The Otokichi Saga - A Postscript

The Otokichi Saga - A Postscript

Added In: Articles › History

James F. Goater

The previous two issues of Avenues presented a two-part article on the life of Otokichi Yamamoto, an Edo-period mariner (b.1817) from Onoura, in Mihama-cho on the Chita Peninsula south of Nagoya. Miraculously surviving a coastal storm and drifting across the northern Pacific for over a year, Otokichi, together with two surviving crew members, was the first Japanese to set foot in North America and almost certainly the first to visit the city of London. After a life of extraordinary variety and adventure, he eventually died, a British citizen, in Singapore in 1867, just short of 50 years of age.

For friends and family back in Onoura, central Japan, hopes for Otokichi or any of the other crew of the cargo vessel “Hojunmaru”, had been abandoned long before. A small gravestone had been erected to their memory in Onoura’s main temple, Ryosanji, not long after the ship’s disappearance in 1832.

But the tale does not end there – no account of Otokichi, known as “John Matthew Ottosan” at the time of his death, would be complete unless the events subsequent to 1867 are included, hence this postscript.

Readers of the earlier articles will recall that during a period of residence in Macao, on the south coast of China, Otokichi and his two companions, Iwakichi and Kyokichi, were instrumental in helping the German missionary, Karl Gutzlaff, translate a portion of the Bible into Japanese – the first translation of its kind. This translation, of the St. John Gospel, was published in Singapore in May 1837, but did not reach Japan until 1859, when the American missionary James Curtis Hepburn arrived and used it to help propagate the faith and to facilitate in his attempts to compile one of the first English-Japanese/Japanese-English dictionaries. But although this Gospel, in Japanese, became widely available among Japan’s fledgling Christian community (and bearing the name “Otokichi Yamamoto” in addition to Gutzlaff’s), it was almost a century before researchers from the Japan Bible Society arrived in Onoura in search of the origins of the elusive translators. The discovery of the gravestone to the Hojunmaru’s crew, in the Ryosanji temple, listing all fourteen names, represented the end to this quest.

In April 1961, volunteers set up a fine monument in a quiet corner of Onoura, just outside the town’s main Shinto shrine (see inset photo). Part of the memorial stone is a bronze plaque set in polished granite with a brief inscription, in Japanese and German, relating highlights of the story. The concluding sentence of this moving inscription reads: “Their contribution to the history of Bible translation and the spiritual culture of Japan will be honoured eternally.”*

Interest was naturally stirred up among the townsfolk of Onoura, on learning that some of their native sons, long presumed to have perished on the ocean, had in fact survived and recorded such remarkable accomplishments, but, despite further details of Otokichi’s life being published in 1981, ** it was not until the early 1990s that serious moves were initiated to begin searching for more information.

Under the auspices of Mihama-cho’s mayor, Koichi Saito, links were established between Japan and Singapore in an effort to discover more about Otokichi’s life there, and perhaps even locate his grave. In 1994 Mr. Ryon Fokumen, of the city-state’s Land Management Board, hearing of the quest for Otokichi from the chairman of the local Japanese community, began an energetic investigation. As interest in the project grew, volunteers from Onoura, at their own expense, began visiting sites connected with Otokichi’s life and made contacts in Washington State, London, and Singapore. Group trips were also organized to Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macao. Piece by piece, a fuller picture of this Edo-period saga began to emerge – to the delight and amazement of the only known living relatives of the Hojunmaru’s crew members, Junji Yamamoto (descended from Otokichi’s younger sister) and a descendent of Higuchi Juemon, the ship’s captain. Both individuals have been enthusiastic members of the various expeditions in search of Otokichi’s life story.

Finally, in April 2004, after a decade-long search, the burial site of Otokichi was located in the National Cemetery of Singapore – his tomb having been relocated from the old Christian cemetery due to city planning. Details of his successful business as a trader, living in a large mansion on Orchard Road, were also recovered.  Mayor Saito immediately flew to Singapore to verify the discovery and, thanks to the cooperation of Singapore’s Environment Agency and other groups, was able to return later that year to excavate the bones, cremate them in Buddhist fashion, and temporarily remove them to the Japanese Cemetery.

By February 2005, permission had been secured for the ashes to be taken to Japan. Aboard the very first flight out of the newly-completed Chubu International Airport, (visible from Onoura) were 120 residents of Mihama-cho, bound for Singapore to take part in the ceremony to divide up Otokichi’s ashes – some to remain in his adopted Singapore, the rest to be taken to Japan. It must have been an emotional moment, that 20th February morning, when Otokichi’s ashes were finally brought to the ancient graveyard at Ryosanji – 173 years after the Hojunmaru went missing. The event is commemorated on a large signboard just inside the temple’s main gate. In the small cemetery off to the side, the ashes were deposited beneath the original stone marker for the lost crew. At last, one of these ill-fated men had finally come home.

Among the many “firsts” racked up by Otokichi and his companions, the following are among the most notable: (i) the first Japanese in America, preceding John Manjiro by 10 years; (ii) the first Japanese in Canada; (iii) responsible for the first “exports” to North America, represented by the limited amount of pottery, (setomono), recovered from the wreck of the Hojunmaru; (iv) Otokichi was the first Japanese to gain British citizenship, and definitely the first Japanese recruited into the Royal Navy; (v) he was the first Japanese convert to Protestant Christianity (Episcopalian); and (vi) very likely the first trilingual Japanese, speaking English and Chinese in addition to his native Japanese. ***

Since these events, now 3 years’ past, Onoura has done much to highlight the history of its most famous figures. In addition to the “Otokichi-no-sato” signboards north and south of Onoura township (see photo in part 1 of this article), there is a pleasant historical trail through the houses and fields between Ryosanji and the Otokichi monument. An “Otokichi Koen” flower garden has been established just opposite the monument and the old wooden structures surrounding the car park have been restored and (perhaps) are to be preserved?

Notes, Acknowledgements, and Sources
*   Many thanks to Ms. Keiko Hoshino and Mr. Roman Iwaskow for translations, (Japanese and German, respectively).
** Harun and Ayako Miura, “Kairei” (“Ocean Ridge”), (Tokyo: Asahi Shimbunsha, 1981) (in Japanese).
*** This has been taken from a much longer list of accomplishments compiled by a Mr. Tei A. Gordon after years of research, included in the “True Life Adventures” website detailed below.

This Avenues article on the life of Otokichi has been gleaned from a mass of information now available on the Internet and published sources in addition to numerous personal visits to Onoura itself (not all in search of sun, fun, and beer, obviously). An attempt has been made to steer a neutral course through sometimes conflicting information, but discrepancies in this text are probably the fault of the author. Among the more indispensable sources have been:
“True Life Adventures of Otokichi (1817 – 1867)” available from; accessed November 2007;
“Asia Paranormal Investigation/Japanese Cemetery” available from http://www.api.sq/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1193;accessed December 2007;
“Life of Otokichi Yamamoto” available from; accessed January 2008;
Setsuko Kamiya, ”Lost and Found” (Japan Times, 29 August 2004). (This is an excellent collection of articles, though a little old).
Last but far from least, additional thanks must go to Ms. Keiko Hoshino for enormous help in translating various material and general observations. Readers’ comments, observations, and/or complaints willingly dealt with /responded to by email, please contact any time.

To read Part 2 of the story click here.

To read Part 1 of the story click here.

The Otokichi Saga - A Postscript
The Otokichi Saga - A Postscript