A small fishing boat set sail off the coast of Shikoku, Japan, in January 1841. Great inequities were built into the social structure of the country at that time, and the five men in the boat were desperate to catch some fish, or else their families would go hungry. The oldest of the men was Toraemon. Denzo was the leader, and Jusuke was in charge of steering. Goemon was a novice fisherman, as was the youngest, Manjiro, who was only fourteen years old.
The older men were often impatient with Manjiro, who was curious and was always asking questions. Manjiro could not help but wonder what lay across the sea, and Denzo brusquely reminded him that "barbarians...demons with hairy faces, big noses, and blue eyes" lived there and should be avoided at all costs. Feudal Japan existed under a draconian isolationist policy. Not only were ports closed to all foreigners, but anybody who left Japan, whether intentionally or not, was sentenced to death upon his return, lest he spread poisonous ideas to which he might have been exposed in the outside world. It was believed that nothing but "contamination [lay] beyond the reach of the tides."
So intent were the fishermen on their labor that they did not notice that a terrible storm was arising. The winds and rains came suddenly and violently, ripping the rudder from the little boat and snapping its mast. The men were adrift for eight days, without food or water. On the eighth day, as they prepared to die, they shared the hopes and dreams that they now believed would never be realized. When Manjiro revealed that he had wanted to become a samurai, the men laughed at him. Being a samurai was a station into which one was born, and he was but a poor fisherman's son.
As it turned out, the men did not die, but instead were shipwrecked on Bird Island, a tiny piece of land which was little more than a rock. They managed to survive for a significant amount of time there, even though food and fresh water were very difficult to procure. One day, two small boats arrived on the island. Manjiro and his companions were rescued by men with eyes "as blue as the sea."
The shipwrecked fishermen had been discovered by sailors from the American whaling ship the John Howland, who had been sent to find turtles on Bird Island. Though they were grateful for their rescue, the Japanese castaways were terrified by the appearance of their "barbarian" saviors, who were large in...
(The entire section is 2626 words.)
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