Before Perry came Manjiro

Times Staff Writer

In the mid-1800s, after more than 200 years of near isolation from the Western world, Japan's first glimpse of the United States arrived through the eyes of a peasant, a fisherman whose tale began at age 14 when a storm swept him from familiar waters.

Typical of the Japanese underclass, he had only one name, Manjiro. His father had died, leaving him responsible for earning money for the family. In 1841, Manjiro joined four others as they set out in a small fishing boat in pursuit of mackerel.

At the heart of an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum, titled "Drifting: Nakahama Manjiro's Tale of Discovery: An Illustrated Manuscript Recounting Ten Years of Adventure at Sea," is an original manuscript detailing Manjiro's experiences as he told them to a Japanese scribe.

A storm pushed the fishing boat out to sea, and for days it drifted eastward, eventually arriving at a small, uninhabited island about 300 miles from Japan. Two graves were proof that others had been on the island, and at times during the next five months, it seemed they also marked destiny for the five fishermen.

Then one day a dot on the horizon grew to become an American whaling ship, the John Howland, under the guidance of Capt. William Whitfield. Hoping to find turtles to eat, crew members went to the island, where they discovered the starving Japanese and took them in.

The ship continued to Oahu, Hawaii, where Manjiro's companions opted to stay. Manjiro continued to the United States. Details of the rescue and Manjiro's adventures over the next 10 years eventually provided a rare glimpse of the outside world as Japan approached a new dawn and an end to exclusionary policies.

In 1853, two years after Manjiro's return to his homeland, Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan with a letter from President Millard Fillmore asking that relations between the two countries be established. At the time, Japan's only Western trade was with the Dutch. Perry's visit led to treaties in 1854 and 1858 that established trade and cooperation between Japan and the U.S.

The exhibition is in honor of the 150-year anniversary of Perry's arrival in Japan and was organized by the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia.

Manjiro's role in establishing relations between Japan and the United States is largely symbolic, according to Emily Anderson, an assistant curator at the Japanese American National Museum. As Manjiro's experiences were being documented, an end to Japan's self-mandated isolation already seemed imminent.

"What he provided for the Japanese government was a person who had firsthand, detailed knowledge of American life, American customs, politics," Anderson says.

A new translation of the Rosenbach manuscript was released this month. "Drifting Toward the Southeast," translated by Junya Nagakuni and Junji Kitadai, is published by Spinner Publications Inc. ( in New Bedford, Mass., near Fairhaven, Whitfield's hometown.

The manuscript describes how Whitfield, upon his arrival in Massachusetts, discovered that his wife had died and his home had been boarded up. Manjiro was sent to live with a carpenter.

"The natives were extremely lovely in appearance, with fair skin and dark hair," the translation states. "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." Manjiro described violins and tools, and places like Boston Harbor are presented in the manuscripts as watercolors based on Manjiro's descriptions. There are tales and descriptions of places, people, animals and items unheard of in Japan.

The exhibition includes art and artifacts on whaling, rare books and the log of the whaling ship that rescued Manjiro. Aboard the John Howland, Manjiro was given the name John Mung.

In America, Manjiro was enrolled in school and attended a Christian church. Three years after his arrival, he joined a whaling expedition that would last three years. When he returned to the United States in 1849, the Gold Rush had begun.

"If he went to California to be a digger, Manjiro thought he would surely get hold of extraordinary wealth and would then be free to do as he pleased," the manuscript states. "Perhaps he could earn his passage to Japan, which was his dream."

Manjiro traveled west, where he encountered another side of America. "The place was so prosperous that evil became a product, too

Manjiro quickly earned his wealth, $600 in 70 days, and left the Wild West. En route to Japan, he was reunited with three of his fishing companions. The fourth had died. Two of his companions joined him and returned to Japan, where they were promptly arrested.

In 1852, after months of interrogation, they were freed. Manjiro's adventures were recorded. The manuscript on display is believed to be Manjiro's copy.

As word of his journey spread, he became a hero in Japan, elevated to the rank of samurai and allowed to choose a last name. After years of adventure and journeys around the world, it was Nakahama, the name of his hometown, that he chose as his own.

Through the generations, members of the Nakahama and Whitfield families have maintained a friendship. That, says Judith Guston, curator and director of collections at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, is reflective of Manjiro's legacy.

"His life became a good example for this kind of cultural understanding and a real desire for exchange and peace and learning. That's a really inspiring legacy."

Duane Noriyuki can be contacted at


Drifting: Nakahama Manjiro's Tale of Discovery

What: An illustrated manuscript recounting 10 years of adventure at sea

Where: Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. 1st St., L.A.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; open until 8 p.m. on Thursdays, closed on Mondays. Ends Jan. 4

Cost: Adults, $6; seniors, $5; students and children, $3; members children younger than 5, free. Free Thursday 5-8 p.m. and every third Thursday 10 a.m.-8 p.m.

Info: (213) 625-0414

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