electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 6 in 2008
First Published in ejcjs on 15 August 2008

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The Accidental Pioneer

John Manjiro in Japan and the United States


Yoko Ikeda

PhD Candidate
The Graduate Center
City University of New York

About the Author

Kawada, Shoryo (2003) Drifting Toward the Southeast: The Story of Five Japanese Castaways: A complete Translation of Hyoson Kiryaku(A Brief Account of Drifting Toward the Southeast), as Told to the Court of Lord Yamauchi of Tosa in 1852 by John Manjiro, translated by Junya Nagakuni and Junji Kitadai, with a foreword by Stuart M. Frank, New Bedford: Spinner Publications, ISBN 0-932027-56-3, paperback, 144 pages.

How much can one man's tale reveal a time in history? This colorfully illustrated book, Drifting Toward the Southeast: The Story of Five Japanese Castaways, is an intriguing story of the extraordinary fate of an ordinary Japanese fisherman, John Manjiro, and his four fellow fishermen who became castaways. The main component of the book is a complete translation of the manuscript Hyōson Kiryaku (A Brief Account of Drifting Toward the Southeast), which Kawada Shōryō, a samurai, scholar, and artist, etranscribed' and illustrated in 1852 based on what Manjiro told him about being a castaway, a whaling ship crewman, and one of the first Japanese to live in the United States.

While Kawada Shōryō is referred to as the etranscriber,' the manuscript reads as a story written in third-person narrative. It is not a direct transcription of Manjiro's conversations with Kawada. The manuscript consists of four books. The first book captures the ordeal of the five fishermen becoming castaways on an uninhabited island, barely surviving until they are rescued by an American whaling ship and taken to Hawaii. The four fishermen remain there while Manjiro journeys on with the captain of the whaling ship to the captain's hometown, Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Book two tells the story of the castaways who stayed in Hawaii. Two managed to gain passage on a ship hoping to return to Japan, but their attempt fails and they return to Hawaii. Book three depicts Manjiro's education in Fairhaven as well as his experiences at sea as a crewman of a whaling ship. Manjiro also works at the gold mines in California where he earns money to go to Hawaii to join his friends and to return to Japan. In book four, Manjiro and two of the other castaways finally make the successful journey back home. They face interrogations and confinement upon arrival but, at the end, are reunited with their families.

The manuscript, which was written soon after Manjiro had returned to Japan, does not place the castaways' experiences into historical context. Such a context and the follow-up story of Manjiro are provided in the foreword by Stuart M. Frank of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, as well as in the preface and epilogue, each written by one of the two translators of the manuscript. When the castaways drifted away from Japan, the country had been under a policy of seclusion for more than two centuries. Returning to Japan after having been overseas was regarded as a crime. However, a major change was nearing when Manjiro and the two others returned to Japan in 1851. Two years later, the visit from the United States of Commodore Matthew Perry leading four battleships marked the beginning of the end of the seclusion policy.

The story is captivating. It will keep the reader drawn to the story and wanting to find out what awaits the castaways as they enter a whole new world. The manuscript begins with the five fishermen, of which Manjiro was the youngest at 14, leaving for the ill-fated fishing trip on a small boat one day in January 1841 from their home village in Tosa, which is today's Kōchi Prefecture. During the near-sea fishing excursion, strong winds and currents mercilessly push the boat away and leave the fishermen clinging for their lives on the open sea for thirteen days until they end up on an uninhabited island far south of Tokyo. They live in a cave and struggle to survive for six months with fading hopes of being rescued before finally being picked up by crewmen from a massive three-mast American whaling ship.

Kawada describes the castaways' ordeals by using a writing style that seems to fall somewhere in between a dry documentation of events and an adventure story. He renders these events and experiences in vivid detail; however, for the most part, he does little to convey the emotions of the castaways with any sort of depth. What was it like for the fishermen from rural, secluded Japan to board a massive whaling ship, to meet people who do not share the same language, and to enter an entirely new and different world? The answer, unfortunately, is left largely to the reader's imagination.

