Japanese shipwrecks on coast predate Columbus

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By Finn J.D. John
April 27, 2014

ON NOVEMBER 3, 1832, the 50-foot Japanese cargo vessel Hojun Maru left Ise Bay bound for Edo — the city now known as Tokyo. Its hold was full of rice and porcelain dishes from the south end of the Japanese archipelago, to be traded for salt fish from the north.

One of the youngest members of the Hojun Maru’s 14-man crew was a 14-year-old boy named Otokichi, a cook’s apprentice.

Dr. John McLoughlin, known as the “Father of Oregon,” sent his stepson to ransom the survivors of the wreck of the Hojun Maru after he learned they’d been taken prisoner. (Image: Oregon Historical Society)

Otokichi and his shipmates couldn’t know it, but when they stepped aboard at Ise Bay, they were leaving their homeland forever.

The Hojun Maru’s fate stemmed from a political decision made 200 years before. In 1637, the Shogunate government of Japan had decreed the island nation closed. No one was allowed to enter, and no one was allowed to leave, on pain of death.

There was, however, an enforcement problem with the Shogunate’s decree. The sea was both Japan’s main highway system and a vital source of its food. The island nation had a massive fishing and trading fleet, staffed by some of the world’s most skilled mariners. What was to stop these mariners from becoming smugglers?

So the government ordered a change in the configuration of all Japanese vessels. All Japanese merchant and fishing ships of seaworthy design, suitable for deepwater navigation, were to be destroyed. Henceforth, all Japanese ships and boats would have open sterns and large square rudders — well suited for close-in coastal work in fair weather, but completely unfit for the conditions of the open sea.

This worked. But there was an unintended consequence. Actually, there were thousands of them. And the Hojun Maru was about to join them.

The thing was, it didn’t take much of a gale to strip those big square rudders away. And if that happened far enough from shore, unless the winds were absolutely perfect, the crew of that boat was as good as dead. Without a means of staying square against the sea, the ship would quickly around into the “trough of the sea,” or broadside to the waves, which would roll it fiercely until the masts either broke loose or were chopped free by the desperate crew.

At the mercy of the wind, the helpless ship would then be blown into the stream of the famous Kuroshio current — which, flowing past Japan a few dozen miles offshore, would carry ship and crew inexorably away into the open sea.

“Among Japanese mariners, the fear of being thus blown off their coast, has been an ever-threatening danger,” writes author Charles W. Brooks, “and the memory of such time-honored accidents is a common feature in the traditions of every seaport settlement along the eastern coast of Japan.”

The vast majority of these unfortunate castaways met their deaths in storms on the north Pacific, their ships foundering and sinking hundreds of miles from land, alone in the open sea. And this, in fact, is what the Hojun Maru’s crew members’ families assumed had happened to them. They grieved and carved gravestones and chalked up another loss to their ruthless ocean.

But if a ship was carrying enough supplies when blown off the coast — enough to keep the crew alive for a year or more — they might just survive the ordeal. The Kuroshio Current, after merging into the North Pacific Current, crosses all the way across the Pacific Ocean to within a few hundred miles of the west coast of North America, moving at a rate of up to 10 miles a day.

And this seems to have happened with some regularity. Brooks lists some 60 incidents of “junks” found on or near the West Coast over the years, and that’s just the ones we know about. Brooks, who was the Japanese government’s longtime commercial agent in San Francisco, believed it had happened often enough to infuse West Coast Native American tribes with recognizable elements of Japanese culture and language.

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A 19th-century painting of a small Japanese merchant ship from the early 1800s. The Hojin Maru was probably similar to this. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

“Quite an infusion of Japanese words is found among some of the Coast tribes of Oregon and California,” he writes, “either pure, as ‘tsche-tsche,’ milk; or clipped, as ‘hiaku,’ speed, found reduced to ‘hyack,’ meaning fast ... or ‘yaku,’ evil genius in Japanese, similarly reduced to ‘yak,’ devil, by the Indians. ... Shipwrecked Japanese are invariably enabled to communicate understandingly with the coast Indians, although speaking quite a different language.”

(EDITOR'S NOTE: After publication of this article, I heard from a modern language scholar specializing in Native American dialects, who tells me most modern scholars don't buy Charles Brooks' assertion that many Japanese words have been adopted into Coast Indian languages. Nobody disputes that numerous Japanese mariners have been blown onto the Oregon Coast over the centuries; however, Brooks' assertion that the stranded strangers significantly affected the natives' language — backed by anecdotal evidence that may very well have been cherry-picked, and by that unsupported assertion of mutual intelligibility — is, on careful consideration, probably not credible. However, if any readers have further information on this, I'd love to hear from you.)

The story of the Hojun Maru proved such trans-Pacific accidental journeys were possible. By the time the battered derelict was blown ashore in early 1834 near Cape Flattery in what’s now Washington State, only three of its crew members still lived. Everyone else had died of scurvy after nearly a year and a half at sea eating nothing but rice.

The castaways were found by a party of Makah Tribe seal hunters, and taken as slaves — nursed back to health and put to work. But one of them — probably the ship’s navigator, a 28-year-old man named Iwakichi — was an artist. On a piece of paper, he sketched their ship on the beach surrounded by Native Americans, and wrote a message on it. The Indians, fascinated, took the letter, passed it around and eventually offered it in trade to Hudson’s Bay Company employees at Fort Vancouver — where it fell into the hands of Chief Factor John McLoughlin, the “Father of Oregon.”

McLoughlin looked at the kanji characters written on the letter with some astonishment. How, he wondered, could anyone from the Far East have managed to get shipwrecked here, at the opposite corner of the Earth?

He promptly dispatched his stepson, Thomas McKay, to find and ransom the Japanese mariners, and after a few complications, this was done.

And that’s how the three long-suffering mariners came to live at Fort Vancouver, in what was then known as Oregon Territory.

Otokichi and his comrades lived in Vancouver for five months, learning English, before being sent around the horn to London.

The three of them subsequently sailed to Macao, where an ever-hopeful silk merchant hoped they might be his ticket to open commercial relations with the still-tightly-closed Japanese markets. However, when he tried to bring them home to Edo Bay, they were rebuffed with cannon fire.

Otokichi doesn’t seem to have minded. His services as a translator were already in high demand. He moved to Shanghai, changed his name to John Matthew Ottoson (“Oto-san”) and married a British woman. When offered the chance to return to Japan in 1854, perhaps still miffed by his earlier attempt to return home, he declined.

(Sources: Tate, Cassandra. “Japanese Castaways of 1834: The Three Kichis,” HistoryLink.org, 2009; Brooks, Charles Wolcott. Japanese Wrecks Stranded and Picked Up Adrift in the North Pacific Ocean. San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences, 1876; Gibbs, James Jr. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binfords, 1950)

TAGS: #John Ottoson #HojunMaru #Otokichi #Shogunate #KuroshioCurrent #Shipwreck #CharlesBrooks #BlownOutToSea #NorthPacificCurrent #Junks #CapeFlattery #MakahTribe #Iwakichi #JohnMcLoughlin #HudsonsBayCo #ThomasMcKay #CassandraTate #JamesGibbs

Background photo is a postcard image showing vacationers enjoying Diamond Lake, circa 1955.
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