The Legacy of John Manjiro and Captain Whitfield

Araaa, where did September go?  It was a crazy month with the Japan-America Grassroots Summit, starting a new job, and some other events that kept me away from blogging.  Not to mention I had hundreds of Summit photos to edit before I could make a post.  In the middle of my editing, I realized that the majority of my readers probably don’t know the inspiration for the Summit exchange program.  It’s a really interesting story that gets overlooked in the history books.

In 1841, the John Howland, a whaling ship led by Captain William H. Whitfield, rescued, five members of a Japanese fishing vessel marooned on an island in the Philippine Sea.  One of the castaways was fourteen-year-old Manjiro.  As the other men learned about whaling, Captain Whitfield taught Manjiro about American customs, such as maintaining eye contact, and ideals, such as equality.  Manjiro’s shipmates chose to disembark on the nation of Hawaii while Manjiro went with the rest of the crew to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, making him the first Japanese person to set foot on American soil.
img04_2, From the John Manjiro-Whitfield Commemorative Center for International Exchange (CIE) website (From CIE website)

Manjiro adopted the name “John Manjiro” and completed schooling in America.  He lived and worked on Captain Whitfield’s farm.  With a desire to see his mother and open Japan to exchange, a 24-year-old Manjiro used the money he earned from the Gold Rush to buy himself a boat.  He reunited with two of his fellow castaways in Hawaii before heading for Japan.   Because Japan’s isolationist policy made leaving the country punishable by death, their journey home was a risky one.  He and his friends made it all the way to Tosa before being interrogated by officials.

In October of 1852, Manjiro finally returned to his home in Nakanohama.  The reunion with his mother was brief, as he was called back for more questioning.  However, he was able to spread the knowledge he gained while being a teacher.  Around this time, he adopted the surname Nakahama.

The following year, Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Japan to put an end to the country’s isolationism.  Manjiro helped interpret and negotiate for the Shogun, and eventually the Convention of Kanagawa was signed.  Manjiro continued working for the Shogun and teaching people about whaling and American culture.

He returned to the U.S. as a member of the 1860 delegation to San Francisco.  In 1870, he traveled to the Europe and on his way back home, stopped by Fairhaven where he reunited with Captain Whitfield.  The friendship that lasted almost thirty years between the two passed on through their descendants.  171 years and seven generations later, the Nakahama and Whitfield families still maintain the bond through communications and visits.
Opening Ceremony12Robert Whitfield, fifth generation descendant of Captain Whitfield, and Aya Nakahama, sixth generation descendant of John Manjiro at 2012 Grassroots Summit Opening Ceremony

In 1990, the Manjiro Society was founded to promote mutual understanding and friendship between America and Japan.  The first Grassroots Summit took place a year later.  In 1992, the John Manjiro Whitfield Commemorative Center for International Exchange (CIE) was founded to oversee the annual Summits, which alternate between taking place in Japan and America.  Every year, a member of the Nakahama family and a member of the Whitfield family passes a globe to one another. It’s a symbol of the continuous exchange and friendship that many Americans and Japanese are able to experience thanks to John Manjiro and Captain Whitfield.
Closing CeremonyRobert Whitfield and Aya Nakahama’s daughter at the 2012 Grassroots Summit Closing Ceremony

“Capt. William H. Whitfield and John Manjiro Nakahama: A Friendship for Many Lifetimes” –
“Introducing John Manjiro”  by Prof. Tetsuo Kawasumi – The Manjiro Society
John Manjiro-Whitfield Commemorative Center for International Exchange

Listening to:Fukan Show” by BIGMAMA

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  1. 2012 Japan-America Grassroots Summit « Hibari-sensei's Classroom
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