The illustrations by Kawada reflect Manjiro's skillful ability to convey what he witnessed overseas. They also provide an insight into how Kawada interpreted what Manjiro described. The manuscript was written in 1852, when Japan was still under a policy of seclusion. Even though Kawada was a scholar who had studied Dutch and had knowledge of the world outside of Japan, he must have been unfamiliar with many of the things Manjiro mentioned. For instance, even though Kawada was a skilled artist, his drawing of a railroad hardly resembles an actual train, which did not exist at all in Japan during this time. Those who read Japanese can also see, in the picture captions, how Kawada did his best to transcribe into Japanese the unfamiliar sounds of English Manjiro used to describe places and things.

The manuscript captures some interesting episodes of what these men encountered on their journey. For example, at one point, the whaling ship traveled through Japanese waters and Manjiro happened to encounter two Japanese fishermen in the open sea. He attempted to communicate with them, but it was not so successful since Manjiro, who was from Tosa, and the two fishermen, from Sendai (in Miyagi in the northeastern region of Japan), spoke dialects so different that they were almost mutually unintelligible (page 98). While many distinct dialects are still spoken throughout Japan today, it is hard to imagine people not being able to communicate and understand one another's Japanese. Such an episode from over 150 years ago reminds today's readers of Japan's great regional diversity.

In another episode, Kawada describes a enaked island' near New Guinea. It provides a glimpse into how the castaways viewed the people of the island and what kind of interaction took place between the natives and the traveling crew. This and many other episodes are based on Manjiro's casual observations. Given their anecdotal nature, they may not be detailed or systematic enough to use as data for rigorous historical scholarship. Yet they are intriguing, nonetheless, given that they come from a document written over 150 years ago and based on a firsthand account.

The rescuer of the castaways, Captain William H. Whitfield, became Manjiro's mentor. He gave Manjiro the chance to study in Massachusetts and to become the crewman of a whaling ship in the 1840s. According to Ronald Takaki (1993), the first group of Chinese immigrants began arriving in California in the late 1840s. The first wave of Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawaii decades later, meaning that Manjiro was most likely the only Japanese person in the state of Massachusetts. What is striking about Manjiro's description of Massachusetts life is that there is no mention of hardship or discrimination. Since the manuscript does not touch on the emotional or psychological experiences of the castaways, it is possible that the hardship was simply omitted or not mentioned. However, Manjiro seems to have genuinely appreciated his stay. In the manuscript, Kawada describes people of the United States, based on Manjiro's impressions, as eKind and gentle by nature, both affectionate and compassionate' (page 82).

Manjiro, who before his experiences was an ordinary fisherman, returned home knowledgeable about sea navigation and American culture, and also proficient in English. Kitadai, one of the translators of the manuscripts, mentions in the epilogue that Manjiro, after returning to Japan, became an influential figure as an English teacher, then as a college professor educating many key figures who contributed to the modernization of Japan.

This book should satisfy readers interested in adventurous tales. It should also provide an ideal supplementary reading for undergraduate courses in Asian Studies or Japanese History, offering students and instructors a diversity of topics for further discussion. Most importantly, however, by recounting events as seen through the eyes of a fisherman who had the chance—very rare for that time—of living in two very different worlds, it should stimulate the scholarly imagination about this transformative period in Japanese and American history. In the preface, it is mentioned that Kawada's manuscript was highly sought after by Japanese leaders facing the tremendous changes that would reshape the country after Perry's visit. This complete English translation allows today's readers to see how 19th century Japanese leaders got their first glimpse of the United States.

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Takaki, Ronald (1993) A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

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About the Author

Yoko Ikeda is a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. In 1998, she received a Masters of International Affairs from the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. She was a visiting scholar at the Pace Institute for Environmental and Regional Studies at Pace University in fall 2005 and, from 2005 until 2007, was a writing fellow at the City College of New York, City University of New York.

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Copyright: Yoko Ikeda
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