Japanese Castaways of 1834: The Three Kichis

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 7/23/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9065
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The first Japanese known to have visited what is now Washington arrived in a dismasted, rudderless ship that ran aground on the northernmost tip of the Olympic Peninsula sometime in January 1834. The ship had left its home port on the southeast coast of Japan in October 1832, with a crew of 14 and a cargo of rice and porcelain, on what was supposed to be a routine journey of a few hundred miles to Edo (Tokyo). Instead, it was hit by a typhoon and swept out to sea. It drifted across some 5,000 miles of ocean before finally reaching the Northwest coast with three survivors. Their names were Iwakichi, Kyukichi, and Otokichi. Found and briefly imprisoned by Makah Indians, the "three kichis" spent several months at Fort Vancouver before being sent on to London and eventually to China. They became pawns in the diplomatic chess game that governed Japan’s relations with the outside world in the mid-nineteenth century, and were never able to return to their homeland.

Inadvertent Travelers

Japan in the 1830s had been closed to foreigners for nearly 200 years. Between 1635 and 1639, the Shogunate (hereditary military rulers) issued a series of edicts to insulate the country from outside influences. The practice of Christianity was made a capital offense. Only a few Dutch and Chinese traders were allowed access to Japan, and then only to a man-made island near Nagasaki, to avoid any contact with Japanese soil. No Japanese citizens could leave the country. Any who did so -- even inadvertently, as in the case of sailors blown off course by storms -- were regarded as contaminated and not allowed to return. Japanese ships were not permitted to travel to foreign countries. To make such voyages less likely, the construction of vessels capable of sailing on the open seas was forbidden.

For local trade the Japanese relied on cargo ships called sengokubune. These were single-masted sailing vessels with large rudders that could be raised or lowered depending on the depth of the water. The size and design of the rudders was an advantage when navigating in shallow coastal waters, but a disadvantage in storms or heavy seas, because they could be easily torn away. In that case, crews could try to stabilize the craft by cutting down the mast. But without sail or rudders, they had no way to navigate back to port.

It was such a ship, named the Hojunmaru, that left its home port at Onoura (now part of Mihama-cho) on the Chita Peninsula on October 11, 1832, bound for Edo (Tokyo) with a cargo of rice and locally made chinaware. Fifty feet (15 meters) long and carrying about 150 tons of cargo, the ship was large by the standards of the day. It required a crew of 14, most of whom were from the local village. Among those on board were 28-year-old Iwakichi, the ship’s navigator; and two apprentice cooks: Kyukichi, 15, and Otokichi, 14. (At the time, the use of surnames was uncommon among the working classes in Japan.)

As writer James F. Goater noted in an article for Japan-based Avenues magazine, career choices were limited for young men growing up in places like Onoura in the 1830s. The "main jobs on offer" were fishing, rice-farming, and sailing. Because such occupations were largely determined by family traditions, most of the sailors on the Hojunmaru probably knew from an early age that they would end up as crew members on a sengokubune.

They could not have known what awaited them after the Hojunmaru made its final port of call. Some time after sailing from Ise Bay on November 3, the ship was caught in a violent storm, stripped of its rudder, and carried away by the powerful kuroshio, or "black current," that sweeps from Japan to the North American coast. Local townspeople assumed it had gone down with all hands in the storm. They erected a tombstone, carved with the names of the crew to appease the spirits of the dead, and placed it in the graveyard of a Buddhist temple in Onoura -- where it stands, to this day.

The ship did not sink but instead drifted for more than a year across the Pacific Ocean. It was somewhat seaworthy because it had a solidly built hull. The crew had an adequate food supply (rice from the cargo, supplemented with fish and an occasional seagull). They could collect rainwater for drinking. They probably had on board a device called a ranbiki, normally used to brew sake, which they could have used to desalinate water from the sea. They also could have distilled saltwater simply by boiling it. But they had no source of vitamin C. By the time the ship washed ashore near Cape Flattery on a wintery day in 1834, there were only three survivors. Most of their crewmates had died of scurvy.

Encounter with the Makah

The survivors, weak and emaciated, staggered from the beached ship and were promptly found by a group of Makah Indian seal hunters. It is difficult to imagine who was more surprised by the initial encounter: the Japanese or the Makah. Neither would have had any inkling that the other existed. Japan’s shoguns had kept their country isolated from the rest of the world for two centuries. The Makah had had only limited contact with European fur traders, and no contact at all with people from Asia.

