Charting the course of Japan-U.S. relations — relations that now, as ever, can surprise, bewilder and baffle
“How wonderful! How marvelous! From here to the southeast is what the Westerners call the Pacific Ocean and the American states! They must be very close!” — Watanabe Kazan, artist and samurai, in a diary recording a sojourn in Enoshima, an island off Kamakura in present-day Kanagawa Prefecture, in 1821.
Close indeed. Closer than he or any Japanese then knew. Just around the corner, in fact.
“Intercourse shall be continued forever.” — Shogun Tokugawa Iesada (under duress), to U.S. Consul Townsend Harris, 1857.
Two mid-19th-century whalemen, an American and a Japanese, made their names immortal. Pity they never met.
They almost did. At least their paths came close to crossing.
On Jan. 3, 1841, Herman Melville boarded the whale-ship Acushnet at the port of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. He was 21, with not much going for him. His father had died bankrupt and the economy was still sunk under the market crash of 1837. The Acushnet was bound for Japan. Japan was the new horizon for American whalers, whales in the Atlantic having been hunted to near-extinction.
On Jan. 5, 1841, a 14-year-old Shikoku peasant boy named Manjiro found work on an 8-meter, square-sailed fishingboat, not equipped for the deep sea because the deep sea was strictly off limits — and had been since the 1630s, when sakoku (closed-country) became the law of the land under the Tokugawa Shogunate. To leave the country, or enter it from outside, was a capital crime. But typhoons blow regardless of laws, and a particularly vicious one swept Manjiro’s helpless little craft far out to sea. A desert island offered forbidding but life-saving sanctuary. Six hand-to-mouth months later, Manjiro and four companions were rescued by — coincidences are fascinatingly anarchic — another American whaler from Fairhaven, Massachusetts.
Melville never made it to Japan — he deserted the rigors of the whale ship for lushly perilous and amorous adventure among South Pacific cannibals — but Manjiro did make it to Fairhaven, taken there by his kindly rescuer, Capt. William Whitfield. Whitfield found himself drawn to the young castaway with the quick intelligence and insatiable curiosity. A childless widower, he adopted the boy as a son — a gesture ironically symbolic of the bilateral relationship to come. He christened him John.
Melville, in his 1851 masterpiece “Moby Dick,” remarked, “If that double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale-ship alone to whom the credit will be due; for already she is on the threshold.”
In 1860, an American naval officer named John Brooke noted in his journal, “I am satisfied that (John Manjiro) has had more to do with the opening of Japan than any other man living.” Of the two, the latter is probably the more accurate assessment — but then Brooke was looking back, not forward. When he wrote, Japan had been “open” for six years.