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Sunday, Aug. 29, 2004

Otokichi: a life lost and found


Staff writer

The Onoura area of Mihama, on the rural west coast of the Chita Peninsula in Aichi Prefecture, is a peaceful spot whose beaches in summer attract both locals and trippers from nearby Nagoya.

News photo
Otokichi, as he appeared in a Japanese sketch made when he came to Japan in 1849 disguised as a Chinese. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives of Japan)

Offshore, jet skiers scythe the waters of Ise Bay, while on the horizon huge merchant ships ply to and from Nagoya -- soon to be joined, far above, by aircraft using the Central Japan International Airport, which opens there in February.

Onoura is, however, still blessed with an atmosphere of serenity that must have been even more marked 172 years ago. Then, in December 1832, a 14-year-old boy named Otokichi was among the crew of a cargo ship there that set sail for Edo, present-day Tokyo.

Little did Otokichi know that he would never return to his home, though he would visit and live in countries all over the world at a time when Japanese were barred from leaving their homeland, and Japan itself was closed to almost all foreigners. Little did he know either that he was to help with the first translation of the Bible into Japanese -- at a time when Christianity was banned; or that he would serve as a bridge between languages and cultures when, in 1854, Japan signed a watershed international treaty with the United Kingdom.

But the remarkable, dramatic and colorful life of Otokichi has long lain almost unperceived in the shadows of conventional history.

* * * Now just a small, relaxed resort, Onoura was once a busy shipping village whose vessels ranged the coasts of Japan at a time when there was a massive reliance on domestic cargo transportation by sea. Among the many ships registered there was that on which Otokichi sailed, the Hojunmaru, which could pack a 150-ton cargo in its 15-meter length.

That day in December 1832, the Hojunmaru was loaded with local rice and pottery as its 14 crew cast off from the quay. At first it was plain sailing out of Ise Bay, but as the ship entered the Sea of Enshu off present-day Aichi and Shizuoka prefectures, a storm blew up and swept it off course and far out into the Pacific. With no contact for months, the crew's families eventually gave them up for dead.

However, as their grieving relatives erected a memorial tomb in the graveyard of the village's Ryosanji Temple, the Hojunmaru, by now dismasted and rudderless, was being carried on the Black Current out into the middle of the vast ocean -- with all its crew alive.

Knowing how to desalinate seawater, and with their cargo of rice, the crew was able to eat and drink. But with no vitamins in their diet, scurvy soon set in and began to claim lives. Miraculously, though, after an astonishing 14 months adrift in the open ocean, three crew members were still alive when the battered hulk of the Hojunmaru made landfall at Cape Alava, in present-day Washington state in the United States. Those three survivors were Iwakichi, 29, Kyukichi, 16, and Otokichi, then 15.

At first, the lucky trio were looked after by villagers of the Makah tribes, but soon after they were passed into the care of John McLaughlin, the British leader of a group of Hudson's Bay Company fur traders. McLaughlin at once sought commercial advantage from the Japanese castaways, as a means of his company establishing links with the Tokugawa Shogunate. As a result, he arranged for the three to be put aboard a ship called the Eagle, which reached London in 1835 -- almost certainly making the Onoura sailors the first Japanese to visit the English capital, according to Hikomitsu Kawai, the author of "Nihonjin Hyoryuki (Chronicle of Japanese Castaways)" (Shakai Shisousha, 1967).

News photo
Present-day Onoura beach

However, the men didn't have much chance to see the hub of the British Empire, as for 10 days they were confined to the ship on the River Thames, before being allowed one final day to see the sights. Then, contrary to McLaughlin's expectations, the British government declined the opportunity to use the men as keys to unlocking trade with Japan, and they were dispatched instead to Macao on board the General Palmer, with a view to them returning home from there.

After reaching Macao later that year, Otokichi, Kyukichi and Iwakichi were put into the care of Karl Gutzlaff, a German missionary who also served as a Chinese translator for the British government. Gutzlaff, who apparently wanted to engage in missionary work in Japan, enthusiastically learned the language from Otokichi and the others, soon even managing to make a translation of the Gospel According to John, which is believed to be the earliest extant biblical work in Japanese.

Meanwhile, in Macao the three were joined by four other Japanese sailors whose ship from present-day Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu had also been storm-damaged and drifting until it reached Luzon Island in the Philippines. Together, the seven waited there for a chance to return home.

That chance came in the shape of one Charles W. King, an American merchant who, like McLaughlin before him, reckoned that the humanitarian act of repatriating them might pay off through opening trade links with a country whose official sakoku (closed-door) policy surely made the prospect of such links potentially profitable. So, in July 1837, the seven Japanese were put aboard an American merchant ship called the Morrison, which sailed to Uraga at the mouth of Edo Bay.

Cannon-fire targeted the Morrison as it approached the Miura Peninsula in present-day Kanagawa Prefecture. This barrage was in line with an 1825-42 shogunal order that all lords across the country were to fire at any approaching Western ships, apart from Dutch ones. As a result, the Morrison sailed down to Kagoshima in Kyushu -- only to be fired on there as well.

Under the circumstances, according to accounts by Westerners aboard the Morrison recounted in the award-winning nonfiction book by Toru Haruna, "Nippon Otokichi Hyoryuki (Chronicle of Otokichi)" (Shobunsha, 1979), there was little for it but to return to Macao. Fearing punishment if they set foot again in their homeland, the Japanese seemed to have no alternative but to accept life in exile.

* * * From the scant records that exist, it seems the seven then set about making their own livings in Macao. Although a few of them are known to have served as translators for the British trade legation and British missionaries, only Otokichi's life is well recorded.

