Manjiro’s Return Home

Manjiro arrived in Honolulu in October of 1850 with his earnings from the goldfields in his pocket. He went immediately to find his friends, Denzo, Toraemon, and Goemon. Denzo and Goemon were willing to risk the return, but Toraemon, knowing that there was a very real danger of being imprisoned or executed, decided to stay in Hawaii.

A newspaper appeal on behalf of the men brought in $160 and clothing for the men. Putting together all their money, Manjiro bought an old whaleboat, maps, a compass and other needed equipment, as well as gifts for his family. He found a merchant ship bound for Shanghai whose captain was willing to drop them off near Japanese waters.

Two months later the ship came within four miles of Okinawa. In spite of heavy seas and rough weather, the whaleboat was lowered and Manjiro and his companions rowed for shore. The fishermen and villagers they encountered fled from them and refused to speak with the strangers, even though Manjiro entreated them in Japanese. Laws were strict and any contact with outsiders meant punishment. They were immediately arrested by the local officials.

Okinawa was under the rule of Japan, so the men were sent to a powerful lord on Kyushu, the southernmost major island of Japan. From there they were sent to the shogun. The gifts that Manjiro had bought for his family and the gold he had sewn in his clothing for his mother were confiscated. The men feared for their lives, but Manjiro was able to convince the authorities that he was much more valuable alive than dead. He possessed knowledge of the West that no one else in Japan had.

The men underwent endless questioning. Altogether they were imprisoned and interrogated for a year and a half.  It was not until June 1852 that they were released and allowed to visit their families. It had been nearly twelve years since Manjiro left home. His mother and siblings greeted him as one returned from the dead and took his to see his memorial tablet in the village graveyard.

Manjiro did not get much time to spend with his family. Within three days the local lord sent for him. His knowledge and experiences were of the utmost value. In a move nearly unprecedented in Japanese society, Manjiro was elevated from the station of a lowly fisherman to the rank of samurai. As a samurai he was allowed to wear two swords and to take a surname. He chose the name of Nakahama, his home village. He began teaching world history, geography, and English to other samurai.

Nakahama Manjiro

Nakahama Manjiro

His career as a teacher was interrupted by the advent of Commodore Perry and his fleet. As the only man in Japan fluent in English and familiar with the United States, he was summoned to the capital to advise the shogun. Although never allowed to meet with the Americans, he counseled behind the scenes for an end to Japan’s isolationist policy. As Japan’s outlook on the world changed, Manjiro took on the task of teaching ship-building and navigation at the Naval Academy, and served as interpreter with the first Japanese embassy to the United States. While there he went to visit his old friends in New Bedford. By then it had been twenty-one years since he had seen Captain Whitfield.

To the end of his life at the age of 71, Manjiro taught English and advised the government. His incredible life story made him a famous man in Japan. It’s good to know that his sojourn in the California Gold Rush helped him on his way.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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