Otokichii - Part 2

Otokichii - Part 2

Added In: Articles › History

Jim Goater

Part one of this remarkable tale (Autumn ‘07) ended with the 14 year-old Otokichi (Yamamoto), his elder brother and thirteen other crew members aboard the coastal trading vessel Hojunmaru, rudderless, without mast or sail, and adrift somewhere off the coast of present-day Shizuoka. It was towards the end of 1832, and the frail craft had left the port of Onoura on the sheltered coast of the Chita Peninsula, south of Nagoya, a day or so earlier. Originally bound for the Shogunate capital of Edo with a cargo of rice and pottery, the Hojunmaru had been caught in a fierce typhoon and been disabled. Once out of sight of land the crew had no way of knowing where they were and gradually the great North Pacific Black Current had begun steadily drawing the rudderless craft out into the wider ocean – further and further from home.

But while friends and family back in Onoura increasingly despaired of ever seeing their loved ones again, the hardy men (and boys) of the Hojunmaru were not lost, at least not immediately. Though equipped only with a single barrel of fresh water, the crew understood the principles of desalination, so were able to greatly extend this supply. Additionally, the abundant quantities of rice on board, together with occasional fish or gull, provided enough to keep starvation at bay. But as days turned to weeks, and weeks turned to months, the largely vitamin-free diet began to cause deadly scurvy among the weakened crew, and one by one they began to expire. Madness, exposure and sunstroke also hastened the demise of a number of men. Many months into the voyage, as Otokichi lowered the body of his brother over the side of the vessel, he must have wondered why his short life had come to this. But not long after the twelfth sailor had taken his last breath, and Otokichi and the two other remaining crew had struggled to roll his shrunken body into the sea, a distant coastline was spotted. It was by now December 1833 and after a voyage of more than a year the battered hulk of the Hojunmaru finally made landfall on the coast of Cape Alava, just to the south of the Straits of Juan de Fuca separating the American Oregon territory (present-day Washington State) from the British territory of Vancouver, Canada. Otokichi, Kyukichi (16), and Iwakichi (29) staggered ashore, more dead than alive, into an unknown world – the first Japanese to reach North America – more than ten years before the far better known John Manjiro. But their miraculous arrival had not gone unnoticed. Relief was short-lived, as within minutes of collapsing on the beach the three were startled to see fierce-looking native Indians dressed in yellow tree-bark garments (of the local Makah tribe) striding across the pebbles towards them. After ransacking most of what was left of the Hojunmaru, the Indians captured Otokichi and his companions and marched them inland to their village. It soon became obvious that they had been enslaved by the Indians.

At that time, possession of Oregon territory was disputed by American settlers and the British Hudson Bay Company (HBC), based further north at Fort Vancouver. News eventually filtered back to the British traders of three “Chinamen” living with the Makah Indians and a certain Dr. John McLoughlin, head of the HBC at Ft. Vancouver, immediately sent an expedition south to investigate. The overland trip proved unsuccessful, but in the summer of 1834 the HBC sent a ship to Cape Alava in a further attempt to contact Otokichi and his companions. The first attempt ended in freedom for Kyukichi and Iwakichi, but a second trip had to be arranged to rescue Otokichi as he had been collecting berries in the forest during the first visit by the HBC ship. His freedom was bought in exchange for many coloured blankets, much favoured by the Makah. By the summer of 1834 all three were safely in Ft. Vancouver under the protection of the HBC and gradually acclimatized to the vastly improved circumstances and friendly traders.

The head of the British trading post at Ft. Vancouver, John McCloughlin, upon realizing that his new charges were in fact Japanese rather than Chinese, began considering what commercial advantages could be gained from the Tokugawa Shogunate by his company returning the castaways to Japan via Britain. He was also intrigued by the few pieces of porcelain china the castaways had managed to keep hidden from their earlier captors – setomono, made in Seto town, near Nagoya.

