JOHN MUNG NAKAHAMA MANJIRO or The Two Worlds of Nakahama Manjiro:




By Paul C. Blum

Adapted for use by Japanese college students by John Paul Loucky (Reprinted by Courtesy of The Journal of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, 1993.)

The seclusion policy that had set Japan apart from the world since the early 17th century was particularly severe in its maritime regulations. Ships were limited in size to 500 koku- 100 tons; they could have as many as two masts but no keel. This restriction was especially hard on the fishing industry for it prevented fishermen from venturing far from the mainland and left them at all times at the mercy of the weather and of the strong Japan Current that flows near the coast. As a consequence, shipwrecks were not infrequent and the castaways, if they managed to survive the disaster, were forbidden, under pain of death to return to their native shores.

This was the fate of a little fishing boat that put out from the port of Usaura in Shikoku, one day in January of 1841. She carried a crew of five of which the youngest, a lad of 15, was named Manjiro. The ship was overtaken by a violent storm and dismasted and drifted for thirteen days, buffeted by wind and wave. Finally, the wreck was washed ashore on a small, barren island where the survivors managed to exist on rain water, shell fish and the raw flesh of albatross and gonies.

Five months later, the shipwrecked fishermen were rescued by an American whaling ship, the “John Howland,” of New Bedford, Connecticut. The Captain, William H. Whitfield, was a man of character and heart. He took pity on the sick and emaciated group of castaways; he gave them food and clothes and helped to nurse them back to health. He was particularly taken with the boy, Manjiro, whom he found to be exceptionally alert and intelligent. During the many months at sea that followed the rescue, Manjiro--known aboard as John Mung--learned to be a sailor and was taught English by the Captain himself. When the “John Howland” touched the Sandwich Islands, Manjiro’s Japanese companions were put ashore but the boy chose to remain with the ship and he sailed back to New Bedford with his benefactors.

Manjiro first set foot in the United States on May 7, 1843 He was to be in the country for the next eight years, the first Japanese to reside in America and to be able to tell about it to his countrymen in later years It was not easy for him in the begin ning Although mad welcome by the townspeople of Fairhaven, Connecticut , outside New Bedford, where Captain Whitfield had his home, he had serious difficulties with the language He attended school for the first time in his life, a small local school where he learned the three R’s, then took private lessons in mathematics and surveying for which he had shown a surprising aptitude He was fond of reading and his ability to speak, read and write English improved rapidly He made friends easily and despite homesickness for his village in Shikoku and loneliness when he thought of his widowed mother, these first few years in New England were happy ones and he was never to forget them

Captain Whitfield looked upon the boy as his foster son and was unusually kind to him. When, on an early Sunday after their return to Fairhaven, he took Manjiro to church with him and was criticized by the deacons for bringing a Japanese into his pew, he left the congregation and joined another more tolerant church. Although the Captain married soon after his return, Manjiro remained a member of the family, helping with the household chores, working on the family farm and, during the quiet winter months, learning the trade of a cooper.

But Manjiro had a taste of whaling and there were times when he longed for the open sea Moreover, while hunting whales in the Pacific there was always the possibility, the bare chance, of seeing Japan once again. For he never gave up hope of returning one day. He was devoted to the baby son born to the Whitfields; he grew fond of the horses and cows he attended each day on the farm, and he recovered from his fear of pigs which he had mistaken for wild boar when he first saw a live one on the “John Howland.” but he had already spent two years ashore and time was growing long. He was 19--almost 20--and he wanted to go home.

So when offered a job as harpooner aboard the whaler, the “Franklin,” bound for the south Pacific, he accepted at once. It proved to be a long and eventful voyage. Manjiro earned his spurs one day in the Indian Ocean by capturing a giant sea turtle. It had been harpooned but resisted every effort to pull it in. Manjiro dived into the sea, climbed on the turtle’s back and stabbed it to death. For two years the “Franklin” roamed the South Seas, hunting whales.

In March 1848, in waters near Guam, the Captain suddenly became insane. The crew took him to Manila and gave him into the care of the American Consul. The First Officer then took charge of the ship and, in a proper democratic manner, Manjiro was chosen by the crew to replace him as Second Officer. They continued to hunt whales in the Pacific, visiting Honolulu where Manjiro had a joyous reunion with his fellow castaways, then slowly made their way round the world, never once sighting the islands of Japan. Finally, in August 1849, they returned to New Bedford, having caught about 500 whales. These were the boom years of whaling and Manjiro returned to his American home with $350 in his pocket and braid on his sleeve.

