The Shogun’s reluctant ambassadors

Posted: 18 December 2010 in C17th, C18th, C19th, Japan, Russia, Sea stories, United States

March 1839: the Japanese cargo ship Cho-ja maru, dismasted and without her rudder, wallows in the Pacific shortly before her surviving crew were picked up by the American whaler James Loper. Artist unknown; Sonkei Archives, Tokyo

When Matthew Perry sailed his squadron of warships into Edo Bay in July 1853 – and compelled the local authorities, under threat of bombardment, to accept a trade treaty with the United States – Japan had been a closed society for well over two centuries. Under the policy known as Sakoku (“locking the country”), practically all trade with the outside world had been strictly prohibited. Christianity was banned, foreigners already in Japan were expelled, and others were forbidden, on pain of death, from entering imperial territory. The Japanese, similarly, were not permitted to leave. For 220 years, the country remained almost entirely isolated, mostly peaceful, and profoundly mysterious and alluring to outsiders.

Whatever the reasons for Japan’s self-imposed seclusion – they are all too frequently reduced to fear of fast-encroaching Christianity, though inevitably they were quite a bit more complex than that [Boxer pp.308-400; Eiichi pp.21-58] – Sakoku produced peculiar results. Japan’s only formal foreign relations were with Korea; strictly limited trade was carried on, but the only westerners allowed anywhere on Japanese territory were the Dutch, and they were favoured largely because, being Calvinists, they had no interest in converting anyone to their religion. Dutch traders, in turn, were restricted to a single “factory,” or base, located on an island just off Nagasaki and chosen to ensure that there could be no easy intercourse with the locals. A few Japanese, specially trained to act as interpreters, had access to the factory, and one or two Dutch merchants, on special occasions, travelled to Edo, the capital, in palanquins. But all but a tiny handful of Japanese had never seen a European and had no access to western thoughts or ideas. Dutch woollen cloth (the principal import) was scarce and hence fashionable and highly sought-after. For the most part, however, it was easy for the Japanese to believe that their visitors were very different to them – indeed, quite possibly, not human:

Most Japanese regarded foreigners (and particularly Europeans) as a special variety of goblin that bore only superficial resemblance to a normal human being. The usual name given to the Dutch was komo or “red hairs,” a name intended more to suggest a demonic being than to describe the actual coloring of the foreigners’ hair. The Portuguese had also at one time been declared by the shogunate to possess “cat’s eyes, huge noses, red hair and shrike’s-tongues” …

As time went on… more sophisticated people attempted to disprove the fanciful descriptions of the Dutch that were in common circulation. “People say that the Dutch have no heels, have eyes like animals and are giants,” related one man, “but the fact is that people of every country differ somewhat, and just because the Dutch do not resemble us, we must not say that they are like animals. We are all products of the same Creator.” [Even this writer, however,] felt that it was not worth the effort to deny the rumor that when Dutchmen urinate they raise one leg like dogs.

[Keene pp.16-17]

These firmly-held beliefs were not entirely a matter of simple ignorance. As a matter of fact, Japanese teaching suggested several reasons why the Dutch could not be wholly human: “The fact that they were unacquainted with traditional Chinese teachings caused some educated men to classify them as animals on those grounds alone.” It was for this reason that even useful imports, such as western books and scientific implements, were rarely studied seriously, and, though they fetched high prices in Japan, they were bought and sold as curiosities. Other than cloth, the only Dutch imports widely known and coveted were medicines. [Ibid p.19]

A Japanese seascape (Blackburn Museum)

After about 1780, though, the study of western ideas and inventions became slowly more respectable in Japan. This gradual shift can be traced in the language, in which the word bangaku (literally “barbarian learning”) slowly gave way to rangaku.  This new word – derived from Oranda, the Japanese for “Dutch” – simply means “foreign studies,” and for the first time Dutch texts (particularly anatomies) were translated into Japanese, and Dutch-Japanese dictionaries were produced. We can be in no doubt that this was a very significant departure: “The new rangaku for the first time was declared to be as worthy of the superior man’s attention as traditional Chinese philosophy.” [Ibid p.25]

