Introduction: Nakahama Manjiro
Digital History ID 3
He was the first Japanese to be educated in the United States. Later, he helped break Japan's isolation from the rest of the world. President Calvin Coolidge would later call him the United States's first ambassador to Japan.
Only nine when his father died, Nakahama Manjiro (1827-1898) was a 14-year-old fisherman from Koichi-ken when he was shipwrecked in 1841. He and four others made it to a deserted island in the Pacific some 300 miles south of Tokyo. Stranded for 143 days, the fishermen were near starvation when they were picked up by a passing U.S. whaler, the John Howland. The boat's captain, William Whitfield, took Manjiro back home with him to Fairhaven, Mass.
In Massachusetts, Manjiro studied navigation and land surveying, as well as English. "The natives were extremely lovely in appearance, with fair skin and dark hair," he would later write about the people he encountered. "They were more than five or six feet tall. Kind and gentle by nature, both affectionate and compassionate, they thought highly of morality and fidelity and were always diligent and industrious in everything, including trading far and wide."
Later, he became a whaler and, during the California Gold Rush, went west, making $600 in just 70 days in 1848. He described the environment with these words: "The place was so prosperous that evil became a product, too..... A great many men were so violent and wayward that the place was ungovernable."
Finally, in 1851, a decade after coming to the United States, he returned to Japan. At that time, Japan severely restricted foreign influences. One law read: "Any person who leaves the country to go to another and later returns will be put to death." After his return, Manjiro was interrogated for two months before he was allowed to return to his home.
In 1853, his life took a sudden turn. U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry and his “Black Ships” arrived off Japan. Perry demanded that the Tokugawa government open diplomatic and commercial relations with Japan. Manjiro was one of the few people who knew English and Japanese; otherwise, communications had to be translated into Dutch and re-translated into English or Japanese.
Later, he taught navigation at a school that trained seamen who were to sail on Kanrin Maru, the first Japanese vessel to cross the Pacific."
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