The year was 1849; gold had been discovered in California. Manjiro caught the fever. To return to Japan was still uppermost in his mind: in California, with gold in his pocket, he believed it would be easier to find a way. With a companion from Fairhaven and his benefactor’s blessing, Manjiro took ship in New Bedford for the gold fields, via Cape Horn. Both lads worked for their passage.

The ship left in October 1849, arriving in San Francisco, via ports, the following May. They spent only three days in the city, frightened by the hectic atmosphere of that boom town. They took a paddle steamer to Sacramento, Manjiro’s first experience in a steamer, then a train into the interior--probably a first also for a Japanese, anywhere in the world.

Getting off the train at a small junction, they continued on foot into the mountains until they came into a mining town, a hasty conglomeration of huts, stores, gambling houses and brothels that had sprung up in the wilderness.

Manjiro and his companion registered as gold miners. They soon found employment with a contractor who lent them the necessary tools to work in a deep mine. This was hard work and when, at the end of one month, they had earned enough to buy their own tools, they turned to the easier and equally profitable sites in the river-bed. At the end of two months Manjiro had accumulated 600 pieces of silver. This was enough, he figured, to get him back to Japan. He gave his tools to his friend, bade him farewell, and returned to San Francisco.

In October 1850 he took ship for the Sandwich Islands, again working for his passage. He wanted his old friends in Honolulu to join him in his plans to return to Japan. He was able to persuade two of them to take part in the hazardous adventure. They found an American ship, the “Sarah Boyd,” bound for China to pick up a cargo of tea. Going aboard, Manjiro disclosed his plans to the Captain:

He and his companions would work their way over; when near the islands of Japan he would ask to be put ashore in a boat he would purchase for the purpose. The Captain refused at first, but moved by Manjiro’s earnest insistence, he finally agreed. It would be on his own terms, however. He would not take the ship out of her course; if they happened to pass near enough to the coast, he would let them row ashore.

Overjoyed, Manjiro hastened his preparations. He bought a small second-hand boat, completely equipped, for $125 and put her aboard. Local Americans were helpful and kind. The missionaries and the American Consul in Honolulu, touched by the stubborn desire of these young Japanese to return to their homeland, solicited help for them from the community, and the Consul gave Manjiro an official of Okinawa Island and here Manjiro and his two companions decided to put ashore. The Captain was reluctant to see them go. He feared the fate that awaited them as Japanese returning to their homeland and he tried to dissuade them, but they were determined. The boat was put over the side, their personal possessions carefully stowed in it, and they cast off. There was a sudden squall, with rain and hail; the “Sarah Boyd” quickly disappeared from view and the three men made for shore, for the known they longed for and the unknown they feared lay beyond.

As they stepped ashore they were met by natives who approached them timidly. They spoke a strange dialect and Manjiro and his companions should not communicate at first, but presently an islander arrived who knew Japanese. Although still objects of suspicion, the natives treated them kindly, offering them food and shelter. Later, they were taken to the village of Nakao, under escort, where the first of many examinations was to take place. Manjiro’s pistol, his books, maps, all his personal possessions, were seized and he was not to see them again for many, many months. He chafed under the constant observation and the incessant questioning and, in character, reacted impulsively at first, but a friendly official was quick to advise him to hold his tongue and his temper, at the same time ordering the villagers to treat the prisoners well.

For seven months they were detained at Nakao, watched around the clock by Satsuma and Ryukyuan officials and interrogated daily. Manjiro’s books, his notes and charts were especially suspect and he had to explain them almost page by page and illustration by illustration. This was not unusual, of course; this type of interrogation was common practice in those days, nevertheless Manjiro found it galling. But he had taken to heart the friendly warning he had received in the beginning and he cooperated with the officials. In the meanwhile, the three prisoners were clothed, well fed and generously treated and could complain of nothing but their loss of liberty.

