Exhibit, lecture puts Kanrin Maru into context

With the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese ship to America, many groups are seizing the moment to celebrate the establishment of diplomatic relations that paved the way for today’s strong U.S.-Japan alliance.

A recent event and ongoing exhibit at the Japan Information Center delve deeper into the reality of the voyage itself, establishing its historical context and describing actual experiences of sailors aboard the Kanrin Maru.

On July 28, UC Berkeley Professor Andrew Barshay, who specializes in Japanese history, presented a lecture entitled “Pacific Destinies: America, Japan and the Making of the Modern World” about the historical background leading up to the voyage.

In 1860, the Kanrin Maru, a tiny ship by today’s standards, sailed to America with 96 Japanese crew members, accompanying the first Japanese embassy to the United States.

“The ship and crew were all players in a historical drama,” Barshay said in his lecture, “and they had no idea what the ultimate course of the drama would be.”

In the 19th century, world markets were being brought together, sometimes by force, and the concept of the “nation state” emerged; encountering these nation states, Japan was quickly forced to figure out its role in the new global landscape, Barshay said. The Japanese were governed by a feudal system in which one’s status was ascribed at birth, and the citizens did not have a sense of national unity. The flag flown on the Kanrin Maru had not yet been established as the national flag, but was chosen by the shogunate as a symbol, Barshay said.

Immediately following the Kanrin Maru voyage, many nation states simultaneously underwent major cultural changes that superseded the development of diplomatic relations. The “breathing space” provided to Japan when pressure from outsiders abated allowed the country to achieve unity through the Meiji Restoration, a transition that went “marvelously well,” Barshay said.

America, embroiled in the Civil War, underwent its own major societal shift during the same decade. Both countries’ attainment of national unity, Barshay said, was necessary for them to move forward in establishing connections to each other, and as players in a developing global economy.

Barshay’s lecture was followed by the presentation of a kami shibai (picture storytelling) based on the journal of a sailor aboard the ship, created by residents of the city of Sakaide on the island of Shikoku, the hometown of many Kanrin Maru sailors and Sausalito’s sister city. Presented by members of a yearly exchange program from Sakaide, the kami shibai told the story of 23-year-old Zenshiro Yamamoto, including his training to become a sailor and his feelings of terror during the rocky voyage, up to his eventual death from illness only months after returning home.

2020 Japanese Culture Guide

2020 Japanese Culture Guide

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