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Immediately following the Kanrin Maru voyage, many nation states simultaneously underwent major cultural changes that superseded the development of diplomatic relations.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.
For another historical perspective — the experiences of a Japanese sailor encountering America for the first time — the Japan Information Center presents the exhibit “America through the Eyes of the Kanrin Maru Crew — 1860,” on view until Aug. 6. This exhibit includes images of pages of the diary of Yujiro Suzufuji, the Kanrin Maru’s deputy chief of navigation, which feature intricate drawings depicting California’s geography, American customs, buildings and food.
Entitled “Journal of the Kanrin Maru Voyage in the Seventh Year of the Ansei,” Suzufuji’s detailed journal portrays a clear vision of how alien American customs and items must have seemed as he encountered them for the first time. Suzufuji notes, for example, that, upon meeting, the American custom is to “grasp each other’s hands,” a tradition that “does not differ for men or women.”
Describing food served at restaurants, Suzufuji writes that food and drink “are served in great amounts… It was impossible to try to taste each of them.” His journal features numerous pictures of what, to American viewers, appear to be fairly standard silverware, plates, cups and foods, including “shellfish soup,” “oily beef stew,” and “sponge cake.”
One of Suzufuji’s notes describes the San Franciscans’ fascination with the Japanese visitors, overwhelming the crew’s ability to maintain calm aboard the ship: “Many foreigners come daily to see the ship and they will not heed our men on watch trying to keep order… They board ungoverned from every direction.”
This free exhibit, open on weekdays, is co-presented by the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco and NPO Infusion, a local group dedicated to spreading knowledge about Japanese culture.
“We hope this exhibit serves to help increase mutual understanding between the peoples of Japan and the San Francisco Bay Area in this commemorative year of our long-standing relationship,” the presenters write in the exhibit’s opening statement.
“America through the Eyes of the Kanrin Maru Crew — 1860” is on display weekdays in the the Japan Information Center, 50 Fremont St., Suite 2200.