What caused this subtle shift in position? There were several reasons. One historian posits that the arrival of one unusually able man, the Swedish doctor C.P. Thunberg, at the Dutch factory in 1775 so impressed the Japanese that they became more ready to turn their natural curiosity concerning western ways into actual learning:

When the Japanese discovered that Thunberg was far more learned than any of his recent predecessors, they plied him incessantly with questions both at Nagasaki and at Edo when he visited the capital. Thunberg recorded how the Japanese looked up to him “as an oracle, whom they suppose capable of giving them information upon every subject,” but at last the inquisitiveness that had so characterized their earlier dealings with the Dutch had been given a direction.

[Keene pp.9, 25]

Just as important, though, is another, stranger, much neglected factor, for it transpires that Japan was never quite so thoroughly cut off from the outside world as is popularly supposed. News from China, Russia and the west was periodically brought to the country by Japanese citizens who had left it, much against their will, but seen enough of the outside world to know that its inhabitants were men, not demons, and that there were things worth knowing about them. These men had been the crews of ships blown out of coastal waters into the vastness of the Pacific, and who had survived considerable periods at sea before being rescued or washed up on alien shores. A surprisingly large number of Japanese ships – at least 60, and almost certainly many more – are known to have been lost in this way between around 1600 and 1870, and in many cases the survivors of their crews were so desperate to get home that they were willing to undergo huge privations, not to mention risking execution, in order to do so. A handful travelled all the way round the world. These men were the Japanese sea drifters – or, as the title of one book on the subject has it, “the Shogun’s reluctant ambassadors.”

First, a few words of clarification. The loss of ships on the eastern coast of Japan was nothing new. The area has always been subject to strong currents and storms, particularly in January, at the height of the northeastern typhoons; hence it has always been a dangerous area for shipping. In the northern parts of Japan there are currents that push ships towards the mainland of Asia, and onto Chinese and Russian territory. Any ship sailing along the eastern coast, meanwhile, risked being caught in a storm; if she was blown offshore and disabled she would soon find herself caught in what Japanese mariners call the kuroshio – the “black stream” –  a strong trans-oceanic current, flowing slowly east at the rate of that varies from 10 miles to about 36 miles a day, which is the Pacific equivalent of the Gulf Stream. The kuroshio flows from the coast of Taiwan north to Japan and then swings east, where it merges with the North Pacific current; for a ship caught in it, the next stop would be the Aleutian Islands, or the American coast between Vancouver and Los Angeles.

The lethal pull of the kuroshio did not matter so much when the Japanese were building strong, ocean-going ships during the dakokai jidai, the “age of great voyages” during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. [Eiichi pp.21-4]  After 1635, however, when the Shogunate imposed its policy of national isolation, all existing sea going ships were destroyed and it became illegal to build any more such capable vessels. From about 1639, Japan was restricted to small, fragile coastal boats that were deliberately designed to be practically impossible to sail across great oceans. These vessels generally had no proper navigation gear, only one mast, and were designed with square sterns (which caught the wind and made them difficult to steer) and large square stern-rudders that frequently snapped in heavy seas, features that combined to make them especially vulnerable to rough weather. Dismasted, they were quickly rendered helpless, and would drift slowly eastwards until they encountered land. [Brooks pp.7-8]

What made the ships survivable was their cargoes. The tribute paid by Japan’s more distant provinces to the Emperor and the Shogun in Edo was generally remitted in rice, and – Japanese roads being frequently impassable in winter – that rice was generally sent by sea. That meant that the crew of a crippled vessel adrift on the Pacific often had an almost limitless supply of food to sustain them. Yes, scurvy remained a fatal problem, and the crew still required a good measure of luck to catch sufficient rainwater; there are many records of Japanese ships reaching the American coast apparently abandoned, and of boarding parties discovering the crew all dead. But in an equal number of cases at least a handful of sailors survived months of despair and privation, to begin extraordinary adventures.

