- 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
In 1870 Manjiro was again summoned to go ahead with a government mission. Iwao Oyama, who was later to be supreme commander of the Japanese Army at the time of the Russo-Japanese War, was going to Europe with 25 other Japanese to make a firsthand observation of the Franco-Prussian War. When the party reached New York, Manjiro said to Oyama: “I have a long-cherished desire which I would like to fulfill.” Oyama listened to his plan and gave his permission.
On the morning of October 30, Manjiro took the train for New Bedford from New York. As it happened, New England’s autumn was at its best. The woods of maple trees were aflame under the blue sky, and the hills were covered with wine-dark bracken and blueberry. As the train sped through the glorious autumnal countryside, he was exhilarated and drank in every bit of the ever changing train-side view. Every minute seemed to heighten the excitement of the reunion with the Whitfield family and the rest of his former friends. He felt then as though he were going to see his father from whom he had been absent for a long time. Arriving at New Bedford, he walked along the familiar streets toward Fairhaven like a man who was walking along his home town streets for the first time in twenty years. When he crossed the long bridge over the Acushnet River and breathed the same old sea breeze and saw the same old harbor and the same old Mr. Bartlett’s School where he studied mathematics for the first time in his life, a flood of memory rushed back to him and his heart ached. It was already late afternoon when he knocked on the door of Captain Whitfield’s house.
“If it is not John Mung!” exclaimed Captain Whitfield with great excitement and delight. He shook hands vigorously with Manjiro and led him inside.
“I have been looking forward to this day for twenty years,” said Manjiro, falteringly, tears in his eyes.
“It does my old heart good to see you again, John Mung,” Captain Whitfield said in a choking voice. “Congratulations! You seem to have certainly risen in the world.”
At first Captain and Mrs. Whitfield felt a little strange and embarrassed when they saw Manjiro, a man of 43, well dressed and dignified, but before very long they found that the Manjiro in front of them had little changed from the polite, cheerful, alert lad they remembered so well.
Manjiro told the Captain about his experiences in detail. In the meantime, Marcellus, who was nineteen years old, son of Captain Whitfield, and a pretty daughter were introduced to Manjiro. They were both pleased to see the man whom their parents had often talked about so warmly. When Manjiro told them quaint stories about Japan and the Japanese people, they all seemed deeply interested and asked him all sorts of questions about the country and people.
“I hope someday you will be able to come to our country and see for yourselves what I’ve told you about,” said Manjiro.
In the meantime, word that John Mung had come spread all over the town, and soon all the neighbors, even those who did not know him, as well as his former friends, and others came to see the unexpected visitor. Soon Captain Whitfield’s home was besieged by a large crowd of people. Mrs. Whitfield and her daughter worked hard in the kitchen to prepare refreshments. It was a happy reunion!
“It’s so good to see you again,” Manjiro told them. “I have always been thankful to you for every kindness you showed me a long while back. I’ve remembered it all this time. Since I returned to my country, I’ve been telling my countrymen how advanced your country is and that Japan has much to learn from you. They thought that I did not know what I was talking about at first. Now they are beginning to see for themselves. I’m glad to tell you that my country has recently opened her long-closed doors to the outside world and is ready to adopt Western civilization.” Then Manjiro gave Captain Whitfield and his family and all his former friends many presents which he had brought along from Japan—lacquer boxes, silk cloth, kimonos, Japanese color prints. They all admired the beauty of those articles.
That night when the visitors had all gone home and the family had retired to bed, the old sea captain and his former cabin boy talked on and on far into the night. The following day, Manjiro, with tears in his eyes, said goodbyes to Captain Whitfield, his family and friends who were on hand to see him off, and left the town for New York.
The following year Manjiro fell ill in London, and returned to Japan where he suffered a slight stroke and was forced thereafter to lead a life of quiet. After many years of retirement he died on November 12, 1898, in his son’s house in Tokyo. On behalf of Dr. Toichiro Nakahama, the eldest son of Manjiro, Viscount Ishii, the Japanese ambassador to Washington, presented Fairhaven, Massachusetts, with a historical samurai sword on July 4, 1918, in token of the son’s gratitude for the kindness shown to his father by the town.
It was a gala occasion, with American and Japanese flags and bunting to be seen on every hand in New Bedford and Fairhaven. Addresses were given by Mayor Ashley, Lieutenant Governor Calvin Coolidge, and Viscount Ishii.