In July of that year, 1851, they were transferred to Naha and there immediately put aboard a ship for Kagoshima. Upon arrival, although still prisoners, again they were well treated. They were tried a second time, the interrogation lasting 48 days. It was interrupted once when the famous Lord Nariaki of Satsuma summoned them into his presence. For this momentous interview they shaved their heads to conform to Japanese fashion and wore the hakama (traditional men’s kimono worn in old Japan) they had received as gifts. Manjiro’s companions were tongue-tied in the presence of this great nobleman but Manjiro spoke out boldly, answering his many questions on the military, political and educational conditions in 2 and going into detail regarding American democratic customs and manners.  

He must have done well for in the report sent by Satsuma to the Tokugawa Government at Edo he and his companions were declared innocent of “the evil foreign religion and other crimes.” Here was a young man with a good head on his shoulders and the Lord Nariaki decided to leave it there.

The three castaways were now moved to Nagasaki where they arrived at the end of September. Here, yet again, they were put on trial. Eighteen times they appeared before the Governor of Nagasaki who went over the same ground that had been covered at Kagoshima. This interrogation has come down to us in written form, a long account entitled “A Narrative of the Castaways.” It is an engrossing document, recording the lively and intelligent observations of this young Japanese regarding the world in general, but especially America, her government, politics, policies and customs. Everything, however trivial, had been set down, then forwarded to Edo where it was carefully studied. For Japan at this time was in dire need of information. The country was in great turmoil. The Tokugawa Shogunate was crumbling; rival daimyo were asserting their views and their power. The Dutch, from their tiny foothold at Deshima in Nagasaki harbor, had warned the Bakufu Government that the western world would soon be knocking at Japan’s door, well armed and impatient.

They reported how China was surrendering to British and French arms and gave notice that America was now preparing to enter the area. Thus the Japanese were alerted and they read with unusual interest Manjiro’s account of American expansion westward, of the settlements in California and the Sandwich Islands, and of the fleets of ships, now sailing the Pacific, that were being denied help of haven in Japanese ports.

He also told the story of the Mexican War and of General Scott’s rapid and successful campaign, and this, too, must have given them pause. Manjiro’s account, however, is not entirely in this serious vein. It has its lighter moments. When speaking of American customs, for instance, he said that sometimes Americans went to bed in a sort of cupboard because they disliked being seen while asleep. They considered a mixture of eggs, oil, and salt, combined with flour, a good food, and called it ‘bread’. And among their curious habits was the one of kissing in public and the even quainter one of reading books while seated on the toilet.

This was the final trial. When it ended, the three Japanese were tested for their religious beliefs. This was done by having them step on the fumie, a picture in copper, usually of Christ (often as a child held by his mother, Mary, embedded in a block of wood. The custom had been established two centuries before, when Christianity was first proscribed, to bring to light the Japanese Christians who might still be hiding in the land. [Manjiro stepped on the image, but he had become a Christian in a Congregational Church in America. Being a simple Protestant denomination, images were not used, and Manjiro later said that his faith was a matter of his heart, and did not depend on what he was forced to do with his body.] 

Then, to Manjiro’s consternation, instead of being set free as he expected, they were returned to prison, this time to a cage-like cell too low to stand up in, and very dark. There, he was surprised to find the other castaways he had met earlier in Honolulu.

Fortunately, this imprisonment turned out to be a mere formality. Despite the discomforts, they were well treated, and even entertained, and released three days later. Manjiro was turned over to the Nagasaki representative of the Tosa clan and, presently, a delegation arrived from his home province to conduct him to Shikoku. At last after 11 years of exile including 18 months of trial and imprisonment, he would be permitted to return to his native village of Nakanohama and greet his mother!

Alas, his tribulations were not at an end. Arriving in Kouchi, the capital city of Tosa province, he was once again interrogated, this time by his own people. When this last ordeal was over he was rewarded by the Daimyo with a small life pension of rice and finally permitted to return to his village. He returned home on October 5, 1852.

He received a hero’s welcome. But it was his mother he was most eager to see. The encounter was touching. Despite the emotional overtones, it was conducted with Japanese reserve and decorum. She asked him his name, not recognizing the man in hakama and haori before her as the boy of 15 who had disappeared long years before. She was incapable of further speech and only later, when they were alone, was she able to repeat over and over, “Arrigatai, arrigatai!” [“I’m so thankful, so thankful!”]

