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  • Economist on “When Japan was a Secret”

    Posted by arudou debito on December 28th, 2007

    Hi Blog. Debito.org is following the template set by The Economist Newsmagazine, where the journalists digress from the usual serious stuff and put out a holiday issue of tangents.

    In this year’s Economist holiday issue, we have a three-pager on how people (particularly whalers and other merchant marines) were trying to open up Japan before Commodore Perry. It’s a long one, so here are some excerpts:

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    Japanese sea-drifters
    When Japan was a secret
    The Economist Dec 19th 2007

    Long before Commodore Perry got there, Japanese castaways and American whalers were prising Japan open
    http://www.economist.com/world/asia/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10278660

    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.
    Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”, 1851

    The first English-language teacher to come to Japan landed in a tiny skiff, but before he did so, Ranald MacDonald pulled the bung from his boat in order to half-swamp her, in the hope of winning over locals with a story that he had come as someone who had fled the cruel tyrannies of a whale-ship captain and then been shipwrecked. The four locals who approached by boat, though certainly amazed, were also courteous, for they bowed low, stroked their huge beards and emitted a throaty rumbling. “How do you do?” MacDonald cheerily replied. This meeting took place in tiny Nutsuka Cove on Rishiri Island off Hokkaido on July 1st 1848, and a dark basaltic pebble from the cove sits on this correspondent’s desk as he writes, picked up from between the narrow fishing skiffs that even today are pulled up on the beach….

    Far from fleeing a tyrant, MacDonald had in fact had to plead with a concerned captain of the Plymouth, a whaler out of Sag Harbour, New York, to be put down in the waters near Japan. MacDonald had an insatiable hunger for adventure, and the desire to enter Japan—tantalisingly shut to the outside world—had taken a grip on him. Both men knew of the risks, but the captain was less inclined to discount them. For 250 years, since the Tokugawa shogunate kicked Christian missionaries and traders out, only a tightly controlled trade with the Netherlands and China was tolerated in the southern port of Nagasaki, with a further licence for Koreans elsewhere. Though British and Russian ships had from time to time prodded Japan’s carapace, an edict in 1825 spelled out what would happen to uninvited guests “demanding firewood, water and provisions”:

    The continuation of such insolent proceedings, as also the intention of introducing the Christian religion having come to our knowledge, it is impossible to look on with indifference. If in future foreign vessels should come near any port whatsoever, the local inhabitants shall conjointly drive them away; but should they go away peaceably it is not necessary to pursue them. Should any foreigners land anywhere, they must be arrested or killed, and if the ship approaches the shore it must be destroyed.

    Two decades later the despotic feudalism of the Tokugawa shogunate was under greater strain. At home the land had been ravaged by floods and earthquakes, and famines had driven the dispossessed and even samurai to storm the rice warehouses of the daimyo, the local lords. Abroad, Western powers were making ominous inroads. After the opium war of 1840-42 China ceded Hong Kong to Britain. Meanwhile, thanks to a growth in whaling and trade with China, the number of distressed Western vessels appearing along Japan’s shores was increasing. Moderate voices made themselves heard within the government. A new edict was softer:

    It is not thought fitting to drive away all foreign ships irrespective of their condition, in spite of their lack of supplies, or of their having stranded or their suffering from stress of weather. You should, when necessary, supply them with food and fuel and advise them to return, but on no account allow foreigners to land. If, however, after receiving supplies and instructions they do not withdraw, you will, of course drive them away.

    …The most famous sea-drifter is known in the West and even Japan as John Manjiro. Two days after Melville set off in early 1841 from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, on the whaling adventure that provided the material for “Moby Dick”, Manjiro, the youngest of five crew, set out fishing near his village of Nakanohama on the rugged south-western coast of Shikoku, one of Japan’s four main islands. On the fourth day, the skipper saw black clouds looming and ordered the boat to be rowed to shore. It was too late. Over two weeks they drifted east almost 400 miles, landing on Torishima, a barren volcanic speck whose only sustenance was brackish water lying in puddles and nesting seabirds. In late summer even the albatrosses left. After five months, while out scavenging, Manjiro saw a ship sailing towards the island.

    The castaways’ saviour, William Whitfield, captain of the John Howland, a Fairhaven whaler, took a shine to the sparky lad. In Honolulu he asked Manjiro if he wanted to carry on to Fairhaven. The boy did, studied at Bartlett’s Academy, which taught maths and navigation to its boys, went to church and fell for local girls. He later signed on for a three-year whaling voyage to the Pacific, and when he returned, joined a lumber ship bound round Cape Horn for San Francisco and the California gold rush. He made a handsome sum and found passage back to Honolulu.

