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The Man Who Discovered America
The story of Manjiro, the shipwrecked waif; of the kindly captain from Fairhaven; and of how Japan, hidden away from the world, learned strange news of other lands
December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
In 1841, before Commodore Perry had opened up Japan, before any Japanese had set foot in America, a fisherman’s boy was transported by a chance of history to Massachusetts. This is his story, condensed from a new book by Hisakazu Kaneko, published by Houghton Mifflin Co. Manjiro, The Man Who Discovered America is a true account, so strange and charming that it reads like a fairy tale.
Manjiro was born in the tenth year of the Bunsei era (1827) in a lonely fishing village called Nakanohama, in the province of Tosa where the warm Black Current of the Pacific Ocean ceaselessly washes its craggy coast. His father Etsuke died when Manjiro was only nine years old and his widowed mother, Shio, with her lean hands had to feed her five ever-hungry children. So poor was she that she could not afford to send the children to a nearby Buddhist temple for a simple education. Manjiro had to work. When he was thirteen years old, he put to sea in a fishing boat and unhooked fish from the lines to get what little money he could earn and help his widowed mother eke out a scanty livelihood.
On the morning of the fifth of January, 1841, when he was fourteen years old, he took to the sea, bright and early, from Usaura with Denzo, aged 38, Jusuke, aged 25, and Goemon, aged 15, both brothers of Denzo, and Toraemon, aged 26, in an attempt to catch the sea bass that would come riding along in the tide of the New Year.
For seven days they had no luck. Then, suddenly, a strong monkey-and-cock wind began to blow, so they decided to make for land before they were overtaken by a storm. When the boat had traversed about ten miles of the intervening sea it ran into such a large shoal of mackerel and sea bream that the sea seemed to have taken on a dark purplish color. Denzo spurred the others into action and cast six bucketfuls of nets. In the meantime the sky grew dark and the wind blew full blast, threatening to overturn the boat at any moment. Terrified out of their wits, they rowed as hard as they could, but soon they became too exhausted to prevent the boat from being carried away by the wind and waves like a fallen leaf in a rapid stream.
When the storm ended they were drifting helpless in the open sea. Drenched with rain by day, nearly frozen by night, they drifted slowly southward. On the fifth day after the storm, they were cast ashore on an island inhabited only by the albatross.
Five months passed, during which they lived on albatross, seaweed, and shellfish. It was on June 27 that Manjiro happened to sight a tiny black dot far away on the horizon. “It’s a ship!” He danced with joy and his voice rang in the quiet morning of the lonely island.
The ship dropped anchor and put out two boats. The men in the boats came quite close to the shore now, but finding no place to land, they made signs to the stranded men to take off their clothes and tie them on their heads and swim across. But the Japanese hesitated for some time, a little afraid of those redhaired and blue-eyed foreigners with white skin. They noticed that there was a black man too. Manjiro, determined and courageous, went down the cliff and taking off his clothes, tied them on his head and jumped into the sea just as the strangers had instructed him. They rowed up one of the boats and helped him into it. Thinking it was God’s help, Manjiro knelt down and worshiped the strangers in gratitude. At this the black sailor burst out laughing. Goemon and then Toraemon jumped into the sea, each carrying his kimono on his head to be rescued in the same way.
On this day Captain Whitfield of the John Howland made the following simple entry in his logbook:
Sunday, June 27, 1841
This day light winds from the S.E. The Isle in sight 26 1.00 p.m. Sent in two boats to see if there were any turtles. Found 5 poor distressed people on the Isle. Took them off. Could not understand anything from them more than that they were hungry. Made the latitude of the Isle 30 deg. 31 min. N.
The ship which rescued the five Japanese fishermen was a large vessel with three tall masts hoisting more than ten sails and jibs and spreading its weblike cordage in all directions. The crew consisted of more than thirty men both white and black. John Howland was the name of the ship; it was a whaler from New Bedford, Massachusetts, U.S.A., and the captain was Mr. William H. Whitfield.
The rescued men, either half-naked or in tattered kimono, were ghostly emaciated and sick from long hunger and exposure, with their lifeless faces half hidden in their long, dry, shaggy hair. When they were brought before Captain Whitfield for questioning, some of them were unable to stand and weakly squatted on the deck. They all looked at the Captain feebly from the bottom of their deeply sunken eyes, half in fear, half in expectation. “You have saved us and you can do anything you like to us,” they seemed to say.
The Captain smiled a little and asked several questions, “Where do you come from?” or “What have you been doing on that island?” and so on. They simply shook their heads or waved their hands to show that they could not understand what he was talking about. They said timidly something in their own tongue, but he could not make out a word. All he could gather from their gestures was that they were very, very hungry.