In the intervening weeks, before a ship was available for the long voyage to London, the three were taught English by Father Sheperd, an American missionary sent from Oregon territory. It was at this stage that Otokichi was discovered to have an excellent ear for language and rapidly learned to speak rudimentary English, much faster than his companions. It was a language skill which would put him in good stead for the adventures which lay ahead! Then, in late November 1834, news came of the brig Eagle bound for London from Astoria, further south in Oregon territory. In the company of McCloughlin the three Japanese bade farewell to their British hosts and, having sailed south from Ft. Vancouver, joined Captain Downs, aboard the Eagle and began their voyage to Britain. The plan was that they would then make their way back to Japan on another ship.

Following port calls in Hawaii and St Helena in the South Atlantic (where the exiled emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had expired 14 years before), the Eagle finally reached the mouth of the River Thames and began the final stretch of the journey to London. It was June 1835. But once the Eagle was safely moored in the Port of London the story becomes confused, with conflicting accounts of what transpired between the Hudson Bay Company and the British Government. One thing is sure; as a result of disagreements as to how exactly the three Japanese were to be used in negotiating trade openings with the Tokugawa Shogunate, the young men languished aboard ship, able to appreciate their surroundings only by peering out at the alien roof tops and spires of 19th century London – at that time the most powerful and cosmopolitan city on earth. After a wait of ten days the mariners were finally allowed a tour of London, including a visit the magnificent 11th century castle of Windsor a few miles west of the city. Almost certainly the first Japanese to set foot in Britain*, we can only conjecture what sort of impression the sites and sounds of London must have had on the Japanese – each of whom (Otokichi in particular) could speak rudimentary English.

But their stay was to be a short one, as the very day after their adventure they were put aboard a ship belonging to the HBC, the General Palmer, bound for the Portuguese enclave of Macao, a half world away on the south coast of China. To Otokichi and his companions it must have seemed that their long journey might at last be pointing homeward. Thus, after a stay of less than two weeks in the hub of the British Empire, the mariners were once again at sea. Following supply stops in West Africa and Singapore, the General Palmer finally dropped anchor off the coast of Macao in December of 1835 -- the castaways had already been away from home for more than three years!

Once ashore in Macao the three were put under the care of one Charles Elliot, the British Consul and Trade Commissioner stationed in the Portuguese territory. The future British foothold on the coast of China, Hong Kong, would not be established for another six years. It was a German missionary and interpreter to the British mission, Dr. Karl Gutzlaff, who took the greatest interest in Otokichi and his shipmates. Already fluent in several languages Gutzlaff relished the opportunity to study Japanese from the new guests and immediately arranged regular classes for the purpose. Otokichi meanwhile markedly improved his English skills from the good doctor’s wife, a teacher at the Macao Free School. Finding that Otokichi’s linguistic skills were far greater than those of the other two, Gutzlaff, (clearly a linguistic genius), began learning basic katakana characters with a view to translating some of the Christian Gospels into Japanese. It was during this more intensified study that the two struck up a firm friendship such that the laborious work of translating the Gospel According to John was completed within a year. It was published in Singapore in May 1837, and is claimed to be the earliest portion of the Bible to be available in Japanese (more on that, in a later Postscript).

By mid-1836 the British Government had fallen upon hard times and it was decided that the Macao mission could no longer maintain its support for the three. There must have been extreme consternation among Otokichi and his friends when they were informed of this – no attempts had been made to send them on to Japan, and they were potentially to be abandoned without means of support in Portuguese Macao! But just as British interest faded in the Japanese mariners, American interest was aroused in the shape of Charles King, a successful New York businessman dealing in Chinese silk. Upon hearing of Gutzlaff’s undertaking with Otokichi, he took the opportunity of introducing four other shipwrecked Japanese sailors he had rescued a few weeks earlier, off the Philippine island of Luzon. We can imagine the mutual amazement when these four met up with Otokichi, Kyukichi, and Iwakichi – three Western-attired Japanese, with Western manners and speaking good English. Likewise, for Otokichi and his friends, these were the first countrymen they had met in almost four years! For King, it was a dream come true – English-speaking Japanese who could greatly assist him in his long-sought venture to open up trading relations with Japan. An expedition was soon planned.

