Living in Japan
The Otokichi post-postscript

The Otokichi post-postscript

Added In: Living in Japan › History

James F. Goater

At the conclusion of the three-part “Otokichi Saga” which documented the amazing story of Otokichi Yamamoto, the presumed first Japanese visitor to North America (see previous three Avenues issues), I put a note asking for comments, feedback, etc. As a result, I need to extend thanks and acknowledge those responding, both in conversation and through email - in fact the information resulting from these responses, as well as through indirect channels, makes a further article both relevant and worthwhile.

Were Otokichi, Iwakichi and Kyukichi, (from the Chita peninsula, south of Nagoya) truly the first ashore on the North American continent? Well not according to the meticulously researched study, “The Shogun’s Reluctant Ambassadors” by Katherine Plummer (Oregon Historical Society Press, September 1991), which extensively details the records of Edo period (and pre-Edo period) mariners from Japan who drifted across the Pacific Ocean, or further north to Russia.
It will be remembered that Otokichi and his companions made landfall on the Pacific coast of the US in December 1833, after drifting helplessly for more than a year in the well-known “black current” which flows west to east from the Japanese archipelago. But Plummer lists a number of instances when Japanese mariners reached what are now the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, and the US mainland, many years before Otokichi’s remarkable journey.

Working backwards through her well-documented research (and redefining “North America” from time to time), we will certainly see that the men from Onoura, Aichi Prefecture, were not Japan’s first “ambassadors” to the North American continent. A full 20 years before Otokichi, another coastal cargo vessel, the Tokujo-maru, having delivered its cargo of wood and rice to the capital, went missing during a return trip to Toba, in Ise Bay. Under the command of a Captain Jukichi, the ship was caught in rough weather in the Enku Sea, off Shizuoka, and began drifting eastwards. It was October 1813. The craft was not caught in the North Pacific “Black Current” which had borne Otokichi and his companions to what is now the Oregon-Washington State coast; instead, the Tokujo-maru drifted south towards the equator and then due east. After 8 months only Jukichi and two other crew were left alive. I find it incredible that they sighted no land or other vessels during this time – in fact it was to be another 8 months before they were finally spotted and picked up. The American cargo vessel Forester took the survivors aboard and within a week landed at a small port in the Santa Barbara area, probably near Point Concepcion, California. (Due to very poor communications and Jukichi’s very limited knowledge, we are told that the Japanese mariners initially thought they had landed in Nagasaki!). After a series of remarkable adventures, the three were eventually handed over to the Russians, having sailed north to Sitka (in present-day southern Alaska, 150 km south of Juneau) and then across to the Kamchatka peninsula. From here they were able to slowly make their way to Etorofu, in Japan’s “Northern Territories”, and thence to the mainland. After lengthy and uncomfortable interrogations by the Tokugawa authorities, each man was eventually allowed home and warned never to go to sea again (I somehow doubt that the warning was necessary!). Jukichi came back to his family in Handa, Aichi Prefecture, and after being awarded the rank of Samurai, dedicated himself to creating a memorial to his lost shipmates. This can now be seen in the temple of Jofukuji in Atsuta ward. (I had visited this temple in 1997, and seen the memorial with its brief dedication to “Skipper Jukichi’s lost crew”, but nowhere was there any indication that his ship had reached American soil).

But were Jukichi and company the first to set foot in North America? Plummer refers to a sketchy report of a Japanese ship washing ashore near the mouth of the Columbus River, near Astoria (present-day Oregon) around 1810. Their cargo of beeswax was of interest to the locals, we are told, and some crewmembers actually made it to dry land, but their fate is not reported. Were these men the first Japanese in North America perhaps? At this stage, a clarification is needed as to precisely what “North America” signifies. It must be recalled that until 1867, Alaska and the coast as far south as central British Columbia, were in Russian hands, so can shipwrecked mariners who landed on this coast be considered as being in North America? If so, then and earlier cases than the one mentioned above must be cited.
In 1805, a disabled vessel from Japan washed up near Sitka, the main trading port for the Russians in this region. A number of the crew scrambled ashore on an uninhabited island and set up camp. They remained there long enough for the island to become known as Japonski Island by the local Russians. These hardy folk apparently were able to return to Japan, either aboard Russian ships (as Jukichi was able to do, 7 years later), or by their own ship, skillfully cobbled together from wreckage and local timber. It is a great pity that no further details are known of these pioneering Japanese mariners.

Although part of present day USA, I discount the Aleutian Islands as constituting “North America” since this lengthy island chain extends to within 500km of the Asian Mainland (Kamchatka), and coastal cargo vessels in Northern Japan had been blown off-course to these remote islands since at least the late 18th century. The first instance which is fairly well documented was of the Shinsho-maru, under the command of Captain Kodaya, which made landfall on Amchika Island after being battered about in the Enshu Sea. In cases such as these, crewmen were taken to the Russian mainland and some returned to Japan.

But perhaps all this is academic. Having defined “North America” as the continental landmass stretching from the Rio Grande (between Mexico and the US) to the Arctic, I had discounted those Japanese who had crossed the Pacific aboard Spanish galleons as early as the late 16th century, making landfall in Nueva Espana – Mexico (many thanks to those readers who contacted me on this point). But then, in a letter published in the Japan Times in April this year, a fascinating possibility was presented. The writer, a Florida resident, made the claim that Hasekura Tsunenaga (1561-1622), the leader of Japan’s first embassy to Europe (Spain and Rome), quite likely visited Florida on his long trip to Europe which began in 1613. Like those Japanese who had crossed the Pacific before him, the vessel headed for Cape Mendocino (California) and then followed the coastline south as far as Acapulco, where it docked in January 1614. From here, some of his party trekked across Mexico to Vera Cruz. In June of the same year, Hasekura embarked for Europe on the San Jose, a Spanish galleon. After a brief stop in Havana, Cuba, the ship headed for Europe. Or did it? According to the Japan Times letter-writer, all Spanish ships crossing the Atlantic made a final port of call at St. Augustine, Florida (founded in 1565, the oldest European settlement in North America). And indeed, the maps of Hasekura’s voyage do indicate that the San Jose sailed from here. Unfortunately, all texts so far located make no reference to any visit, merely the Havana stopover – where a statue of Hasekura was erected and remains to this day.

So, after a great many happy hours research, it seems that we STILL do not know for certain who was the first Japanese in North America. The work will continue, and any new information will be loaded aboard yet another Avenues article. As usual all comments welcome: <>