Traces of Japan were not entirely unknown in the Northwest. More than 1,000 Japanese ships are estimated to have disappeared during the Exclusion Era (1633-1854). Most presumably sank in storms, but iron fittings and other remnants of some of those ships washed up on the Northwest coast over time. A few drifted to coastal areas farther south with survivors on board. According to historian Frederik L. Schodt, at least 34 Japanese sailors reached the shores of North America or Mexico on disabled ships between 1806 and 1852. One of the best known cases involved the Tokujomaru, which ran aground near Santa Barbara, California, in 1813, with three survivors out of a crew of 14. But until the Hojunmaru, there is no record of the presence of any Japanese, sailors or otherwise, in what is now the state of Washington.

The Makah seal hunters reportedly boarded the wreck of the Hojunmaru and retrieved a number of items, including a map with Japanese script, a string of perforated copper coins, and some ceramic bowls. Then they escorted the three hapless seafarers inland to a Makah village and held them there as slaves (a commonplace practice among coastal tribes at the time).

"Recover the Unfortunate People"

News of the captives eventually reached John McLoughlin (1784-1857), chief factor (or supervisor) of Fort Vancouver, then the headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s vast Columbia Department. A communiqué -- described as a "letter" by McLoughlin, and as "a drawing on a piece of China-paper" by another source -- had been passed from tribe to tribe and into the hands of Hudson’s Bay personnel (Keddie, 11). It depicted three shipwrecked sailors, a boat jammed against rocks, and Indians engaged in taking items from the boat. Written alongside were what McLoughlin concluded were "Chinese characters," leading him to assume the sailors were Chinese.

McLoughlin’s subsequent letters to his superiors at the company’s headquarters in London hint at the excitement he must have felt when given the mysterious document. "Last winter the Indians informed us that a vessel had been wrecked somewhere about Cape Flattery," he wrote. "A few days ago I received through the Indians a letter written in Chinese characters ... the Indians say the Vessel was loaded with China wares" (Letters of John McLoughlin, May 28, 1834).

As historian Schodt points out, "To say that a wrecked Chinese or Japanese ship was shocking news in the Pacific Northwest would be a gross understatement. In modern terms, the event would be equivalent to the Martians landing." Whether the ship was from China or Japan, "it was nearly 5,000 miles off course, from a place unknown to Indians and many whites" (Schodt, 68).

McLoughlin dispatched an overland mission to ransom the sailors in March 1834. The effort, headed by his step-son Thomas McKay (1796-1849), was hampered by harsh terrain and rough weather. Two months later, McLoughlin ordered William H. McNeill (1803-1875), an American serving as captain of the company’s brig Lama, to retrieve the men by sea. McNeill was to sail north to Forts Nisqually and Langley on regular business and "stop both coming and going at Cape Flattery" and "do your utmost to Recover the unfortunate people said to be wrecked in the Vicinity of that place." McLoughlin also told McNeill to "reward the Indians for their trouble so as to induce them, if any should be so unfortunate as to be wrecked on their Shores, to treat them with kindness" (Letters of John McLoughlin, May 16 and May 20, 1834).

The Fort Nisqually Journal recorded the arrival of the Lama with "two Chinese" on June 9, 1834. McNeill had managed to "redeem" Iwakichi and Kyukichi. Young Otokichi had been gathering berries in the forest and missed the first rescue attempt. McNeill returned for him later, and delivered all three sailors to Fort Vancouver sometime in July.

Respite at Fort Vancouver

At Fort Vancouver, the sailors were introduced to such Western oddities as forks, trousers, and windows with glass. They might have found the summer weather more agreeable than the hot, humid summers of Japan. They were surely "alternately befuddled and shocked by" some of the strange practices they encountered, including "the eating of red meat (generally prohibited in Japan), and the worship of the Christian god (punishable by death at home)" (Schodt, 55).

Methodist missionary Jason Lee (1803-1845) noted their presence at services he conducted shortly after he arrived at the fort in September 1834. "Assayed to preach to a mixed congregation of English French scotch Irish Indians Americans Half Breeds Japanese &c. some of whom did not understand 5 words of English," he wrote in a journal entry dated September 28 (quoted in Schodt, 69).