A Japanese junk under sail

The earliest known record of a sea drifter dates to 1617, when an abandoned Japanese ship appeared off Acapulco, in Mexico, though it seems far more likely than not that other early instances went unrecorded because the cargo vessels in questions went ashore somewhere much further north, in areas then inhabited only by native tribes. The historian WE Braden has noted the existence of Hawaiian records that may indicate the arrival of one or two Japanese ships, crewed by at least five survivors, on the islands as early as 1258, and has suggested it is plausible that the appearance of Japanese sea drifters may account for some of the more perplexing and unique features of Hawaiian culture. [Braden pp.76-87]  And the anthropologist George Quimby goes much further, suggesting that “some thousands of disabled vessels reached American shores during the first 17 centuries of the Christian era,” and positing that they were the sources of iron blades unearthed by archaeologists on the Northwest coast of the USA, in areas where there are no known sources of iron. [Quimby pp.7-15]

There are, indeed, enough records of known sea drifts for some sort of analysis of them to be useful. Of the documented cases summarised by Brook, 27 involved junks that were encountered while they were still at sea – sometimes in mid-ocean, sometimes only a few miles from shore – while 33 were records of ships that crossed the Pacific to wash up on a foreign shore. Of the latter, eight were stranded in the Aleutians, six in Kamchatka, two in Hawaii and the remainder on the coast of mainland North America. Some of the ships had been adrift for as long as one and a half years – the record period seems to have been 17 or 18 months – but, even so, some of the crews had survived; a total of 222 living crewmen were recorded. [Braden pp.78-9n; Plummer p.235]

There is no room here to describe more than a handful of representative cases, but even these convey something of the astonishing toughness and adaptability of the men who crewed the sea drifters. Take the case of Jirokichi, whose ship the Cho-ja maru was caught in a storm of the eastern coast in November 1838 while on her way to Edu with a cargo of kombu (a variety of seaweed used in the wrappings of sushi) and tuna. “The ropes holding down the sail snapped, and the crew lost control… The mast was cut down and much of the cargo was jettisoned. The men were forced to work all through the days and nights in spite of the icy wind and driving snow.” [Plummer p.122]

By the time the storm had abated the Cho-ja maru was leaking so badly that she required constant bailing and was out of sight of land. Without even a compass to guide them, the 10 members of the crew had no choice but to wait and pray and ration what remained of their food until they sighted land. The weather gradually grew warmer, but this merely increased the torment, since the men were by this time terribly short of drinking water and the rains had ceased. Two men died after drinking seawater, the captain – who was blamed by his shipmates for failing to forsee the storm – committed suicide, and the remaining seven men endured hideous conditions for four months until, in April 1839, while still in the middle of the Pacific, the Cho-ja maru fell in with the American whaler James Loper.

The Loper and her consorts rescued them, but there was no swift return to Japan for Jirokichi and his shipmates. For six more months the Japanese remained on board the Loper, searching the endless wastes of the North Pacific for whales, and it was not until September 1839 that Captain Oleb Cathcart informed the Japanese (using gestures and some sort of pidgin, one imagines) that the next day they would reach the Hawaiian Islands.

In Hawaii, the sea drifters were placed in the custody of members of the local Chinese community, who were able to communicate with them in writing. When Jirokichi and his friends realised that the Chinese planned to recruit them as labourers on their sugar plantations, though, they complained to Cathcart, who promised to try to find them passage on a ship heading for Canton. From there, he thought, it ought to be possible to find a ship sailing towards Japan.

During his stay in the Hawaiian Islands, Jirokichi met a pastor named Dwight Baldwin, a Yale graduate who lived there between 1835 and 1870. Baldwin was much taken with him, and wrote a long commentary in The Polynesian (1 August 1840) on the surviving sea drifters. Jirokichi himself was described as

probably about 25 or 30 years old, for I do not recollect how old he called himself. He was a man of middling stature, but ecceedingly muscular, as may be judged from the fact, that he has more than once of his own accord been down to the beach, and has taken a barrel of flour on his shoulders, brought it up with perfect ease, and set it down upon the floor, with as much steadiness as any man could set down a pound’s weight. He was employed probably as clerk of the junk; he was pretty well versed in writing, and had some skill in drawing. His name was Ijero… and being ready in catching up with both the Hawaiian and English languages, it was from him that most of my information was obtained.