He was not to remain home for long. Three days later an order came from the Daimyo of Tosa summoning him to Kouchi to become an official instructor at the clan school. He left at once. In Rouchi he was given a low samurai rank and allowed to wear a sword. At the school he taught English, science and, unofficially, the ways and customs of the great world outside.

Within the year he was ordered to Edo to help in formulating plans for when Perry returned to Japan the following spring. The American Commodore had left the President’s letter that summer; he would be returning the next year to negotiate a treaty. Upon arriving at the capital, Manjiro was raised to the rank of Government Official with an income of 20 koku of rice, two retainers and the right to wear two swords. As a full-fledged samurai he now could have a surname and he chose the name of Nakahama from his own village of Nakanohama. Henceforth, John Mung would be known as “Nakahama Manjiro.”

Manjiro was probably the best informed Japanese on the subject of America and many sought his help and advice at this critical juncture in Japan’s foreign relations. However, he was soon made aware of the strong isolationist [ ] feelings, the bitter anti-foreignism, current in Edo at the time. These sentiments were particularly prevalent in the upper rank of the Bakufu and they closed the door to Manjiro. Because his life had been saved by Americans, it was said, there must exist a ‘giri,’ an obligation based on gratitude, that he would have to fulfill if allowed to communicate with the Americans. He was an avowed friend of the barbarians, therefore he would not be trusted with secrets during the delicate negotiations. He must not be allowed any contact for he might reveal the rivalries and dissensions that existed among the Japanese, and their military weakness. And so it was. Manjiro, whose wide experience of foreign lands and knowledge of English could have been of inestimable value to both sides throughout the difficult negotiations with Perry and later with Harris, was kept carefully out of sight.

At Yokohama he was put in charge of the official gifts presented by Perry to the Japanese Government. As we know, the miniature railway and the telegraph were enormously popular, but there were many other mechanical objects no less interesting to the Japanese if not as entertaining. To Manjiro fell the task of explaining the use of the air pump, the electric machine, the magnet, compass, barometer, etc.  He acquitted himself well, for he had a mechanical bent that he was now free to exercise. He invented at this time an out-of-door oven in which he made bread according to a recipe he had brought with him from Fairhaven. The Japanese knew castera, a sweet sponge cake the Portuguese had taught them to make and which is to this day a specialty of Nagasaki, but this was the first bread they had ever tasted and they found it good. Encouraged by his patrons, Manjiro also perfected a new type of furnace that was adopted and he even experimented with movable type.

It was, however, his knowledge of the sea and of ships that was to prove of greatest value to Japan. He was ordered to make a survey of the coastal waters and to plan the courses for the naval training school. The restriction on the size of ships had been lifted and his knowledge of boat building was called upon. His major assignment was the difficult and onerous one of translating Bowditch’s “New American Practical Navigator,” the seaman’s bible, a copy of which he had brought with him to Japan. It was an immense task that took him two years to complete for it meant finding--or inventing--Japanese equivalents for the highly technical language of the sea. His education, in Japanese as well as English, was meager, and he had to depend upon whatever assistance he could find for the technical difficulties and the mathematics involved.

In the midst of these many tasks, Manjiro found time to marry. He was now 27 and he wanted a home of his own. A bride was found for him, a young girl ten years his junior, the daughter of a fencing master of samurai rank. It was a happy marriage, but was not destined to last. After bearing him three children, Tetsu, his wife, died in an epidemic of measles that ravaged Edo in the year 1859.

Whaling was still Manjiro’s chief interest and once he had attained a position of authority he proposed to the Government a project for establishing whaling on a business basis. The plan was approved and he was assigned to Hakodate to help build the ships and train crews for them. 

Returning to Edo after 18 months, he had the opportunity of putting his theories into practice. At Shinagawa lay a schooner which the Russians had presented to the Government. He converted her into a whaler and took of f for the whaling grounds south of Japan. But a sudden storm near the Bonin Islands dismasted the ship and he made port with difficulty, coming close to losing his ship as well as his life on this first voyage as his own Master.