The Japanese began to learn English under the tutelage of Cyrus Shepard (1799-1840), one of Lee’s lay assistants, who was hired to take over the fort’s school. In a letter to his supervisors at the end of the year, Shepard praised the progress made by "E-wa-ketch, Ke-o-chi-cha, and O-too, who were wrecked on the coast, some time last season, and taken by the Indians, and held in slavery until released by the humanity of Governor McLoughlin." They had made "rapid improvement," he said, were "remarkably studious and docile, and learned to repeat the Lord’s prayer and some portions of the Scriptures." He expressed hope that they might "carry the gospel to their neglected countrymen" -- not realizing that if they tried to do so, they could be executed (quoted in Schodt, 70).

Perhaps the strangest aspect of life at the fort for the three castaways was its polyracial, polyglot nature. Fort Vancouver in the 1830s was the most racially and ethnically diverse enclave on the West Coast. British, Scottish, and Irish employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company mingled with Hawaiian laborers (referred to as "Kanakas" or "Owyhees"), French Canadian trappers and traders, and native peoples from dozens of tribes. This environment would have been a stark contrast to the homogeneity of Japan.  

An Imagined Convergence

Among the people coming and going at Fort Vancouver around that time was a young half-Scot, half-Chinook boy named Ranald MacDonald (1824-1894). His father, Archibald MacDonald (usually spelled McDonald), was a high-ranking employee of the Hudson's Bay Company. His mother was a daughter of Chinook chief Comcomly. Ranald's father educated the boy himself until he was about 10 years old. Then, during the winter of 1833-1834, he enrolled him in the school at Fort Vancouver.

Ranald MacDonald later became the first American to travel voluntarily to Japan. He entered the country illegally in 1848, after first booking passage on a whaling ship that he knew would pass through Japanese waters, and then rowing himself ashore in a small boat from the whaler. He was imprisoned for 10 months but allowed to teach English to a select group of students while awaiting deportation. When Commodore Matthew Perry (1794-1858) sailed into Tokyo Bay with his four “black ships” in 1853 and forced an end to the Seclusion Era, one of MacDonald’s former students helped negotiate the resulting trade agreements between Japan and the United States. 

The story of the American who voluntarily traveled to Japan has come to be deeply entwined with that of the Japanese sailors who traveled to America against their will. According to an account published in 1906 by Oregon writer Eva Emery Dye, the young MacDonald met the sailors at Fort Vancouver, befriended them, helped nurse them back to health, taught them English in return for Japanese lessons, and was inspired by them to make his remarkable journey to Japan. That version “settled like sludge into the historical record,” acquiring the patina of verisimilitude that comes with repetition (Schodt, 74).

In fact, MacDonald left the fort with his father in March 1834, months before the sailors arrived. He no doubt heard stories about the exotic visitors, and the stories may have planted the seeds that led to his later adventures, but he did not meet them at Fort Vancouver. “The historical vectors of Ranald MacDonald and his father, and that of the ‘three kichis,’ come so close to intersecting that it is almost hard to imagine how they did not meet,” Schodt writes. “Yet a close inspection of the actual historical record reveals that the lines never completely converged, at least not in North America” (64). It is possible, he adds, that MacDonald did meet Kyukichi very briefly in Hong Kong, after he had been ejected from Japan. But that is another story.

Diplomatic Chess Game

As soon as he realized that the castaways were Japanese -- not Chinese -- Chief Factor John McLoughlin began considering the possibility that they could be used to open up trade relations between Great Britain and Japan. "[A]s I believe they are the first Japanese who have been in the power of the British Nation," he wrote to the head of the Hudson’s Bay Company in London, "the British government would gladly avail itself of this opportunity to endeavor to open a communication with the Japanese government."

He decided to send the sailors to London on the first available ship. By seeing the capital of Great Britain before returning to Japan, he explained in his letter to headquarters, "they would have an opportunity of being instructed and convey to their countrymen a respectable idea of the grandeur and power of the British nation" (Letters of John McLoughlin, November 18, 1834).

