The Kanrin Maru and JAs

As Japanese Americans, we should know where we came from and how we came to be. The more we learn about what happened 150 years ago, the more we find as Japanese Americans that we are inextricably tied to the world events, the personalities and the legacy of this special occasion. The 1860 mission initiated the diplomatic relations between Japan and the U.S. that would eventually brings hundreds if not thousands of students and Japanese immigrants, our ancestors, to America. It was the very first time that Japanese would set foot on American soil in an official capacity. It was also the very first time that San Franciscans welcomed them with curious fascination.

John Manjiro and Joseph Heco, the most well-known interpreters of the period, with whom many Japanese Americans closely identify, are perhaps the closest link to being “Japanese American” in their time. They were so acculturated as being American, they could not quite be trusted as Japanese. Both played critical and yet often overlooked roles in the treaty negotiations in the 1850s. Manjiro worked for the Japanese side, and Heco worked for the American side. Manjiro, in particular, played a crucial role with his seafaring knowledge on the Kanrin Maru’s inaugural voyage across the Pacific.

Some of the men who made of the delegation, were servants, students and samurai. This happened just before two nations were a the verge of major social and political upheavals, their respective civil wars. As Japanese Americans few of us can trace our roots to Imperial lineage, but some of us can trace our ancestors to samurai stock or to students of Western thought. The push-pull factors that generated from this social/political upheaval of the Meiji Restoration, the education of women, all resulted in how our ancestors arrived on these shores more than 100 years ago.

It would not be until 1869 that the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colonists arrived to stake out their opportunities on American soil. And another decade later, the first immigrants would arrive in Hawai‘i. They all, however, carried the same hope and dreams: the promise of a new life America.

For those who can genetically link to a common ancestor in Japan, they may find themselves more closely connected to individuals of this era than they could ever imagine.

Rosalyn Tonai is the executive director of the National Japanese American Historical Society, Inc.

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