His path back to Japan was paved with gold

By John D. Cox
Bee Staff Writer
Published Jan. 18, 1998

What in the world drove Manjiro Nakahama to Sacramento in the spring of 1850? It was the gold, naturally, but there could not have been a more improbable miner in those rough-and-tumble days.

Manjiro was one of a kind. He was the first citizen of Japan to set foot in the United States, first to be educated in Western mathematics and navigational skills, a seasoned whaler, a world traveler, a man on the road into history.

In his own country, what Herman Melville at the time called "the double-bolted land," his mere presence here was a crime punishable by death. Yet "John Mung," as he called himself in these parts, was yearning to go home.

When he arrived in Sacramento by steamboat from San Francisco the morning of May 23, Manjiro was working on a plan to get back to his village of Nakanohama.

It had been more than nine years since the 14-year-old boy had said goodbye to his widowed mother and left to go fishing off the southern coast. And still he was haunted by a sense of personal failure for the casual circumstance of his farewell to her.

Sweet Medicine, Indian leader

The five fishermen had been caught in a fierce storm. It snapped the little boat's rudder and tore off its sail. The dreaded Black Current, twisted by the storm, carried them far out into the Pacific Ocean.

At long last they landed on a small volcanic island, their little vessel smashed to pieces in the surf on its rocky shore. They found shelter in a cave. They ate raw albatross and seaweed and strictly rationed the scant fresh water that collected in the crevices of rocks.

For six months they endured it, withering away.

On the afternoon of June 27, 1841, a vessel appeared on the horizon like an apparition. Miraculously, the John Howland, an American whaler, anchored near the island. Sailors rowing toward shore in search of sea turtles spotted Manjiro's frantic waving.

Capt. William H. Whitfield of Fairhaven, Mass., noted in his log: "Sent in two boats to see if there was any turtle, found 5 poor distressed people on the Isle, took them off, could not understand anything more than that they were hungry."

After six months of whale hunting, the schooner put in at Honolulu, where four of the castaways -- all but Manjiro -- were put ashore. Whitfield and his crew liked the boy, his cheerful countenance, his eagerness to learn English and the ways of whaling and sailing the high seas.

*"When John Manjiro returned to Japan, it was as if America had sent its first ambassador."
-- President Coolidge

Manjiro accepted the captain's invitation to accompany him to Massachusetts and receive an American education. The crew of the John Howland christened him "John Mung" and Whitfield virtually adopted the boy.

On May 7, 1843, two years after Manjiro's rescue, the vessel sailed into New Bedford harbor, and Whitfield and John Mung crossed the bridge into Fairhaven.

Manjiro learned to write English. He learned mathematics and navigation. He became a cooper's apprentice.

Three years later he set sail again, as a crew member on another New Bedford whaler. He spent 40 months on the high seas, circumnavigating the globe, eventually becoming first mate on the vessel. The voyage included a stop in Honolulu and a reunion with his shipwreck comrades. They talked of their longing to return to Japan.

The young man returned home to Fairhaven as news of the Gold Rush was spreading across the land, and Manjiro determined to go.

He signed on as crew of a lumber ship, the Stieglitz, that left New Bedford on Nov. 27, 1849, came around Cape Horn and arrived in San Francisco on May 20, 1850. The Stieglitz was one of hundreds of vessels abandoned by its crew in those gold-crazy days.

The city was booming, its streets crowded with miners and confidence men and bandits. Manjiro noticed many Chinese laborers who often were victims of violence and greed. Three days later, he took an overnight steamboat up the Sacramento River, marveling at the speed and engineering of the thing.

Manjiro left no detailed account of the time he spent in the Mother Lode, and apparently he left no trail to follow after 150 years. He described his experience later in faulty Japanese, a language he had not used in 10 years, to people who had no idea of the place.

He mined on the north fork of a river, probably the American. On the advice of an agent in a government assay office, he first went to work in a pit mine for a mine operator who lost the payroll gambling. Then he struck out on his own, with pick and shovel and pan, placer mining at the side of the stream.

In an official account for a Japanese court, he described the treachery of a mining town, perhaps Grass Valley or Nevada City, that could have seemed especially treacherous for a miner with strange Asian features and gold in his pocket in the summer of 1850.

"A great many people organized cliques, calling themselves chivalrous men," he said. "... They cheated people out of their money, and the extreme case was that they killed them with their guns. A great many of the men were so violent and wayward as to be ungovernable."

In 70 days he made more than $600. It was time to go, and time to try to go home.

"Manjiro thought that one should not make a repeated attempt at earning such an enormous sum of money," said the court document.

Back down the mountain he came. He left Sacramento on Sept. 13 and arrived in San Francisco the next day. He spent 10 days in San Francisco before securing passage aboard the Eliza Warwick, which arrived in Honolulu on Oct. 10.

One of his fellow shipwreck victims had died of lingering effects of a leg injury suffered when jumped from the sinking fishing boat onto the rocks of the island 10 years earlier.

With his gold mining proceeds and the help of friends in Honolulu, Manjiro outfitted a small boat, christened the Adventurer, which was taken aboard a sailing vessel that took the four men within rowing distance of Japan.

For several months, he was imprisoned and interrogated. The suspicious lords of the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate questioned the young fisherman, who had the social status of a peasant, and tested his loyalty. In the end, they suspended the Tokugawa Shogunate's exclusion law that decreed death to any citizen who left the country and returned.

After just a few days' reunion with his mother in Nakanohama, Manjiro was called into service of the lord of Tosa province, who appointed him a lecturer. He was permitted to take a second name, and chose Nakahama in honor of his village. He was granted the status of a samurai and permitted to wear a sword.

He was summoned to the capital as Commodore Matthew C. Perry's ships appeared in the harbor in 1853 and counseled for the opening of Japan to foreign vessels. He became a personal retainer of the shogunate and an instructor in the government's naval school. He wrote the country's first conversational English book and translated into Japanese Bowditch's "Practical Navigator."

In 1860, Manjiro accompanied the first Japanese diplomatic delegation to the United States as interpreter. In 1870, he accompanied another Japanese diplomatic mission to Europe, and on that occasion he was able to leave New York for a reunion with Capt. Whitfield in Fairhaven.

Manjiro died at the age of 71 on Jan. 12, 1898, in Tokyo, at the home of his eldest son. His descendants and those of Whitfield maintain a correspondence that has lasted 150 years.

President Coolidge paid tribute to Manjiro's role in opening up Japan at the time. "When John Manjiro returned to Japan, it was as if America had sent its first ambassador," he said.

The man who seems to have slipped into and out of the Gold Rush without leaving a trace has not been forgotten by American presidents.

"The story of Manjiro Nakahama has particularly interested me," wrote Woodrow Wilson in a letter in 1918 to the ambassador of Japan. "Such links between Japan and America are delightful to remember."

In a letter in 1933 to Manjiro's grandson, Franklin Roosevelt, recalled that his grandfather, Warren Delano, lived across the street from a house where Manjiro stayed in Fairhaven.

"When I was a boy I well remember my grandfather telling me all about the little Japanese boy who went to school in Fairhaven and who went to church from time to time with the Delano family," he wrote.

In April 1996, in remarks at a luncheon in Tokyo hosted by Prime Minister Hashimoto, President Clinton referred to the saga of Manjiro and the role it has played in the relations between the two countries.

"He was shipwrecked in 1841, rescued by an American whale boat, sent to school in Massachusetts," said Clinton. "Now, Mr. Prime Minister, some of our delegation think it's a pretty good thing to be sent to school in Massachusetts."

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