Jirokichi’s powers of observation were plainly considerable, for the written records of his adventures that he left behind him on his death include minute descriptions of the American whaling vessels he had served on – he was much taken with the ingenuity of the devices on board for flensing whales – Baldwin’s religious services, harbour conditions, Hawaiian topography, the flora and fauna of the islands, experiments with electricity, Hawaii’s defences, a surgical operation involving the removal of the patient’s eyeball, the local prostitutes (whose toothless smiles failed to ensnare the Japanese sailors) and his encounters with unfathomably blonde Americans. Of the wife of another missionary he wrote:

This was our first experience of seeing an American woman and child. the wife was very pretty and seemed gentle. She was dressed in beautiful clothes. Her hair was reddish and the pupils of her eyes were almost white. The child was four or five years old, but we were astonished to see that his hair had already become completely white!

It took the best part of 10 months for the Japanese to find a ship headed back west across the pacific. To their disappointment, China was more or less closed, thanks to the Opium Wars, and Jirokichi and his surviving companions were eventually forced to take a circuitous route home via Kamchatka (where they spent an uncomfortable 10 months and found the rough Russian food completely inedible), Russian Alaska and the Kurile Islands. Jirokichi impressed the Russians with several feats of strength, defeating all comers in wrestling matches, and continued his careful observations of foreign customs and innovations – this time including compiling the first Japanese description of a steam powered ship.

Six surviving sailors arrived off Hokkaido on 23 May 1842, where they were met by boat containing three Ainu and a lower-class samurai by the name of Kobayashi Chogoro. Kobayashi agreed to take the sailors ashore, but declined the Russians’ request for fresh drinking water, saying the foreign ship would be in danger of bombardment if she came any closer to the coast. His intransigence angered the Russian captain, who observed: “We have brought back Japan’s children. If one sees home someone’s lost child one expects to be treated well by the parents.”

Jirokichi and his companions escaped execution, but not protracted and sceptical interrogation both in Hokkaido and Edo itself – questioning that went on, more or less without pause, for a total of three years. When Jirokichi was finally allowed home, it was eight years since he had left in the Cho-ja maru. Forbidden to go to sea again, he lived in some poverty, scraping a living as a salt dealer, while recounting his experiences to at least two writers who compiled detailed accounts of his journeys. These volumes, with accompanying illustrations hand-drawn by Jirokichi himself, were, however, kept strictly confidential by the Japanese government; “only hand-picked scholars or government officials with a special interest in foreign affairs were allowed to peek between the covers.” Even in the 1840s, the contents were deemed too dangerous for ordinary Japanese to be made aware of them. [Plummer pp.119-37]

Harsh though Jirokichi’s experiences were in many respects, they pale in comparison with those of other Japanese sea drifters, especially those unfortunate enough to have been pulled westwards onto the Russian coast – and not solely because of the decidedly primitive conditions that prevailed in bleak Kamchatka, where the Russians had maintained a toehold ever since first arriving there as recently as 1697. The Russians, unlike the British and the Americans, were close enough to Japan to realise the importance of seizing any Japanese sea drifters who appeared on their shores, and a succession of unfortunate sailors were taken by force into the Russian interior, where they were compelled to work as language instructors and interpreters, and were often forcibly baptised, an action that (whether the Russians realised it or not) all but guaranteed that they would not be permitted to return to Japan.

The earliest of these drifters, an Osaka merchant’s clerk known to the Russians as Dembei, was wrecked on Kamchatka in 1695, shortly before the peninsula was annexed by the Tsars. Dembei and his comrades were set upon by bow and arrow wielding natives and taken captive, living among them more or less as slaves until 1697 when Dembei was rescued by the explorer Vladimir Atlasssov. Atlassaov sent the former captive to Yakutsk by sledge, and from there Dembei was forwarded to Moscow and, eventually, St Petersburg – a journey that took three years, all told, but which did supply Dembei with enough of a working grasp of Russian to be useful when he was granted an audience with Peter the Great (19 January 1702). At Peter’s request – which was, of course, effectively an order – Dembei remained in Russia and was given help in setting up a Japanese language school, located first in St Petersburg and later in the remote Siberian town of Irkutsk.

