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The Ordeal Of The Kanrin Maru

July 2024
7min read

New evidence suggests that Manjiro, the first Japanese to see the U. S., not only played an unrecognized part in the opening of Japan, but also helped save the pride of its young navy from a watery grave

Some seven years ago, in the December, 1956 issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE, there appeared the remarkable saga of Manjiro, the shipwrecked Japanese waif who was rescued and brought to the United States by a Yankee whaling captain. Since this account was published, however, significant evidence relating to what is perhaps the most dramatic incident in Manjiro’s later career has turned up. In the following article, Miss Emily V. Warinner, author of a biography of Manjiro, Voyager to Destiny (Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), describes this new information. Though the story of the storm-racked voyage of the Kanrin Maru is, in her words, “a footnote to history,” it is not without importance: a man who had hitherto seemed merely a picturesque character is now revealed as a figure who played a major role in ending Japan’s long era of self-enforced isolation. —The Editors

In January, 1841, a sudden storm off the coast of Japan drove five fishermen out to sea and washed them up on a barren, uninhabited island. For five months they were stranded with little food, almost no water, and, apparently, less hope of rescue. Then, in June, the American whaler John Howland sighted the castaways and took them on board. The Howland ’s captain, William H. Whitfield, took the five men to his next port of call, Honolulu in the Sandwich Islands. Four of them remained there. The fifth and youngest, fifteen-year-old Maniiro, sailed for America.

Captain Whitfield had become so fond of Manjiro (whom he called John Mung) that he treated him as a son; when he at last returned to his home in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, he enrolled the boy in a local academy. Manjiro graduated, learned the trade of cooper, cruised the world in whaling ships, and dug for gold in California. Finally, however, he decided to go back to Japan, even at the risk of his life, for the Exclusion Edict of 1638 decreed that “He shall be executed who went to a foreign country and later returned home.”

When Manjiro returned in 1851, he was almost immediately thrown into prison. For months, suspicious officials questioned him about his adventures. Manjiro’s testimony fascinated them, particularly his description of ships that moved swiftly over the sea without the assistance of wind or sail. In the end, he was released.

When Commodore Perry arrived in 1853 with the first steamships the Japanese had ever seen, the truth of Manjiro’s testimony was no longer questioned; he was called to the seat of the government at Yedo—today’s Tokyo—for consultation. Never allowed to see Perry or to enter the treaty house, Manjiro was detained behind the scenes by the authorities of the Tokugawa shogunate, who questioned him at great length about the meaning of the American demands. Later, he acted as special adviser to Egawa Tarozaemon, a progressive leader of the shogunate, who trusted Manjiro and took advantage of many of his advanced ideas.

In 1860, as an act of friendship, the United States provided the steam frigate Powhatan for the transportation of the first Japanese mission to Washington, which went to ratify the commercial treaty recently signed by the American Minister, Townsend Harris, and the Japanese government. As a reciprocal courtesy (and also to display their newly acquired nautical knowledge), the Japanese decided that their own warship, the Kanrin Maru, recently purchased from the Netherlands, should accompany the embassy as far as San Francisco.

Because of the limited naval training of the officers and crew of the Kanrin Maru , the Japanese requested that an American naval officer be assigned to the ship. Commodore Josiah Tattnall, commander of the United States East India Squadron, selected Lieutenant John Mercer Brooke, an astronomer and hydrographer of long experience. Originally, Brooke had been commissioned by the United States Navy to determine the best steamship route between San Francisco and Hong Kong. Finishing this assignment, he had stopped off in Japan. There, he had contemplated a survey of the newly opened treaty ports when his ship, the Fenimore Cooper , was wrecked by a typhoon.

His plans thus thwarted, Lieutenant Brooke was glad to accept the proffered passage to the United States, and was assisting in final arrangements when he met Manjiro, the earlier victim of shipwreck. Manjiro had been assigned to the Kanrin Maru as official interpreter, and the two had many long talks, the substance of which Lieutenant Brooke set down in his day-to-day journals.

Never intended for publication, these journals have been preserved by Brooke’s grandson, Dr. George M. Brooke, Jr., professor of history at Virginia Military Institute; in 1960 they were offered to the Association for the Japan-U.S. Amity and Trade Centennial and published in Japan as Volume V of the Collected Documents of the Japanese Mission to America, 1860 .

In the middle of February, 1860, the Kanrin Maru and the Powhatan set out from the Bay of Yedo for America. It was not long before Lieutenant Brooke’s journal entries began to complain not only of the inadequate training but of the indifference of the officers and crew of the Kanrin Maru; only Manjiro continued to command the American’s respect. And yet, for all his misgivings, Brooke had faith that the native ability of the Japanese would somehow see them safely through.

