Kamehameha Welcomes First Issei 1806
When stranded, fourteen-year-old fisherman Nakanohama and four of his fellow fishermen were rescued by an American whaler in 1841, they knew their life in Japan was over. Two centuries earlier Tokugawa Iemitsu issued an edict that proclaimed in part, “If any Japanese returns from overseas, he must be put to death.”
So begin the legend of the man history would come to know as John Manjiro, the first Japanese to land in Hawaii and return to Edo in splendor twelve years later on an American warship. But wait. Was he the first “immigrant” as many people believe?
We will get back to Manjiro in the next article. But now, the story of the real first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii.
Sailors again, but the year was 1806.
Captain Niinaya Ginzo, and his crew of seven, left Shimoda, near the tip of the Izu peninsula, famous today for its beaches, tightly jammed with Tokyoites every sweltering August. The ship sailed west across the Enshunada Sea where on a clear day you might behold the snow capped glory of Fuji-summa. But on this day of January 6, 1806 they wouldn’t see Mount Fuji and most likely not even the Aichi coast.
Nor would they ever again.
A snow blizzard descended. Winds buffeted the ship out to sea as driving rain replaced the snow. The following day, Captain Ginzo ordered his men to swing their axes to cut down the Inawaka-maru’s mast to save the rolling ship from capsizing in the typhoon type winds. Then, the ship drifted east.
On January 11, optimism flickered. Two rocky islands appeared in the distance. The crew wiggled the rudder to beach the bobbing vessel on either islet. But without its mast and its attendant sails, the tips of the sea mountain outcrops faded into the horizon. It would be three months before men would see land again. And that land would be Hawaii.
By January 20, they drank the last of ship’s potable water. Then, they relied on the too infrequent rain to quench their thirst and to boil rice, which gave out on February 28.
They must have wondered … not only if they would live or die … but if they did live, could they return to Japan and risk beheading. For this was the time of Sakoku or “chained country.”
Under the edicts of Tokugawa Iemitsu issued from 1633 to 1639, no foreigner could enter not could any Japanese leave the country under the penalty of death. While later Shoguns allowed the Dutch, Chinese, and Koreans to trade through designated ports at Nagasaki, the death proscription for Japanese leaving and then returning to Japan remained.
Further, by the same edicts, Japan’s ships were limited in size to shore-hugging boats. So, the crew must have realized that salvation could only come from a foreign vessel. Proof they had left Japan! One can imagine the grim dialogue of the men drifting on the wide waters day after day, then week after week.
A spark of hope rose when flying fish alighted on the boat. Sashimi for all! Then the cook brewed soup. They used the guts to bait hooks to catch more fish. The fortuitous meal portended their change in luck. Five days later, on March 20, the starving sailors spotted a passing ship. The men jumped atop the deckhouse and begin waving mats. Seemingly to no avail. The ship was passing them.
Then it turned.
Captain Cornelius Sole, commander of the trading vessel Tabour, drew along aside the Inawaka-maru, whose frantic crew alternated between rubbing their stomachs and bowing. Upon boarding and inspecting their empty galley, Captain Sole understood their predicament and took the men aboard. The men ate sparingly for five days, understanding that a full meal might mean death, before sharing the American’s crew thrice-daily meals.
Almost two months later on May 6, the first Japanese landed on Oahu. King Kamehameha, having united Hawaii barely a decade earlier, (And the landing of the New England missionaries twelve years in the future) agreed to look after the sailors in exchange of forty axes from Captain Sole.
The sailors created quite a stir. Here was another Asian race two thirds the size of native Hawaiians. The crowds must have looked at the men like children going to the zoo and seeing elephants and lions for the first time. While Kamehameha’s men cut down trees and women wove thatch roofing to build a hale for the stranded men, the Hawaiians brought the men taro and sweet potato. Once the house was completed, Kamehameha provided a cook for the men. He had to place guards to stop gawkers from wandering into the hale.
While enjoying the Aloha friendship of the islands, the Japanese understood they could not stay. When an American ship offered them passage to Macau, they took it. Five hundred Hawaiians gave them gifts and food and waved good-by to the men who, barely held back their tears. From Macau, they hitched a ride on a Chinese schooner to Dutch ruled Batavia, now Jakarta. After surviving the ordeal at sea, the crew were little match for tropical diseases. Five died.
Despite the death sentence that might await them, the remaining three sailors boarded an American ship flying a Dutch flag to take them to Dutch Nagasaki designated concession on tiny Dejima Island, Japan’s sole window to Western trade goods and technology. The sixth sailor died on arrival June 17, 1807.
As expected, the two survivors were arrested. One committed suicide during interrogation by the Bakufu, the shogun’s feared military styled officials.
Hirahara Zenmatsu, the last survivor was allowed to return to his home village where at the order of his daimyo or lord he recounted his odyssey in a document titled Iban Hyoryu Kikokuroku Zenmatsu. (Yes, you can look it up on Google.) Hirahara did not have much time to savor his celebrity status. He died in the spring of 1808.
It would be another three decades before another lost-at-sea Japanese crew made it to Hawaii. The story of John Manjiro had a happier and far more profound ending.