The emperor, we are told

assured Dembei that eventually he would be allowed to return to his homeland, but he evidently considered the captive too valuable to be let go; when Dembei asked for permission to go back to Japan in 1710, he was refused. Peter also went back on another promise when he ordered that Dembei Christened, and he was known by the Christian name, Gavrill [Gabriel], after that. It was Dembei’s fate never to return home [and] he proved so useful to the Russian government as a language instructor that it was decreed that whenever a Japanese ship drifted to far eastern shores, one of the castaways was to be sent to the capital to teach Japanese.

[Ibid pp.38-42]

Dembei’s residence in Russia – which lasted, probably, for about 20 years, though it is not known for certain when he died – was of considerable significance. Nearly 100 years later, when then men of another Japanese cargo ship, the Wakamiya-maru, were cast up on the Aleutian Islands, and sent from there to Russia, they found a small group of Japanese speakers still based in Irkutsk, led by a Japanese drifter named Shinzo who had gone native, accepted baptism and a Russian name – Nicolai Petrovich Kolotygin – and had taken a Russian wife. The duties of Shinzo, or Kolotygin, included teaching the Japanese language (he had six students) and “looking after Japanese castaways”. Like most of the sea drifters, Shinzo’s own Japanese education was significantly limited; he could read and write only in katakana, the simplest phonetic alphabet, and his knowledge of Japan itself was limited to the sort of basics that might be expected of an ordinary fisherman. [Ibid pp.53-9]

Otokichi, who was wrecked on the coast of Washington State in 1833 and eventually settled in Singapore.

It is for this reason that the stories of some other sea drifters are of especial interest. Take the example of Otokichi, a sailor whose ship, the Hojun-maru, was disabled off Edo in 1832 and who drifted east across the Pacific for 14 months until coming ashore near Cape Flattery, in present day Washington State. By then only two other members of the crew remained alive, and the trio were promptly enslaved by the Makah tribe, which controlled the district. These were not the romantic Native Americans of the central plains:

Being numb with cold, for it was January when they reached the coast of America, the sailors were told to rub themselves against each others’ bodies to keep warm. The women led the sailors nearer to their fires and brought out fur pelts for them to wear.

One long building houses the entire Indian community. It was partitioned off into separate rooms for each family. Their food was not cooked or broiled; they subsisted on dried fish. Having no flintstones, they painstakingly started a fire by rubbing two dry sticks together. Utensils were scarce. Each person possessed one all-purpose bowl. Not only did they eat from it, but they used it to save their own urine, which was used to wash their faces. This custom revolted the fastidious Japanese.

The three strangers were viewed with suspicion and curiosity by the natives; to ensure that they did not escape, they were tied together with thongs. The Indians always kept a careful watch over them.

Fortunately for Otokichi and his companions, the Makah were occasionally visited by British ships sailing under the flag of the Hudson’s Bay Company and trading for furs. A few months after the wreck, one appeared off the Olympic peninsula and the presence of the Japanese became known to them:

The captain saw the three pitiful captives and tried to determine their origin. He noted their olive skin and Asiatic features, and when he was shown a splinter of their ship bearing the name in Chinese characters, he was all but certain that they had somehow come from across the sea. On a scrap of rice paper they wrote their names, drew a picture of a shipwreck, and made a sketch of the three of them secured in thongs. This paper was handed over to Dr John McLoughlin, chief factor of the Fort Vancouver post of the Hudson’s Bay Company… [and] McLoughlin lost no time in despatching an employee to the remote area to secure the freedom of the slaves.

