- Historic Sites
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
When a young man wants to marry, he looks for a young woman for himself, without asking a go-between to find one for him, as we do in Japan, and, if he succeeds in finding a suitable one, he asks her whether or not she is willing to marry him. If she says, “Yes,” he tells her and his parents about it and then the young man and the young woman accompanied by their parents and friends go to church and ask the priest to perform the wedding ceremony. Then the priest asks the bridegroom, “Do you really want to have this young woman as your wife?” To which the young man says, “I do.” Then the priest asks a similar question of the bride and when she says, “I do,” he declares that they are man and wife. Afterward, cakes and refreshments are served and then the young man takes his bride on a pleasure trip.
Both American men and women make love openly and appear wanton by nature, but they are unexpectedly strict about their relations. Husband and wife have great attachment for each other and their home life is very affectionate. No other nation can be a match for the Americans in this respect.
When a visitor enters the house he takes off his hat. They never bow to each other as politely as we do. The master of the house simply stretches out his right hand and the visitor also does the same and they shake hands with each other. While they exchange greetings, the master of the house invites the visitor to sit on a chair instead of the floor. As soon as business is over, the visitor takes leave of the house, because they do not want to waste time.
When a mother happens to have very little milk in her breasts to give her child, she gives of all things a cow’s milk, as a substitute for a mother’s milk. But it is true that no ill effect of this strange habit has been reported from any part of the country.
Commodore Perry and his fleet suddenly appeared off the town of Uraga on July 8, 1853, to negotiate with the Japanese government to “open the country to the rest of the world.” On July 14, accompanied by his officers and escorted by a body of armed marines and sailors—in all about 300 men—and while the band was playing, he went ashore and presented to commissioners especially appointed by the shogun his own credentials and a letter from President Fillmore to the emperor. Fully aware of the importance of the occasion, the Yedo government had massed 200 flags and bunting-bedecked boats in the bay and 8,000 full-dressed samurai near the landing place. But a few days later, at the polite but insistent request of the Japanese officials, the American fleet sailed for Hong Kong with the understanding that it would return the following spring to receive the emperor’s reply.
At the news that the “black ships” had appeared in the Bay of Yedo, the island empire of centuries-old tranquil isolation was thrown into confusion and turmoil. The Tokugawa government sent a messenger posthaste to Tosa to ask Manjiro to come up to Yedo as quickly as possible to serve and save the country now confronted by a great crisis brought about by the visit of Commodore Perry’s fleet.
On November 6, Lord Abe, who was a progressive cabinet member, appointed him a managing official worth twenty bushels of rice, with two retainers in his service. He was given the right to wear two swords like a regular samurai and the privilege of adopting the surname of Nakahama, from the name of his native place, Nakanohama, as his only name had been Manjiro like any other humble fisherman of the day. A fisherman’s boy, who otherwise would have been destined to be a fisherman for the rest of his life under the centuries-old, strict caste system, awoke one morning a great vassal to the shogun!
In the meantime, Commodore Perry reappeared in the Bay of Yedo with his fleet on February 11, 1854. Again a state of emergency was declared, but this time the Yedo government knew that it must face the inevitable and sign a treaty to open the country.
The Tokugawa government had invited Manjiro to Yedo with the intention of using him as an official interpreter and adviser for the negotiations. But on learning that Manjiro not only spoke English very fluently but advocated progressive ideas in favor of the opening of the country, isolationist elements in the government took exception to assigning such an important job to him. Lord Nariaki of Mito, spiritual leader of the nationalist movement of his day, sent a letter advising the government to prevent Manjiro from coming into contact with the foreigners, which read something like this:
While there is no justification for doubting the character of Manjiro—a commendable person who has returned to this country for which he has a great attachment—those barbarians took advantage of his boyhood, bestowed special favors upon him alone by teaching him the art of counting. This may be construed as some insidious wile on the part of those barbarians. Moreover, as he had been saved by them and had been under their care from his boyhood until he was twenty years of age, he owes a debt of gratitude to them and, therefore, it is inconceivable that he should act contrary to their interests.
Under no circumstances should he be permitted to go on any one of the ships or meet those barbarians when they land, even if you have thoroughly established that he is above suspicion. Nor is it advisable to let Manjiro know anything about what we discuss.
The Lord of Mito advised in the postscript that Manjiro should be placed under secret surveillance lest “a baby dragon escape riding on the winds and clouds when a storm comes.”