight. Nor did it bring to an end the watchfulness that followed Manjiro. His knowledge was indispensable and threatening at the same time. Being valued did not mean being trusted.
Manjiro’s rising stature cut both ways. He was accorded samurai status and took the surname Nakahama, after his hometown. Through the remainder of the 1850s, he busied himself teaching, writing a book on the English language and painstakingly translating a standard American navigation text.
“Manjiro helped develop the modern Japanese navy,” says Yamashita. “He provided detailed knowledge about naval architecture, navigation and … everyday life on contemporary American ships.”
In 1860, prevailing diplomatic winds, which by 1868 would lead the country to truly open its borders for the first time since 1603, once again put Manjiro on a ship bound for the U.S.—the first Japanese vessel to cross the Pacific Ocean since the 17th century. It was a frustrating voyage for Manjiro, whose skills were subsumed under higher-ranking officers who still bore lingering distrust toward him. Lieutenant John M. Brooke, who wrote an account of the Kanrin Maru’s journey, described Manjiro as “intensely disgusted” by the lack of experience of his superior officers and observed that “he occupies a very dangerous position and has to be careful to avoid difficulties.”
When Manjiro once again reached Honolulu, Damon was delighted to see him after years with no word of his whereabouts. “How changed his lot,” Damon observed in the Friend in June 1860. “Now the Japanese official, with ‘two swords’ [denoting warrior status], but formerly the poor Japanese shipwrecked sailor, seeking to return home, although trembling lest if he should … be beheaded.”
As soon as he reached Honolulu, Manjiro wrote to Whitfield, catching him up with a summary of his time in the gold mines and his unusual rise within Japanese officialdom. “I wish to send the letter from San Francisco,” Manjiro wrote, “but so many Japanese eyes I can’t.”
He added, “I am still living and hope you were the same blessing. I wish to meet you in this world once more. How happy we would be.”
But another long decade passed before that wish came true. In 1870, Manjiro was sent on another extended diplomatic mission, this time as part of a larger delegation traveling to the U.S. and Europe to exchange political and military knowledge as Japan expanded its international influence. When his ship stopped in New York, he took the train to Massachusetts, where he had an emotional reunion with the father figure who had saved him almost 30 years earlier.
“They had great respect for each other,” says Rooney. “The captain [recognized] the possibility with this young man and then [saw] it come to fruition eventually when he was so important to the modernization of his own country. The captain was a very well-respected individual himself, and Manjiro felt like he was a second father, almost, to him.”
During the remainder of his life in Japan, Manjiro served as guide for many emerging warriors who became influential during the Meiji Restoration, an era of social and political change that began in 1868 and made Japan a formidable power on the world stage.
At the time of his death in 1898, Manjiro was a man of modest means, living quietly in the care of his sons. As Japan passed into the new century, its naval power was on display in its victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and 1905. That military might would turn out to be a shaping force in the world during the first half of the 20th century.
Recognition of Manjiro’s achievements was belated but effusive. In 1918, 20 years after his death, the Japanese ambassador presented a commemorative sword to the town of Fairhaven on behalf of Manjiro’s eldest son, Toichiro. In a letter to the ambassador, President Woodrow Wilson wrote that “such links between Japan and America are delightful to remember.” The next year, the ambassador decorated Whitfield’s son Marcellus with the Sixth Order of the Rising Sun in recognition of his father’s role in Manjiro’s rescue; in 1929, Manjiro himself was posthumously honored by the Japanese emperor for “the distinguished service he had rendered Japan during his lifetime.”
In 1987, when Manjiro’s hometown (now known as Tosashimizu) established a sister city relationship with Fairhaven and New Bedford, then-Crown Prince Akihito was in attendance. In Tosashimizu, a statue of Manjiro looks out over Shikoku Island’s coastline, near the John Mung Museum. The Whitfield-Manjiro Society, which counts descendants of both men among its supporters, offers a tour that recreates the castaway’s life in Massachusetts. Tripp, Manjiro’s childhood friend, maintained a warm correspondence with his eldest son and granddaughter in the decades after his death. In 1996, President Bill Clinton recalled Manjiro’s story yet again when making a state visit to Japan.
As extraordinary as the changes during his lifetime were, it’s unlikely that Manjiro could ever have envisioned being the topic of conversation between Japan and America’s leaders a century after his death.
“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,” wrote Melville in Moby-Dick in 1851, the same year Manjiro arrived back on Japanese soil under threat of arrest.
A whaling ship alone did not unlock the country—but one called the John Howland did rescue a poor, uneducated teenager whose innate savvy enabled him to navigate the currents of his time and hasten the transformation of Japan.
As Brooke, the lieutenant who accompanied Manjiro on his 1860 voyage to America, wrote in his journal, “Manjiro is certainly one of the most remarkable men I ever saw. … I am satisfied that he has had more to do with the opening of Japan than any other man living.”