“…I need your help. An American retired army officer by the name of Butler arrived in Edo a few days ago to advise our army. He comes well recommended by Nakahama Manjiro. You know of him, don’t you?
“Of course I know of him. He’s that commoner…the one who the Shogun saw fit to elevate to samurai status. He lived in America as a boy, as I recall,” Tokunari sniffed.
“That’s him, but you needn’t be so dismissive. It’s true he is, or should I say was merely a commoner, but he knows America more than any Japanese…” –An excerpt from the draft of my novel “Quest for the Shogun’s Gold”
Just who was the man named Manjiro? He was a historical figure born in Japan in 1827. (At that time, commoners did not have family names.) At the age of 14 and desperately poor, he set out with this uncle and friends to fish off the coast of Shikoku Island. A violent storm swept them away and they ended up shipwrecked on the deserted island of Torishima, about 700 miles from their home.
They were stranded there for several months and in desperate straits and on the point of starvation when an American whaling ship stopped and rescued them. The kindly captain, William Whitfield, clothed and fed the ragged shipwrecked fishermen and took a shine to Manjiro, offering him the chance to return to the U.S. with him. To this, John Manjiro (as he was now called) readily agreed. When he landed in Fairhaven, Massachusetts in 1843, Captain Whitfield saw to it that John went to school where he learned English.
He eventually entered the Bartlett School in Fairhaven where he learned navigation and advanced mathematics. He signed on to a whaling ship and was promoted to harpooner. After a lengthy voyage, he returned to Fairhaven… but not for long. With the $350 he had earned, he sailed to San Francisco and then travelled to the Sierras where he panned for gold and came back with $600, about $30,000 in today’s money.
Homesick, he made up his mind to return to Japan but doing so was a dangerous proposition. The Shogun’s government had established a policy of national isolation and made it a capital offense to have contact with foreigners. Nevertheless, John Manjiro booked passage on a ship that took him and several of his former shipwrecked mates to Okinawa where he was for all intents and purposes, put under house arrest.
After months of interrogation, he was allowed to return to his home where he met his widowed mother after almost 12 years. In 1853, the Shogun’s government summoned him to Edo (modern day Tokyo) where he advised the government on matters concerning the treaty demands being made by Commodore Mathew Calbraith Perry who had arrived with a flotilla of warships. For his services, John was made a samurai and was allowed to take a family name. He chose “Nakahama” aft
er the town where he had been born.
In the ensuing years Nakahama Manjiro helped establish the whaling industry in Japan, translated a book on navigation, and acted as an official interpreter when the first Japanese delegation visited the U.S. But, he never forgot the kindness of Captain William Whitfield and in
1870, when he landed in New York with a government delegation, he travelled to New Bedford, Massachusetts to visit his old friend and benefactor. A photograph of the two men was recently discovered at the New Bedford library and is pictured here.
Returning to Japan, he became English professor at the institution which would eventually become Tokyo University. He died in 1898 after a long illness.
This spring and summer I made two trips to Japan during which time I conducted research from my novel “Quest for the Shogun’s Gold”. Both times I had the pleasure to meet and interview Dr. Issei Imanaga, Manjiro’s direct descendent. He and his wife Yuko provided me with much valuable information for my novel.
In 2009, a Japanese philanthropist bought Captain Whitfield’s home in Fairhaven and turned it into a museum which is now operated by The Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society. Every other year in October, a festival honoring Whitfield and Manjiro is held in Fairhaven. The next festival will be held in 2017. Read more detailed account of John Manjiro and the festival by clicking:
Donations to renovate the Whitfield house are now being solicited. You can contribute to this noble cause by purchasing the delightful children’s book “Courage & Effort of John Manjiro”. (It can easily be read by enlarging it.) It is richly illustrated and written in both English and Japanese. The cost of the book is $19.00 which includes shipping and handling within the U.S. To order the book, send an e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: The photos of Manjiro and Whitfield are courtesy of the Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society. The photo of Manjiro and Whitfiield together recently appeared in the Japan Times. Two pages from “Courage & Effort of John Manjiro” are printed here with permission from the author.