    By early 1851—the year of “Moby Dick” and two years before Commodore Perry turned up—Manjiro was at last back in Japan, and things were already changing. He and two of the original crew had been dropped in their open sailing boat by an American whaling ship off the Ryukyu Islands. They were taken to Kagoshima, seat of the Satsuma clan. The local daimyo, Shimazu Nariakira, grilled Manjiro, but the tone was inquisitive more than inquisitorial: please to explain the steamship, trains, photography, etc. In Nagasaki, Manjiro had to trample on an image of the Virgin and child. He was asked whether the katsura bush could be seen from America growing on the moon. He described America’s system of government, the modest living of the president and how New Englanders were so industrious that they used their time on the lavatory to read. Amazingly, he dared criticise Japan’s ill-treatment of foreign ships in need of wood and water, and made a heartfelt plea for the opening of Japan, going so far as to put the American case for a coal-bunkering station in Japan to allow steamships to cross the Pacific from California to China.

    Rather than being kept in prison, he was freed to visit his mother—in Nakanohana she showed him his memorial stone—and was even made a samurai. In Tosa (modern-day Kochi), he taught English to men who were later influential during the overthrow of the shogunate and the establishment of constitutional government in the Meiji period, from 1860. During negotiations in 1854 with Perry, Manjiro acted as an interpreter. Later, in 1860, he joined the first Japanese embassy to America. But as Christopher Benfey explains in “The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics and the Opening of Old Japan” (Random House, 2003), if the terror of being lost at sea was the defining experience of Manjiro’s life, then his greatest gift to the Japanese was his translation of Nathaniel Bowditch’s “The New American Practical Navigator”, known to generations of mariners as the “seaman’s bible”.

    As for Ranald MacDonald, though he was handed over by the Ainu and taken by junk to Nagasaki for interrogation, he was treated decently. With a respectable education and a gentle presence, he was clearly a cut above the usual rough-necked castaway, and he was put to teaching English. Some of the students who came to his cell later flourished as interpreters and compilers of dictionaries. The most notable, Einosuke Moriyama, served as the chief translator in Japan’s negotiations with Perry, as well as interpreter to America’s first consul to Japan, Townsend Harris…

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    The article gives a lot of interesting information, even if it strikes me a bit as if it’s from the perspective of overseas sources only. The labeling of Japanese ships as “junks”, for example, (junks are Chinese) is a bit of an indicator. And it concludes oddly. Read the final paragraph to the piece:

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    As for whaling around Japan, vestigial echoes reverberate. Every northern winter, Japan faces barbs for sending a whaling fleet into Antarctic waters. And why, asks the mayor of Taiji, a small whaling port, should Japanese ships have to go so far, suffering international outrage? Because, he says, answering his own question, the Americans fished out all the Japanese whales in the century before last.
    ======================

    Kerplunk. Er, so the whole article was leading up to justify this contention? It’s like putting a reggae conclusion on a classical piece.

    Anyway, the whole article is worth a read as a holiday indulgence. See it at http://www.economist.com/world/asia/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10278660

    Arudou Debito in Sapporo

    One Response to “Economist on “When Japan was a Secret””

    1. Dominic Ziegler Says:

      Dear Debito san,

      I’m very grateful you gave attention my hyoryumin piece. Actually, the last para was just tongue-in-cheek.

      As for junks being only Chinese: it ain’t necessarily so. “Junk” is most probably of Malay derivation, meaning a large ship; early European use of the word refers to Arab and Indian vessels. Then, more generically the word came to mean an Eastern ship.

      Certainly, “junk” came eventually to refer mostly to Chinese sailing craft, but not exclusively. What’s more, during various periods, Japanese merchants brought over Chinese shipwrights to build craft, and also commissioned or bought Chinese junks for Japan’s coastal trade (just as mainland Chinese merchants commissioned junks in Siam). Certainly, the “Japanese” pirates who harrassed the Chinese coasts during the late-Ming and early-Qing used junks, but were they Chinese or Japanese ones? The answer is probably as ambiguous as the supposedly pure-blood Japanese pirates. Coastal zones breed hybrid worlds that defy clear distinctions.

      With best wishes,

      Dominic

      –THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR REPLYING, MR ZIEGLER. I APPRECIATE THE CORRECTION RE JUNKS (AND THE CLARIFICATION ABOUT THE LAST PARA). MUCH OBLIGED FOR SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT. THANKS FOR DOING THE PIECE! DEBITO IN SAPPORO

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