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Common objects such as a violin and bow, saws, hatchet, hammer, wood plane, grindstone, and gimlet (above, left) were among the items described by Manjiro to this interrogators in the book Drifting Toward the Southeast.


From The Asian Reporter, V14, #10 (March 2, 2004), page 14.

The Man Who Discovered America

Drifting Toward the Southeast: The Story of Five Japanese Castaways

By John Manjiro

Translated by Junya Nagakuni and Junji Kitadai

Spinner Publications, 2003

Paperback, 160 pages, $25.00

Color and black-and-white illustrations

By Mike Street

Special to the Asian Reporter

Afraid of the corrupting influence of foreigners, Japan began its seclusionist policy in 1639, which forbade Japanese from leaving the country and made it illegal for Japanese shipwreck survivors to return home. There are many examples of Japanese seamen who suffered under this policy, but none who had as much influence as the fisherman Manjiro.

On a fishing journey in 1841, the fourteen-year-old boy was shipwrecked on a deserted island with four compatriots. They were rescued months later by an American whaling ship and, after working for more than a decade in America, the three of them returned to Japan. The story of their adventures in the mysterious Western world would cause a sensation and vault Manjiro to the rank of samurai to the Shogunate, an unprecedented leap from the lowest to the highest class in Japan.

The five castaways survived on their desolate island for nearly four months, eating gull meat and drinking rainwater (and sometimes their own urine) for sustenance, before they were rescued by the American whaling ship John James Rowland. The Rowland brought the men to Oahu, Hawaii, where they planned to find transport back to Japan. Manjiro, however, would follow a different path, accepting an offer from the captain of the Rowland to return with the ship to New Bedford, Massachusetts and learn a trade.

Manjiro learned English and whaling on the ship, then continued his education in Massachusetts, studying such subjects as math, surveying, and navigating. He apprenticed under a cooper, a craft that earned him passage aboard another whaling ship, making whale-oil barrels. On this voyage he returned to Hawaii to see his fellow castaways, where he learned that one of them, Jusuke, had died of an injury suffered during their shipwreck. Two of his other friends, Goemon and Fudenojo, told him about their only attempt to return home. They had booked passage on a ship whose captain had promised to bring them ashore, but the crewmember who landed with them could find no one to officially accept the two castaways from him, and so they’d returned to Hawaii, too discouraged to try again.

With his dream of going home seeming more distant than ever, Manjiro returned to New Bedford, where everyone was talking about the California gold rush. Manjiro immediately spent his share of the whaling profits on a ticket to California, where he mined for a little over two months and earned the incredible sum of six hundred dollars. With enough capital to finance the return of all of his friends, Manjiro returned to Oahu and bought a small whaleboat, then found an American ship willing to drop the men and their boat in Japanese waters. Two of the castaways, Goemon and Fudenojo, agreed to come along, but the fifth, Toreamon, stayed in Hawaii, believing they would once again fail. But the three men, undeterred, fought the sea once more to return home, landing on one of the Ryuku Islands after more than ten years abroad.

Manjiro and his two friends were immediately arrested and interrogated by a government both suspicious of their motives for returning and curious about the world outside Japan. In sessions that would total seventy days, the three men told their story, explaining the strange technology and practices they encountered in the United States, a nation that was newer than Japan’s seclusionist policy and therefore a mystery. To facilitate the explanations, samurai artist Kawada Shoryo was brought in to paint everything from world maps and clothing to whaling equipment and musical instruments as the three castaways described them.

The four volumes that came out of this interrogation were titled Hyosan Kiryaku ("Drifting Toward the Southeast") and passed around among the curious Japanese elite. Instantly and fantastically popular, the books were hand copied and the stories in them passed orally among the lower classes. Manjiro became a national celebrity, and his newfound popularity made him an important figure when Commodore Matthew Perry’s fleet of Black Ships forced Japan to open its borders in 1854, only nine months after Manjiro’s return. Manjiro advised the Japanese government on the subsequent negotiations, and was kept on as a samurai to teach Western navigational and whaling innovations to Japanese industry. He also wrote the first English textbook in Japan, and translated several important English books on sailing into Japanese. Manjiro has been called "The Man Who Discovered America" for bringing an understanding of this new nation and its democratic traditions to Japan and contributing to the openness that would characterize Japan’s Meiji Period.

In spite of the book’s initial popularity, the original copy of Hyosan Kiryaku was lost, along with most of the hand copies. In the nine extant copies, many of Manjiro’s handwritten letters, notes, and captions are scarcely legible, having been copied and recopied by scribes unfamiliar with English. The Spinner edition, however, offers transcriptions of these passages, as well as artwork that is believed to be from the hand of Shoryo. These illustrations, perhaps the most fascinating part of the book, often combine Western and Eastern influences, as when Shoryo’s depiction of Boston and New Bedford shows church steeples and Western ships alongside the pagodas and sloped roofs of Japanese architecture. This edition also includes several essays that help place Hyosan Kiryaku in its historical context and give further details of Manjiro’s life beyond the events of the original story. Drifting Toward the Southeast not only tells a gripping mariner’s tale, it also offers a unique and fascinating look at a pivotal moment in modern Japanese history.