About John Manjiro

The life of John Manjiro – an overview

Born in 1827,(the 10th year of the Bunsei era) into a poor fisherman’s family, in the village of Naka-no-hama, Hata County in the feudal domain of Tosa (present day, Nakanohama village, Tosashimizu City, Kochi Prefecture). His father died when he was aged 9. He worked to help his mother and support the family.

In 1841, (12th year of the Tenpō era) aged 14, he set out as part of a crew on a small fishing boat from the port of Usa (about 1 hour south of present day Kochi City). They encountered a storm and were swept far out to sea by a powerful ocean current; drifting for a week until they reached the uninhabited island of Torishima (Bird Island).

On the island was a colony of albatross (now a protected species), by eating these birds along with shellfish, seaweed and whatever else they could scavenge, they were able to survive. Around five months later, Manjiro and his shipmates were rescued by the whaler, “The John Howland”, captained by William Whitfield. They sailed on to arrive in Hawaii. During this time Captain Whitfield saw the potential of the young Manjiro and invited him to stay on the John Howland.

So it was that Manjiro’s crewmates remained in Hawaii whilst he sailed on for a year and five months through the Pacific once more and into the Antarctic Ocean.

In 1843, (Tenpō 14) aboard the John Howland, Manjiro sailed around Cape Horn and arrived at length, in the key whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts. He lived with the Whitfield family in Sconticut Neck, Fairhaven and attended the Bartlett Academy where he studied English, advanced mathematics, surveying techniques and navigation for three years.

In 1846 (4th Year of the Koka Era) he set off aboard another whaler, “The Franklin” and called in at Boston before crossing the Atlantic. He stopped at the Isles of Faial and Pico in the Azores, the Isle of Santiago in the Cape Verde archipelago, before rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Near the Isle of Amsterdam, in the Indian Ocean, the ship’s long would note, Manjiro would dive into the ocean, a knife clasped between his teeth and bring back a huge sea turtle to feed the crew.

After seeing in the start of 1847 in the Indian Ocean, he sailed to East Timor, New Ireland (Papua New Guinea), the Solomon Isles, Guam, Chichijima (in the Ogasawara Islands), Ryukyu (modern day Okinawa), Torishima and passed by the coast of Sendai (northern Japan) eventually arriving at Hawaii once more. Here he met up with the friends he had been shipwrecked with. By that time one of the four, Jusuke had already passed away. He set sail from Hawaii and called in on Guam in 1848.

The captain at that time became mentally unstable so they put into port in Manilla, in the Phillipines. After making preparations to send the captain back home to the US, Manjiro took on the position of first mate, and he sailed from Manilla as second in command, taking the ship to Taiwan, through Japanese waters and back to Honolulu.

In 1849 (2nd year of the Kaei era) Sailing via the Solomon Isles, Seram Island, Kupang Bay in West Timor, on to Mauritius and Réunion then through the seas to the south of Madagascar and by way of the Cape of Good Hope and Saint Helena, he crossed the Atlantic to arrive back at New Bedford on September 23rd. Not long before gold had been discovered in California and with the aim of raising the funds for his return to Japan, Manjiro left New Bedford and headed to Sacramento, which was buzzing due to the Gold Rush. He worked his passage on a lumber transport vessel, arriving 6 months later in San-Francisco, from there he went to Sacramento, and then made his way to the gold mines of the Sierra Nevada.

By September 1850, in the space of four months, Manjiro made 600 dollars. He then set-off for Hawaii. Here he met his compatriots and together with Denzo and Goemon he boarded the “Sara Boyd” and in December, set sail once again. Manjiro christened the small boat he had purchased to land on Japan “The Adventure”. The boat was loaded with items, among them a number of books including a dictionary and a biography of George Washington. Later, this boat would become a model for the first boat of a western design to be made by Japanese hands and the books and other items that were brought back in it, would provide pointers for Japan in the time leading to its opening-up to the World.

