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Sunday, Aug. 29, 2004

Maritime disasters waiting to happen

Staff writer

This story is part of a package on "Otokichi: a life lost and found." To read the introduction, please click here.
Accidents at sea can be termed acts of Mother Nature, but the ones that sent sailors adrift almost every year during the Edo Period (1603-1867) can also be considered to have been man-made.

News photo
A painting of three heavily laden sengokubune on a wooden tablet that was offered up to a shrine in the town of Mihama in Aichi Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of the town of Mihama)

Until the beginning of the 17th century, huge Japanese vessels occasionally sailed to China and throughout Southeast Asia as far as the Straits of Malacca with crews relying on the stars for navigation.

But the Tokugawa Shogunate tightened its iron grip in 1635 and prohibited foreign travel amid fears about the destabilizing effects of Christianity and of lords who were gaining wealth through foreign trade. Because of this, advanced shipbuilding technologies and the science of celestial navigation, which were mostly used by ships venturing overseas, fell into disuse and were lost.

At first, when the shogunate established its political capital in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in 1603, there was a huge demand for lumber and stone from various parts of the country to build Edo Castle. Then, as the shogun collected many taxes in the form of rice from lords across the country, that soon became a prime cargo on all Japan's shipping routes there. Of course, as Edo's population rapidly spiraled up toward the million mark, varieties of commodities were shipped between Edo and the business capital of Osaka to meet the rising demand, lifting domestic maritime transport to new heights.

The best ships Japan's merchant sailors could muster at the time were sengokubune, a type developed for the relatively sheltered waters of the Inland Sea. About 15 meters long and with a crew of around 10, these single-masted ships could carry about 150 tons of cargo. Although solidly built, sengokubune were unsuitable for the open sea or ocean.

To make them easier and quicker to load and unload, for example, their decks were simple, unnailed planks laid across the top of the hold -- planks that did nothing to stop the ships being swamped in heavy seas. Moreover, their big rudders, which made steering easier, tended to break off in rough conditions while the absence of a keel made them prone to instability.

In addition to such structural problems, sengokubune sailors relied on landmarks to know where they were, so if they were blown out to sea they easily became lost. That danger was also heightened because, to speed their journeys, they tended to make few stops along the way.

According to the records of castaways repatriated from the mid-17th to 19th centuries, the few fortunate sailors who were lost at sea but managed to avoid drowning either drifted to a friendly shore or got picked up by a foreign ship.

Although they managed to get back to Japan, however, it was a while before they finally returned to their homes. At first, they were taken to Nagasaki for interrogation to detect any unwanted foreign "contamination" -- especially of the Christian kind. In some cases, they were questioned again by local lords. On finally returning home, many were banned from sailing again, or leaving their original settings thereafter. In this way, despite the fact that they were actually "victims" of the shogunate's closed-door policy, they were treated as offenders of it as well.

Ironically, though, it is largely thanks to the surviving records of some of these interrogations, that anything at all is known about the experiences and adventures of shipwrecked mariners, who were primarily the only Japanese to encounter foreign cultures during the 230 years that the country remained almost entirely closed.

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

Otokichi: a life lost and found By Setsuko Kamiya Shipwreck was key to first Gospel in Japanese By Setsuko Kamiya

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