But Brooke had failed to reckon on the violent whim of the elements. Before very long, the two ships ran into a typhoon: “The worst storm ever encountered in the Pacific,” reported a seasoned officer on the Powhatan . To make matters worse, the captain of the Kanrin Maru became incapacitated with seasickness; Brooke was forced to assume command. Fortunately, the American officer could rely on Manjiro, who was an experienced navigator. Had it not been for these two men and a remnant of the crew from the wrecked Fenimore Cooper , the ship might well have gone down.

From here on, Brooke’s verbatim journal tells the story of the Kanrin Maru ’s ordeal:
… Two seamen only in each watch. There does not appear to be any such thing as order or discipline onboard. In fact the habits of the [Japanese] do not admit of such discipline and order as we have on our men of war. The Japanese sailors must have their little charcoal fires below, their hot tea and pipes of tobacco. The Saki [ sic ] is not very carefully kept from them. Add to this that the orders are all given in dutch and that very few of the seamen understand that language and one may form some idea of the manner in which duty is carried on. The Capt is still confined to his bed, the Commofdore], also. [Brooke here refers to Kimura Settsuno Kami, Japan’s Secretary of Naval Affairs, who was another of the Kanrin Maru ’s passengers] The officers leave the doors open which slam about, leave their cups dishes & kettles on the deck to roll and slide about so that there is nothing but confusion. We must remember however that this is their first sailing cruise, that the weather is heavy, and that they were taught by the Dutch. Manjiro is the only Japanese onboard who has any idea of what reforms the Japanese Navy requires.
… We are badly off for barometer; the Adie oscillates about an inch at each roll, and one of the Japanese put his hand through the face of the aneroid. I have the remnants in my room now. Another put his foot through the sky light and today we shipped a sea which nearly reached the Chronometers. Tis a high old cruise. But I like the novelty. I shall endeavor to improve the Japanese navy and will aid Manjiro in his efforts. … It blew very violently from SSE until midnight. Several times I thought the sails would leave the yard. At 12 PM it rained in torrents, the air white. Wind hauled to Westd and soon came on strong, but that being the last change to be anticipated I felt relieved. At 3 turned in. We made 96 miles from noon to midnight. I had hardly laid down before I was called again. Squalls heavy. I was much struck by the apathy of the Japanese early in the evening. There was every appearance of a gale [yet] the hatches were not properly secured and the light in the binnacle was very dim. The officer of the deck was below [and] two or three Japanese sailors [were] crouching about the deck. I sent to Manjiro and finally succeeded in getting not only the officer whose watch it was but all the officers—who clustered aft. … I proposed today to watch, quarter & station men and officers. But an unexpected difficulty occurred; of 6 officers of the grade of Lieutenant some are totally ignorant of their profession. The Commo: is unwilling to give [watches to] those who are competent … as they are not of as high shore rank as some who are incompetent. … Manjiro is intensely disgusted; he is forced to yield to the Commo. But he has convinced the officers of the propriety of putting them in watches. I asked him what the Commo: would do if I took my men off watch and refused to work the vessel. “Let her go to the bottom,” he replied. He said [that] for his part he had some regard for life. … On the ist [of March], I had an understanding with the officers & Capt. It has been necessary heretofore to keep a constant lookout myself and to have our men on watch as the Japanese are totally incompetent. The wind being ahead I proposed to show the officers how to tack ship. They were too lazy to come on deck, made various excuses etc. I therefore , called all my men and sent them below with orders to do . nothing without my consent. I then informed the Capt that I should not continue to take care of the vessel unless his officers would assist. He gave them a lecture [and] put them under my orders, and I sent my watch on deck. … … Manjiro tells me that the Japanese sailors threatened to hang him at the yard arm last night when he insisted upon their going aloft. I told him that in case of any attempt to put that threat into execution to call upon me, that in case of mutiny on the part of the Japanese sailors if the Capt. would give authority I would hang them immediately. …

So great was the fury of the storm that the Powhatan changed course and headed toward Honolulu for repairs. Meanwhile the Kanrin Maru plodded ahead; on March 17, after a voyage of thirty-seven days, she finally dropped anchor in San Francisco harbor. The Powhatan did not arrive until twelve days later.

Writing to the Secretary of the Navy, Isaac Toucey, Lieutenant Brooke related without rancor the difficulties encountered during the voyage. He also took the opportunity to praise Manjiro, whom he described as “a Japanese of singular ability.”

In his journal, however, Brooke was even more lavish in his praise of the man who had been the first from his country to see America. “Manjiro,” Brooke wrote, “is certainly one of the most remarkable men I ever saw. He has translated Bowditch [Nathaniel Bowditch’s New American Practical Navigator ] into the Japanese language … He is very communicative and I am satisfied that he has had more to do with the opening of Japan than any man living …”

Thus, in the journals and letters of a contemporary, a veteran of some twenty-five years in the United States Navy, Manjiro’s importance in the history of nineteenth-century Japan is revealed. As one leading Japanese scholar, Professor Eiichi Kiyooka of Keio University in Tokyo, has written, “Brooke was perhaps the only man who really knew Manjiro’s worth at that time.”

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