1860 was an important year in the newly developed America-Japan relations. Some two years before, Townsend Harris and negotiated the first commercial treaty that had opened certain ports of Japan to foreign residence and commerce. For the exchange of ratifications, the Japanese Government decided to send a goodwill mission to the United States, the first embassy to go abroad in over 200 years. The American Government offered the steam frigate “Powhatan” to convey the Embassy overseas while the Japanese designated the “Kanrin Maru” as the escort vessel. The latter was a small, 300 ton sailing ship with an auxiliary motor, recently acquired from the Dutch. She carried a crew of 57 under the orders of Admiral Kimura of Settsu and Captain Katsu Rintaro, respectively the present and future heads of the Japanese navy. Also on board, in a humble capacity, was Fukuzawa Yukichi, the famous educator of later Meiji days. An American naval officer, Lt. John M Brooke, was invited by the Bakufu to join the “Kanrin Maru” as adviser. He was an able officer and unassigned at the time. He brought aboard with him one American officer and nine sailors to assist and instruct the Japanese on this first crossing of the Pacific by a Japanese ship.

Manjiro was appointed official interpreter to this important mission. The choice was fortunate because the “Kanrin Maru” encountered violent storms immediately upon leaving Uraga on February 10, 1860, and all the Japanese became ill. They were incapacitated for most of the 30 day voyage. Since Lt. Brooke had only the few Americans aboard to assist him, he was happy to find in Manjiro and able and accomplished seaman who could read a chronometer as well as furl a sail. He had to call upon him constantly for help, at times leaving to him the full responsibility for the navigation. Thus Manjiro became the first Japanese to sail a ship across the Pacific

The two men became good friends and Brooke’s journal of the crossing has many flattering remarks regarding his Japanese assistant. “Manjiro is certainly one of the most remarkable men I ever saw. . . (He) is an adventurous character . . . He is communicative and I am satisfied that he has had more to do with the opening of Japan than any other man living.

Manjiro was now 33. Brooke describes him as a short, broad-shouldered, compactly built man with a wide, intelligent face marked by a determined expression. His lips were full and he had a way of baring his teeth when he talked. He was of a cheerful disposition and very fond of telling stories. Manjiro’s position on board the ship was a difficult one. The Japanese were totally unfamiliar with ocean sailing.

Some of the officers had trained under the Dutch at Nagasaki but they were inexperienced and questions of seniority, of prestige, kept arising among them to interfere with their performance. Manjiro was the liaison between Lt. Brooke and the Japanese and the latter deeply resented at times the orders this low-ranking samurai was obliged to transmit. This resentment was not always concealed. On one occasion, some of the crew threatened to hang him from the yard-arm.

The arrival in San Francisco was surely one of the high moments Manjiro’s career. At the receptions in honor of the visiting mission, “Captain Manjiro” as he was then called, was the official interpreter, introducing the Governor of the State, the members of the local Board of Supervisors, and other dignitaries to the Japanese. Often, his thoughts must have turned back to the day, ten years before, when as a youth lured by the prospect of gold he had arrived in this same city, penniless and virtually homeless, desperately eager to return to his native land. Here, now, he was in his element, permitted to speak for the two countries that meant so much to him, and realizing his cherished hope of having them meet as friends.

All the while he was in San Francisco Manjiro was kept busy interpreting for the Japanese, attending to the repairs to the “Kanrin Maru” for which he had been made responsible, and visiting the city which had changed so very greatly since the days of the gold rush. He assisted with the shopping, often joining Fukuzawa Yukichi in his search for books, and buying for himself, in addition, a daguerreotype and a sewing machine.

He was unable to accompany the Mission to Washington and New York. He was deeply disappointed for he had wanted to visit his friends in Fairhaven but the repairs to the “Kanrin Maru” took longer than expected and he had to remain behind. The voyage home, some two months later, was uneventful.

All was not clear sailing when he reached Edo. One day, soon after his return, he innocently accepted an invitation to board a vessel in Yokohama harbor. For this he was promptly dismissed from his post of Navy Instructor by the still suspicious government. During the enforced leisure that followed, he took up photography. He was proud of the camera he had bought in America and of the pictures it took of his friends and colleagues. These primitive pictures--or daguerreotypes--at first showed the sitter with his kimono folded the wrong way and his swords on the wrong side. To correct this, before being photographed Manjiro had the man fold his kimono incorrectly and place the two swords on the right side of the belt. Only thus would he appear properly dressed in the photograph.