Even so, Otokichi's progress from Macao in 1837 to him working for the British trading company Dent & Co. in Shanghai in 1843 is only sketchily traced by history. Though it seems likely that he spent time as a crewman on an American ship, he is mainly known in this period for supporting the repatriation of Japanese castaways from Macao and Shanghai by urging them to try returning home on Chinese ships. That was because, along with Holland, China was the only country with which the shogunate authorized trade links.

At some point, Otokichi married an Englishwoman, though where this occurred is not known. However, after losing her through illness, he married a Malay woman and they had a son and three daughters. Meanwhile, he became a naturalized British subject, taking the name John Matthew Ottoson.

The erstwhile Japanese sailor is known to have returned to Japan twice. On the first occasion, he was a translator on board the H.M.S. Mariner, which entered Uraga Port to conduct a topographical survey in 1849. Then, though, he had to disguise himself as a Chinese man, telling Japanese officials that he had learned their language from his father, who often went to Nagasaki on business.

The second time he returned, as Ottoson, was in September 1854, with a British fleet under Adm. James Stirling. This docked at Nagasaki to conduct negotiations that led to the signing there on Oct. 14 of the Treaty of Peace and Amity between the United Kingdom and Japan. That time, Otokichi met and was seen by many Japanese, including Fukuzawa Yukichi, the founder of Keio University. Indeed, shogunal officials apparently offered to repatriate him, though he opted instead to return to his family in Shanghai.

In the final years of his life, Otokichi aka Ottoson, moved from Shanghai to Singapore, his wife's home country, where he died at the age of 49 in 1867 -- the year feudalism ended in Japan.

* * * For the people of Mihama, the story of the Hojunmaru and the local crew lost in 1832 appears to have sunk into oblivion -- no doubt along with countless other seafaring tragedies. That was until 1960, when researchers from the Japan Bible Society turned up there on the trail of the three Japanese they believed may have been from a place called Onoura on the Chita Peninsula. The tomb dedicated to the crew of the Hojunmaru was the proof they had sought, and a monument honoring the three was duly erected the following year.

Since then, a few others have been instrumental in digging out what details of Otokichi's life are now known, including Haruna and Ayako Miura, a Christian novelist who wrote about him in "Kairei (Ocean Ridge)" (Asahi Shimbunsha, 1981).

What really propelled the long-lost young sailor into a kind of limelight, though, was when Koichi Saito, the mayor of Mihama, decided about 10 years ago to seriously research Otokichi's life.

"History is usually a tale of winners, but when I learned about Otokichi, I thought it wasn't right that such an admirable person's life should remain unrecognized," said Saito, 65, who has now been in office at the head of the 25,000-strong community for 13 years.

Accordingly, Saito became the driving force behind an enthusiastic effort to gather information from all the people and places connected with Otokichi and the others, including Gutzlaff. In doing so, he said, the cooperation of Japanese groups and organizations around the world has been of vital importance to access local authorities and individuals.

To date, the project has led to several short trips abroad by Mihama citizens tracing the footsteps of Otokichi -- to Washington State, London and Singapore. On their travels, all paid for out of their own pockets, these interested locals have engaged in warm and productive grassroots exchanges with many new friends and acquaintances. Closer to home, in 1993 the Nagoya-based Theatre Weekend produced "Nippon Otokichi Monogatari (The Otokichi Story)," a musical based on the life of Otokichi that has since been staged several times in Japan and to coincide with group tours overseas -- with many Mihama citizens playing minor roles.

Among those who have particularly enjoyed this historical quest is Junji Yamamoto, 73, a descendant of Otokichi's younger sister who is one of only two known living relatives of any of the Hojunmaru's 14 crew still living in Mihama (the other is a descendant of the ship's captain, Higuchi Juemon).

"I'm reminded that Otokichi is my ancestor when people ask me how I feel about him, but the truth is, I can't really say, although I wish I had more time to find out more," said a grinning Yamamoto, whose family has a Japanese-style inn in Noma, the neighboring district to Onoura. Nonetheless, Yamamoto is interested enough in his forebear to have joined seven of the eight tours there have been already, including one in June to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macao with 76 other locals.

In March, meanwhile, a Singaporean official who had become interested in Otokichi finally located his grave site -- something that had been a mystery since 1993, when Saito's efforts yielded the burial registry entry for John M. Ottoson in Singapore. However, the original grave turned out to have been relocated from its original site, on which a hospital now stands. Another recent finding through Singaporean links has been an official directory covering 1863 and 1866, which gives Otokichi's address there and suggests he was a trader in local farm products.

"Bit by bit, we're finding evidence to fill in more of the blanks in Otokichi's life," said Saito, happily adding that the town is now on the trail of his son, who seems to have come to Japan and been naturalized, and to have died in Taiwan.

Saito is looking forward to a group tour to Singapore. It's no mere pleasure trip, though, as he has asked the government of the city-state for permission to relocate Otokichi's grave from the precincts of the exhumed remains to a Japanese cemetery.

As well, he has asked for permission to take some of his remains -- or at least some soil from the grave -- back home to be interred in the Yamamoto family grave and the memorial tomb to Hojunmaru's crew at the Ryosanji Temple in Onoura.

"We are going to take the first flight out of the new airport to Singapore in February to bring him home," Saito said, his voice full of feeling for someone many around Mihama are truly coming to regard as a long-lost son.

For other stories in our package, please click the following links:

Shipwreck was key to first Gospel in Japanese By Setsuko Kamiya Maritime disasters waiting to happen By Setsuko Kamiya



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