Two of the captives were released almost immediately; the third, Otokichi, who had been taken inland by the Makah, was brought back to the coast and redeemed later. The three Japanese were treated at the hospital McLoughlin had founded at Fort Vancouver, and tutored in English at McLoughlin’s school. The Factor then sent them to London, together with a letter suggesting they be returned to their homeland in the hope that this humanitarian gesture might help open up Japan for trade. “If they are taken to Britain first, they will surely embrace the dignity and power of Great Britain. Then they will have the opportunity to relay this impression to their own people,” McLaughlin wrote.

Otokichi and his companions arrived in London in June 1835; they were the first Japanese ever to see the city. Unfortunately, no record remains of their impressions, and the hard-headed directors of the Hudson’s Bay Company were unimpressed by Factor McLaughlin’s decision to send the men half the way around the world at their expense; it would have been cheaper, and more sensible, they thought, to have packed them off to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and thence back across the Pacific the way that they had come.

Instead, Otokichi made the voyage back to the Orient via the Cape of Good Hope on board the steamer General Palmer, arriving at Macau in December. There he and his two companions were placed in the hands of a German missionary, Dr Karl Gützlaff, who hoped to learn Japanese in order, one day, to extend his mission to Japan. Gützlaff, in turn, questioned the Japanese as to whether they wished to risk a return, and reported that “they did not hesitate in indicating a fervent wish to go back to their home country no matter how.”

It was Gützlaff’s tragedy that the Japanese he was learning from the sailors would prove to be worse than useless to him; the sea drifters spoke only a low dialect, and “for Gützlaff to use this language with the kind of people he intended to contact would be like speaking English sailors’ jargon at a diplomatic soirée in London.” It was Otokichi’s that the longed-for return home never occurred; the castaways spent two years in Macau before taking passage on an American merchant ship, the Morrison, whose captain decided not to reveal he had Japanese sailors on board when he called at the Ryukyu Islands.

But the temptation proved too strong for the homesick boys. When they heard the familiar sounds of their native tongue, they joyfully entered into conversation with the crews of the junks in the harbor. This was to doom their hoped-for repatriation and the success of the whole expedition. One of these junks was hurriedly dispatched to the mainland to alert the government of their imminent arrival… [and when] the ship entered Edo Bay under hazy skies, immediately the booming of cannons could be heard from all sides.

Hit by at least one shot, the Morrison was forced to flee, and she got no better reception further up the coast at Kagoshima Bay, where word had reached the local authorities “that the foreign ship must be fired upon and sent away at all costs.” After enduring an 18-hour bombardment (of presumably questionable accuracy), the Americans sailed off and Otokichi was returned to Macau. [Ibid pp.102-16]

According to the historian Stephen Kohl,

The Japanese castaways were much distressed by this turn of events. Having wandered around the world for some five years, they had eagerly looked forward to their return home. To be driven away not once, but twice, was discouraging indeed. Otokichi and his comrades vowed that since Japan no longer wanted them, they would no longer recognize Japan as their home.

[Kohl p.22]

For Otokichi, turning his back on his homeland meant acknowledging the need to earn a living for himself. He went to work for Dent & Co., a British company trading out of Shanghai, and actually returned to Japan twice during his service with them, acting as a translator on ships sent to survey the coast but never actually going ashore. What the sea drifter made of this additional torture is not known, though Japanese records show that Japanese officials who boarded the Dent ship “were puzzled to find a man who looked Japanese…[but] wore western clothes and appeared to be about 50 years old.” (Otokichi was actually only 31 years old at the time, which says something about the toll his endless travels had taken on him.) Apparently the drifter pretended to be Chinese when his countrymen came on board, for his captain, Mathison, observed: “Otosan, the interpreter, was in great dread, saying that in case we landed, the Japanese would murder us all, and as for himself, he would be reserved for a lingering death by torture.”

Eventually, Otokichi adapted to his circumstances. He is reported to have married an Englishwoman, who died, and then an Indian, with whom he had three children. He eventually settled in Singapore, where in 1862 he encountered a Japanese commercial embassy that – the country having been opened by Perry in the meantime – was on its way to Europe.