Manjiro was not long in disgrace. He was presently reinstated in his former post and ordered to the Bonin Islands as technical adviser to a party traveling on the “Kanrin Maru.” Japan was preparing to exercise her sovereignty over the islands and the ship was sent on a survey mission. The following year he was appointed Captain of the “Ichiban Maru” on which he had almost lost his life two years before, and he returned in her to the Bonins on a whaling expedition. However, this project soon had to be abandoned. There was trouble with Russia over boundaries in the north and incidents in the ports, her fleet was on the high seas and the Japanese Government wished to avoid a possible conflict Manjiro was ordered to remain ashore, he turned to teaching, giving private lessons in English and navigation, and working on a translation of the Table of Logarithms.

Some months later his advice was sought again. Satsuma had lost her ships in the bombardment of Kagoshima by the British in 1863 and wanted rebuild her navy. Manjiro was asked to take charge. In Kagoshima he set up a Naval Training School and, two years later, he established a similar school in Kochi for his own people of Tosa. During this period, he traveled more than once to Nagasaki and Shanghai for both clans to buy ships and weapons, and his knowledge of English and of western ways served him well in his dealings with the foreign merchants in those ports.

With the Restoration in 1868 Manjiro’s dream came true at last. The anti-foreign movement that had helped to unseat the Shogunate and bring the Emperor Meiji to power was quickly forgotten. The country now opened its gates and sought in every way to model itself on western lines. With the fall the Bakufu, Manjiro, like many other samurai, found himself out of a job. But he was able before long to return to the service of the Tosa clan as teacher and adviser. This required his presence in Edo, now called Tokyo, and here, some time later, he was appointed by the Imperial Government as instructor at the Kaisei-jo, the forerunner of Tokyo University.

Yet another great opportunity for public service came to him in 1870. The Franco-Prussian War was at its height and Japan was interested in observing the military power of the rival forces. The government decided to send a mission of study to the battlefield composed of Oyama Iwao, later Field Marshal and supreme commander of the army during the Russo-Japanese conflict. Shinagawa Yajiro, a future Privy Councillor, and other eminent men. Manjiro was assigned to the mission as interpreter.

They left in September 1870 for San Francisco, then traveled overland to New York via Chicago and Niagara Falls. While in New York Manjiro received leave to visit Fairhaven. It was 20 years since he had seen Captain Whitfield and his family; his excitement was intense the morning of October 20 as he took the train to New Bedford. His impression upon arrival was one of keen disappointment. In the harbor which he had known in its heyday ships were now few, the port was empty; even the town looked forlorn. The discovery of oil, of petroleum, had killed the whaling industry and New England was suffering. In Fairhaven, however, a joyous welcome awaited him. The Whitfields received him with open arms, and when the townspeople heard that John Mung had returned, they flocked to the Whitfield home to greet him. His former friends and teachers and employers gathered in the front parlor and while Mrs. Whitfield and the two daughters prepared the refreshments; he entertained the company with tales of Japan and of his adventures on sea and land. He had gifts for everyone, of course, and the welcome and the stories lasted well into the night. It was with a heavy heart that he returned to New York the following day.

The Oyama Mission reached London on November 17. Manjiro fell ill. It was said to be a tumor on his foot. He had to keep to his bed and the Mission proceeded without him. His recovery was unsatisfactory and he returned alone to Japan in the spring of 1871.

In Tokyo he appeared to recover but within a year misfortune overtook him again; he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and impeded his speech. His teaching days were over; his public life was now ended.

The rest is anti-climax. He lived to the year 1898, in the city at first, later in his son’s home at Kamakura, sometimes visited, sometimes consulted, to become a legendary figure in his own lifetime.



1. When and how did Manjiro happen to leave Japan?

2. Who took care of him in 2 and helped him to receive an education?

3. What did he always hope for, despite being abroad?

4. What plan did he conceive in order to return home?

5. What things did he accomplish or learn before returning to Japan?

6 Why was he imprisoned for so long by fellow Japanese?

7. What did his interrogators learn from him?

8. When did he finally arrive safely in his home village?

9. How was he greeted by fellow villagers and by his mother?

10. Why did the government of Japan think that Manjiro could not be trusted with secrets?

11. What skills did Manjiro acquire and how did he contribute to the modernization of Japan? What did he invent or introduce to the Japanese people?

12 What subjects did he teach in Kouchi? In the naval school that he started?