Though the Kanrin Maru’s arrival from Japan represented the first official visit by Japanese, a young fisherman — who would eventually play a pivotal role in U.S.-Japan relations — made the first voyage to this country.
A fisherman from a small village, Nakahama Manjiro was shipwrecked at the age of 14 on Torishima Island. Manjiro and his four friends were rescued by a U.S. whaler, led by Captain William Whitfield. Manjiro’s friends disembarked the boat in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, but Manjiro decided to return to the United States with the boat — a risky choice, as, at that time, Japan’s isolationist policy meant that entering another country was punishable by exile.
Manjiro became the first Japanese person known to enter the United States. He settled in Fairhaven, Mass., began the study of English, and took on the name John.
He eventually decided to return to Japan, and after repeated interrogation for his crime, was allowed back in the country in 1852. But after just three days reunion with his mother, he was called into service, and was appointed a teacher of English, shipbuilding and American democracy. Subsequently, upon Perry’s arrival, he was appointed an advisor to the Shogunate, playing a vital role in forging a treaty between the two countries. Manjiro then boarded the Kanrin Maru as translator and experienced sailor.
After his return to Japan, he did not enter politics, but devoted himself to teaching, and is believed to have influenced many of Japan’s future leaders. He died in 1898, at age 71.
Manjiro’s influential role in paving the way for friendly relations between the U.S. and Japan is widely recognized. In 2009, a museum was established in Fairhaven, Mass., in the house that belonged to Captain Whitfield where Manjiro grew up. A New York nonprofit has even established a “Manjiro Adventurer Award” bestowed in recent years on then-New York Yankee baseball player Hideki Matsui.
The voyage of the Kanrin Maru and the possibility of the treaty it carried were truly made possible by the more casual diplomacy acted by Manjiro. U.S. President Calvin Coolidge said of Manjiro, “When John Manjiro returned to Japan, it was as if America had sent its first ambassador.”