During the embassy’s stay in Singapore,

Otokichi came to their hotel to see if he could help them or guide them around the city. The outward signs of the former castaway’s success – the two-storey house with spacious garden, two servants., etc. – were sufficient to arouse surprise in the minds of the visitors.

Otokichi’s hospitality towards them, nonetheless, was interpreted as a sign of loneliness by the xenophobic officials. It was inconceivable to them that any Japanese would chose to live among foreigners.

[Plummer pp.116-18]

At Onoura village, in the remote Chita peninsula, at the foot of a mountain, by the sea, there is a small and forgotten memorial to the men of the Hojun-maru.

The snow had turned to rain in the village, and it was as silent as death as I walked down the winding streets hardly wide enough to allow one to stretch out both arms. I felt closed in, for on either side were the dark walls of the houses with their slatted windows and the closed shutters of the shops. Only a glimpse of the sea now and then lent any light to the heavy atmosphere.

Beside the temple was a small burial ground. It was difficult to make out the inscriptions on the ancient moss-covered tombstones, but on one stone, no larger than the rest, it said:

Tempo 3 October 11

Sailed from Toba Bay

Aboard Hojun-maru, Juemon’s ship

For the tiny village of Onoura, this ship disaster in 1832 was a major event… In the minds of their friends and families, the fourteen men had vanished forever. They had no way of knowing that some of the sailors had survived the shipwreck and had literally circumnavigated the earth. After five years had elapsed, they had even sailed to within a few miles of their homes, unbeknownst to their families.

[Ibid p.248]


C.R. Boxer. The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1640. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.

Braden, Wythe E. “On the probability of pre-1778 Japanese drifts to Hawaii.” Hawaiian Journal of History 10 (1976).

Charles Wolcott Brooks.  Japanese Wrecks Stranded and Picked Up Adrift in the North Pacific Ocean. San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences, 1876.

Kato Eichii.  ‘The age of the great voyages and Japan’s “national seclusion.”‘ In National Committee of Japanese Historians (eds), Historical Studies in Japan 7 (1983-1987). Tokyo: NCJH, 1990.

Donald Keene.  The Japanese Discovery of Europe: 1720-1830. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969.

Stephen W. Kohl. “Strangers in a strange land.” Pacific North-West Quarterly, Jan. 1982.

George Lensen.  The Russian Push Towards Japan: Russo-Japanese Relations, 1697-1875. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959.

Katherine Plummer. The Shogun’s Reluctant Ambassadors: Japanese Sea Drifters in the North Pacific. Portland [OR]: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1991.

George Quimby. “Japanese wrecks, iron tools, and prehistoric Indians of the Northwest coast.” Arctic Anthropology 22 (1985)

JoAnne Roe. Ranald MacDonald: Pacific Rim Adventurer. Seattle: Washington State University Press, 1997.


There are several other works on this subject which I’ve not been able to consult (a good number because they’re in Japanese). Aside from those, and worth listing here for the sake of completeness, are:

Kazuo Ninomiya.  A View of the Outside World During Tokugawa Japan: Reports of Travel by Castaways, 1636-1856. Unpublished University of Washington PhD, 1972.

John E. Van Sant. Pacific Pioneers: Japanese Journeys to America and Hawaii, 1850-80. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Bert Webber.  Wrecked Japanese Junks Adrift in the North Pacific Ocean. San Francisco: Ye Galleon Press, 1984.

  1. Robert Moore says:

    Very interesting article. Amazing that they managed to maintain this cultural isolation for so long.

  2. [...] and vice versa. But you’ll also find some exclusive stuff on the new site: a post on Japanese sea-drifters here, one on the loneliest shop in the world [...]

  3. [...] the blog A Blast From the Past [leaves this blog] has a lengthy discussion on historical and more recent cases of vessels washing [...]

  4. jai boreen says:

    And prehistoric drifts as well?

  5. […] Japan, and others were forbidden, on pain of death, from entering imperial territory. The Japanese were not permitted to leave, and trade with the outside world was permitted only through four “gateways.” One of […]

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