On 4 July 1836, the American merchant ship Morrison set sail (and steam) with all seven Japanese mariners on board for Japan under the command of Captain Ingersol. They must have faced this voyage with enormous trepidation, knowing full well that the Shogunate sakoku (closed door) policy was still in force. Following a short stop at Napacan, present-day Okinawa, the Morrison headed for Edo, and we are told it was Iwakichi who first recognized Mt. Fuji and then Uraga at the mouth of Edo Bay. But what happened next came as a shock to all aboard the Morrison, not least of all to Otokichi and his friends. Instead of small ships filled with curious locals coming out to meet them, the Morrison was greeted with concentrated cannon-fire and was forced to hastily about-turn to flee out of range, though not before at least one cannonball hit the ship’s hull. It was clearly far too dangerous to attempt a landing in this part of the country! (It was to be another seventeen years before American vessels would be allowed to land so close to Edo, when Commodore Perry and his black ships came calling). As the Morrison headed southwards along the east coast of Honshu in search of safer landing points, it was also Iwakichi who recognized the coastal outline of Toba, in present-day Mie Prefecture, and realizing that is was only a short trip across Ise Bay to their hometown of Onoura on the Chita Peninsula, begged to be allowed a ship’s boat to row himself and his friends home. But Ingersol judged the distance as too great for a dinghy and would not risk going closer to shore due to the Morrison’s damaged hull. To say Otokichi and his shipmates must have been crushed at his decision would surely be something of an understatement! The vessel continued sailing along the coast of Honshu, around Shikoku and finally made an attempt to land at Kagoshima, on the extreme southern tip of Kyushu. But once again hostility greeted them in the shape of more cannon-fire. It was then agreed by all aboard that there was nothing to be done except return to Macao. As the Morrison headed south and the last traces of their homeland vanished below the horizon, all seven Japanese must have thought that they would never set foot in their native country again.

Once back in Macao, the seven Japanese were more or less left to fend for themselves and it is at this point that Otokichi’s companions gradually begin to fade from the tale. Otokichi, as the youngest of the trio and with his greater language ability was able to secure employment with the New York trading company Olyphant & co., to which the Morrison belonged. Being still embittered by the rejection he’d encountered from his native country, he decided to embark upon a new life largely free from the desire to return home. After a training period with the Olyphant trading company, Otokichi was soon off to sea once more with the Morrison bound for New York, and once there took up residence for a short period in the East River district of Manhattan. It was early 1838. Details are sketchy of his exact wanderings, although more is known about Otokichi during this period than the page-length article in Japan Times (August 2004) would suggest. At any rate what is certain is that during his third period of residence in Macao, he was active in helping shipwrecked Japanese mariners return to Japan aboard Chinese or Dutch ships, while displaying no inclination himself to return. He also converted to Christianity and took the name John Matthew Ottosan - clearly “John” was chosen as a result of his earlier translation work with Gutzlaff. He was to be John Ottosan for the rest of his life, though for purposes of this saga, we will continue with his Japanese name.

The advent of the Opium Wars in 1839 between China and Britain provided Otokichi with an excellent though dangerous opportunity for employment in the form of an interpreter for British authorities in their negotiations with China, since he had also learned Cantonese while living in Macao. By 1842 a semblance of peace was restored and he was able to return to Macao and began work at the Dent Company while also continuing his studies. It was at this time that he married a Scottish woman, although some sources indicate she was English – clearly a translation problem has led to this confusion. But the marriage was a short one, ending in either divorce or the wife’s death, for Otokichi soon remarried an Asian woman of either Indian or Malay extraction who was employed by the Beale Company, based in Shanghai. Fortunately for Otokichi he was transferred by the Dent Company to their new offices in Shanghai shortly after.
(By now Otokichi was far and away the most widely traveled Japanese in history – no pun intended).

