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3 - Manjiro-Whitfield (Japan-America Maritime History)

Updated: Sep 26

Early in 1841, a group of five Japanese fishermen headed out to sea from what is today’s Kochi Prefecture on Shikoku to fish with enough supplies for the few days they expected to be out. However, two days after leaving, they ran into a storm that damaged their boat and forced them to drift for nearly a week before landing on Torishima island about 400nm from their homeport. After surviving by eating albatrosses for nearly six months, the castaways were rescued by Captain William Whitfield of the New Bedford-based whaling ship John James Howland.

Captain Whitfield could not take them back to the closed country of Japan (see post #2), so the rescued sailors stayed onboard until they reached Hawaii. Four of the five castaways remained in Hawaii, but Captain Whitfield brought the youngest one, Manjiro, who by this time was known as John Mung, with him back to New Bedford/Fairhaven to attend school. For three years, Manjiro lived in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, with Captain Whitfield and his family. Manjiro attended church with the Whitfields and learned English.

In May 1846, he headed back to Japan on the whaling ship Franklin. During his time in America, his Japanese language capability declined and when they encountered some Japanese fishermen, the fishermen could not understand Manjiro. He returned to New Bedford/Fairhaven. Manjiro tried again in 1849, boarding the Stieglitz, heading to San Francisco. From there, he embarked on Eliza Warwick and traveled to Hawaii where he reunited with the remaining three survivors of his shipwreck. Two of them agreed to join him in his plan to return home to Japan. They bought a small boat and loaded it on the Sarah Boyd.

Finally, in 1851 they landed on Okinawa, were they were taken into custody and moved from Naha to Kagoshima and, eventually, to Nagasaki for interrogation. After questioning, they were allowed to return home and Manjiro was reunited with his mother. His story does not end here, as he was summoned to teach English to samurai three days after reuniting with his mother.

In late July 1853, eight days after Commodore Perry left Japan the first time, Manjiro was summoned to Edo and in December 1853 he was made a Shogun’s samurai, taking the name Nakahama Manjiro. When Commodore Perry returned and negotiated the Treaty of Kanagawa (also known as the US-Japan Treaty of Peace and Amity), some say Manjiro was at the treaty negotiations, but remained behind a screen verifying the interpreter’s translations and providing advice. There is no indication that Commodore Perry met Manjiro; some Japanese leaders were concerned that the returned castaway would, at best, be inclined to help his rescuers and, at worst, have been returned to Japan as a plot.

In the years following the treaty negotiations, Manjiro translated Nathaniel Bowditch’s The New American Practical Navigator into Japanese and wrote a book on conversational English. In 1860, when the first Japanese embassy was introduced to America, Manjiro sailed on the Kanrin Maru as the interpreter. The Kanrin Maru and her famous captain Katsu Kaishu will be the topic of a future blog post.

The next blog will look at the shipwreck of the Lawrence in 1846 and the way the seven survivors were treated when they landed in Japan. The blog post after that will look at the interesting case of Ranald MacDonald. He was not the fast food icon you are thinking of right now, but more on that later.

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