- 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
As a result, he was not allowed to meet anyone of Perry’s party and was kept behind the scenes. No one, of course, could rival Manjiro in English and his knowledge of foreign countries, but the government had to employ interpreters who were not half so good. In fact, the negotiations were mostly conducted in Dutch as the interpreters understood Dutch better than English. It is recorded, however, that their knowledge of Dutch was quite limited and almost totally lacking in diplomatic terminology. Besides it was as archaic as that of Grotius.
Manjiro apparently took the whole turn of events philosophically, believing that it was no use exciting isolationist elements in the presence of Commodore Perry. He knew that the odds were definitely against him and decided that all he could do under the circumstances was to teach his countrymen the facts about the rest of the world and open their eyes to modern science.
In 1854, the year when Commodore Perry revisited Japan, Manjiro married, through a go-between, a pretty seventeen-year-old daughter of Gennosuke Danno, who owned and taught in a fencing school in Hongo not far from Egawa’s mansion where Manjiro was living.
Manjiro had often thought that he would marry a girl he loved, as was the Western custom. But he found that it was almost impossible, for no respectable maiden would let herself love a young man unless she were engaged to marry him. In those days honorable marriages were arranged by go-betweens at the request, or with the approval, of the parents, often even against the girl’s will. Manjiro could not bring himself to follow this custom blindly. So after his engagement to the girl was arranged, he met her alone several times. One day he took her for a walk around the duck pond in Egawa’s mansion. Looking at the stars reflected in the duck pond, the girl asked Manjiro, “Why do they say that good girls should not fall in love?”
“Because it is our custom, but a custom will change.”
“Do American girls fall in love before they marry?”
“Yes, they usually do.”
“I think Japanese girls begin to love after they marry; of course, I mean, their husbands.” Then she asked, “Is it all right for a girl to fall in love before she is married?”
“I think it’s natural in a country like America.” Then they walked together along the shore of the starlit pond in the Japanese garden. At a bend of the lane, he held her firmly and kissed her.
“We are very happy, aren’t we?”
“Oh, I am the happiest girl in all Yedo.”
Lord Abe and other forward-looking officials knew that Japan’s period of isolation was coming to a close, and they kept Manjiro busy on a variety of projects. Manjiro was instructed to submit a report on a plan for developing the sea power of Japan. He translated E. C. Branter’s book on navigation.
In April, 1857, he became an instructor at the Naval Training School which was established at Yedo that year and taught navigation and ship engineering to many trainees who were destined to be important figures in the Japanese Navy. Then in October of the following year, he proceeded, by order, to Hakodate in Hokkaido to serve in the governor’s office as a whaling instructor. While there, he probed the possibility of starting a whaling industry in that area. He returned to Yedo in the spring of 1859. He was quite busy that year; he compiled A Short Cut To English Conversation, which became the standard book on practical English in those days.
In 1860 the Tokugawa government sent a good-will mission to America for ratification of the commercial treaty which grew out of Commodore Perry’s visit. Manjiro was appointed official interpreter and instructor in navigation. In San Francisco he was amazed at the change in ten years from a hectic gold rush town to a solid, prosperous city. On his way home he visited Honolulu and looked up his old friend, Toraemon the cooper.
Japan was going through a period of turmoil, out of which emerged the Meiji restoration. After Manjiro returned to Japan he busied himself translating the table of logarithms and teaching English, mathematics, and navigation to a class of scholars, officials, and ambitious young men who had pronounced English in an absurd way before they received his instruction. Among his students were, to name a few, Fukuzawa, Hosokawa, Enomoto, Mitsukuri, and Otori, the men who later played important roles in the making of modern Japan as statesmen, generals, administrators, educators, diplomats, and scientists. In fact, most of the great men who successfully served the country in the early years of the Meiji era were directly or indirectly under Manjiro’s influence at one time or another.
Almost immediately after the Meiji restoration, which took place in 1868, the capital had been moved from Kyoto to Yedo, which was rechristened Tokyo. Although antiforeignism had served to oust the shogun, as soon as the new government came into existence not only were friendly overtures made to foreign powers, but Japan attempted to remodel herself entirely on European lines. Gradually, promising youths were sent abroad to study, and foreign experts were engaged and the foundations of the Meiji government were gradually secured. Manjiro’s dream at last came true.