There then ensued a period of relative quietude for Otokichi and his family in Shanghai – with a son (John) and two daughters, the erstwhile castaway must have had great pause to reflect upon the vast store of memories from his colourful life. But further adventures lay ahead. In 1849 Otokichi – by then well-appreciated for his language skills – was contracted as an interpreter/translator aboard the appropriately named British vessel HMS Mariner, which entered Uraga Port to carry out topographical survey work. While there Otokichi apparently had no wish to announce his nationality and disguised himself as a Chinese citizen, declaring that he’d learned Japanese from his Father, a frequent visitor to Nagasaki. There is even a Japanese sketch of Otokichi from this period in his Chinese disguise. (This author finds the details of this story hard to believe since to local ears, Otokichi’s spoken Japanese would surely have sounded too natural to have been learned from a relative?) Following this surprising interlude Otokichi returned to Shanghai, continuing his occasional language work for the British Royal Navy stationed there. According to one story, in 1853 none other than Commodore Matthew Perry and his black ships, during their re-supply at Shanghai, made an effort to hire Otokichi to help in the American quest to open Japan’s closed ports to international trade. They continued their voyage without him, since his resolve never to return to Japan had not weakened over the years.

But only a few months later, at the outbreak of the Crimean War between Turkey and Russia, Otokichi abruptly found himself aboard a British naval vessel searching for Russian ships in the seas of East Asia – Great Britain having allied itself with the Turks. It was during this voyage, with the British fleet under Admiral James Stirling, that Otokichi again had occasion to touch Japanese soil. With the safe entry to Japan the previous year by Commodore Perry it was felt relatively easier for British ships to enter Japanese ports and thus, in September 1854, the British fleet’s flagship docked in Nagasaki harbour and Otokichi’s interpreting skills enabled the British to negotiate a treaty of “Peace and Amity” between their country and Japan, which paved the way for a full opening of trade relations soon after. Despite being invited to remain in Japan by the Shogunate authorities involved in negotiations (and meeting many ordinary Japanese individuals**), Otokichi chose to return to Shanghai and his family. The initial scars of rejection, some nineteen years earlier, together with the comfortable lifestyle in China, apparently made the choice an easy one.

Following his successful venture into diplomacy Otokichi was offered, and accepted, British nationality together with considerable monetary rewards. He was still only thirty-six years old! Upon returning to Shanghai, Otokichi and family continued a comfortable and tranquil life until their decision to retire to Singapore, his wife’s homeland, by then a flourishing British colony. Here they rented a lavishly designed bungalow on the major thoroughfare, today’s Orchard Road. But sadly, Otokichi was not to enjoy a gentle retirement into old age. Unsurprisingly, given the excessively eventful life he had led, the ex-sailor from the Chita Peninsula suffered from hypertension, and it was from complications resulting from this, that he lapsed into a coma in early 1867. And in late January, one of the most extraordinary of all Japanese lives came to an end – Otokichi was not quite fifty years of age. (Ironically, within a few months of his death, the country which had rejected him thirty years before was finally opening its doors to the wider world after more than 260 years of isolation).***

* Although many Japanese had traveled to Europe during the pre-Edo period up to 1603, Otokichi and his companions were the first Japanese to visit London, according to Hikomitsu Kawai, author of “Chronicles of Japanese Castaways” (Tokyo: Shakai Shisousha, 1967). (Quoted by Setsuko Kamiya in “Lost and Found” JT , August 2004).

** One of the people to see Otokichi during his visit to Nagasaki was Yukichi Fukuzawa,
founder of Keio University.

*** Although part II of this article ends with Otokichi’s death in Singapore, there is a fascinating Postscript to his story which is well worth adding. Space dictates that it will have to wait until the next issue of Avenues, however. The list of references and acknowledgements will also be included at that time.

To read Part 1 of the Otokichi story click here.

To read part 3 of the Otokichi story click here.