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 stature and had "skins" and hair of "all different colors." The fishermen were taken to a ship more enormous than anything they could ever have imagined. When they were brought before the "ruler of the ship," Captain Whitfield, they fully expected to be tortured, but the Captain was benevolent. He gave them food to eat and clothes to wear like the other sailors.
Manjiro and his friends were aboard the ship for many weeks. The environment was exceedingly strange to the fishermen. They could not understand the language being spoken, nor could they get used to wearing their stiff, confining shoes, or sitting so high up off the floor on chairs, with their legs dangling beneath them. Though the crew men were kind for the most part, Manjiro's companions were always fearful and decided that "silence and obedience was the safest route to staying alive." In contrast, Manjiro's curious and adventurous nature inclined him to embrace his new situation. He began to learn the language of the sailors in hopes of getting answers to some of the many questions running through his mind. It was the Captain himself to whom Manjiro first spoke in broken English. The Captain, who had taken a particular liking to the young boy, encouraged him to communicate, demanding, "How are you going to learn if you don't ask anything?"
For a long time, the Japanese fishermen were mystified as to the ship's objective in sailing the high seas. Finally, its purpose became clear when a whale was sighted, and every aspect of the vessel and crew came alive. All the American sailors were busy as the small boats mounted on the John Howland were launched. When the crew was rendered one man short because of illness, Manjiro was recruited to row.
Manjiro was astonished when he saw the massive behemoth up close. He was even more amazed at the men's heedless courage as they approached it. He performed his duties impeccably, but when the whale was vanquished, his exhilaration was tempered by a sense of sadness and disgust that such a noble creature should be so wantonly slaughtered. In the aftermath of the conquest, the whale was butchered, its blubber taken, and the carcass, with the meat intact, was thrown to the sharks. Although whales were killed in Japan too, every part of the creature was used, and its meat was distributed to assuage the hunger of many people. Manjiro's companions were aghast that he had been a part of the atrocity they had just witnessed, and their leader, Denzo, warned him that he was indeed allowing himself to be corrupted by the barbarians.
Despite his ambivalence, Manjiro had performed exceptionally well during the whale hunt, and the Captain bestowed upon him "a new whaling name; John Mung." Seeing that Manjiro had learned English so quickly, Captain Whitfield called the boy into his cabin one day to explain his plans for the Japanese fishermen. Originally, when his men had picked the survivors up on Bird Island, he had hoped to return them to their home in Japan. Sadly, Japan's isolationist policy made that endeavor impossible; its shores were firmly "sealed and shuttered." Captain Whitfield had found new homes for the fishermen on Oahu in the Sandwich Islands, but he invited Manjiro to continue on with the John Howland to America, "to live with him as his son." With its holds filled with barrels of whale oil, the John Howland arrived at its home port in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in May 1843. Manjiro was sixteen years old and had been away from Japan for more than two years; he was widely considered to be the first Japanese individual to set foot in America.
To Manjiro, New Bedford was a place "filled with lovely people and truly full of wonders...he could not look at enough things at once." His quickly understood, however, that things were not completely perfect in this amazing new place, when, as he walked with Captain Whitfield through the bustling port city, a group of young boys followed behind, making ugly faces and rude...
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