1851 (Kaei 4), September 2nd. Manjiro arrived off the coast of the main Ryukyu Island and landed at Mabuni (in modern day Itoman). August 27th he was interrogated by officials of the Satsuma domain and then again by representatives of the Shogunate in Nagasaki on October 23rd.

In June of 1852, he left Nagasaki, accompanied by an escort sent to take him back to Tosa (modern Kochi) and arrived at Kochi Castle in July. He was questioned again and this time the artist Kawada Shoryo listened to the account of his journey, starting with the storm that swept his boat out to sea and ending with his return to Japan. Kawada made illustrations for a book whose title translates as “Drifting to the Southeast” in English.

Manjiro returned to the village of his birth, Naka-no-hama on November 16th. After three days there he returned to Kochi and was taken into the service of the Tosa Clan, in the position of teacher at the castle. Making use of his knowledge and English ability, Manjiro was engaged by the Tosa Domain and the Shogunate to translate books and advise on navigation techniques and the English language.

On July 8th, 1853 (the 5th year of Kaei) Admiral Matthew Perry sailed into Uraga and Manjiro was called to nearby Edo (modern day Tokyo) to assist. Manjiro was made a direct retainer to the feudal government and took the surname Nakahama. He married Dano Tetsu and began work teaching western ship building at the “Warship Institute”.

1855 Finished his translation of Bowditch's “American Practical Navigator”.

1859 Completed his English phrasebook: “Shortcuts to English conversation”.

1860 (1st year of the Man'en era) Manjiro was appointed official interpreter for the Japanese Embassy to the United States. He departed Uraga aboard the Kanrin Maru on February 10th. Faced with a storm, Manjiro, the most experienced seaman, in effect, captained the ship till its arrival in San Francisco, March 18. After spending six weeks in the mainland of the USA, they returned, calling in at Honolulu, arriving back at Uraga on June 23rd.

1861 (1st year of Bunkyū) Manjiro traveled aboard the Kanrin Maru to the Ogasawara Island chain, to conduct studies on how to develop the islands.

1864 Took up a position at the Satsuma domain school of Western learning; teaching English, navigation, surveying and shipbuilding.

1866 (2nd year of Keio) Sailed from Nagasaki for Shanghai with Gotou Shoujiro with the aim of procuring a ship.

1869 (2nd year of Meiji) At the behest of the new Meji government, Manjiro takes up a post at Kaisei school, a school specializing in Western Studies. This school would later form part of Tokyo University.

1870 (3rd year of Meiji) Departed from Yokohama as part of the mission to observe the Franco-Prussian war. From San Francisco he rode the transcontinental railroad to Buffalo, Niagara and New York. Whilst in New York he made a trip to Fairhaven to visit his benefactor, Captain Whitfield, meeting with him for the first time in 20 years.
Later, in London, his rheumatism worsened and he returned to Japan alone.

1879 (Meiji 12) Manjiro’s mother dies, aged 86.
1886 (Meiji 19) Captain Whitfield dies, aged 82.
1888 (Meiji 21) Kabuki staged entitled: “Tosa Hanshi Hatsuni-no Ōfune” – which told the story of Manjiro’s adventures. Manjiro attended a performance.

1898 (Meiji 31) November 12th, Manjiro dies from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 71.


A unique life, in a time of upheaval

Towards the end of the feudal age in Japan, a humble fisherman was swept out to into the Pacific. The true adventure began once he was rescued by an American whaling ship. Manjiro studied in the USA, went on to sail the seven seas aboard a whaler and spent ten years away from his home country. When he returned to Japan, he found himself amid the turbulent days at the very end of the feudal age, in a country which was torn between opening up to the world and expelling all foreigners.

What awaited the man known as “John Mung”, with his knowledge of America & the world, was a daring lifetime, riding the winds of fate around the globe, to become the man we now call: John Manjiro. 

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