The wayward mariners left Fort Vancouver on November 15, 1834, bound for London by way of Hawaii and the Straits of Magellan, on board the HBC brig Eagle. McLoughlin sent along with them several souvenirs recovered from the wrecked Hojunmaru, including "a piece of carved wood with Chinese characters on it, and if I understand the Japanese correctly it is the name of the vessel," and "the compass the Japanese had on board the Junk lost at Cape Flattery, their honors may consider it a curiosity" (Letters of John McLoughlin, November 18 and 19, 1834).

"Their honors" were too distracted by Britain’s relations with China to think much about Japan. Instead, they reprimanded McLoughlin for not having the sailors dropped off in Hawaii, to either stay there or find their own way home. The men were confined to the Eagle for more than a week after it arrived in London in June 1835 while the government tried to figure out what to do with them. Finally, they were put on board another ship, to be sent the rest of the way around the world, to the Chinese port of Macao -- "His majesty’s government not being disposed to open a communication with the Japanese government thro the medium of three shipwrecked Seamen" (Hudson’s Bay Company to John McLoughlin, August 28, 1835, quoted in Schodt, 71).

The day before their new ship was scheduled to embark for Macao, the sailors were allowed one day to tour London. Lord Palmerston, the foreign ministry secretary (and future prime minister) apparently agreed with McLoughlin that if the would-be repatriates ever returned to Japan, it would be useful if they could tell their countrymen something about the wonders to be seen in the capital of the British Empire.

They were the first Japanese known to have visited London, then the most cosmopolitan city in the world. It must have been an extraordinary experience for the three young men, raised in a small village in Japan, "where neither birth nor occupation required of them an education or knowledge of foreign countries or other languages" (Town of Mihama website).

Aborted Homecoming

In Macao, the British government handed the sailors over to Karl Gutzlaff, a German missionary and linguist. Gutzlaff continued their training in English and also enlisted their help in translating parts of the bible into Japanese. The British Consul and Trade Commissioner in Macao supported them financially for two years but then announced it would no longer do so. "There must have been extreme consternation among Otokichi and his friends when they were informed of this -- no attempts had been made to send them on to Japan, and they were potentially to be abandoned without means of support in Macao," writes James Goater (Part 2).

Meanwhile, four other shipwrecked Japanese sailors arrived in Macao. They had been rescued from an island in the Philippines by an American merchant named Charles W. King, a dealer in Chinese silks. King worked out a plan to repatriate all seven mariners. Like McLaughlin, he thought such a gesture would lead to commercial advantages. He also was a supporter of Protestant missionary work, and welcomed the opportunity to promote Christianity in Japan.

King set sail for Japan on July 4, 1837, in the Morrison, a ship owned by his trading company. On board were the seven Japanese and two American missionaries. The ship was greeted with cannon fire when it arrived at the mouth of Edo Bay on July 30. King then sailed south to Kagoshima Bay but once again faced cannon fire. With his ship slightly damaged by at least one cannonball, King gave up and returned to Macao.

The men had come within sight of their homeland only to be turned away. "They were ordinary sailors, dealt a harsh hand by fate, who survived against all odds, but their own government most cruelly prevented them from returning home" (Schodt, 60).


The seven Japanese voyagers "were more or less left to fend for themselves" once back in Macao (Goater, Part 2). Most of them faded from the historical record. However, a good deal is known about Otokichi, the youngest of the survivors of the Hojunmaru.

Otokichi became a highly regarded translator, working first for King’s company (at one point traveling to New York on the Morrison) and then for British businessmen and government officials in China. He settled in Shanghai, married a British woman (described as Scottish in some accounts, as English in others), and changed his name to John Matthew Ottoson (the surname was derived from the way his Japanese companions had addressed him: Oto-san). He eventually became a British citizen.

He returned to Japan for brief visits twice. In 1849, he served as an interpreter on a British ship which entered Japanese waters to carry out topographical survey work. Five years later, he accompanied Admiral James Stirling to Nagasaki on the mission that resulted in a treaty of "Peace and Amity" between England and Japan. He reportedly was offered repatriation at that time but refused. "The initial scars of rejection, some nineteen years earlier, together with the comfortable lifestyle in China, apparently made the choice an easy one," writes Goater (Part 2).

Otokichi’s first marriage ended in either death or divorce. He then married a Malay woman. In 1862, he and his family -- by then including several children -- moved to Singapore, his second wife’s birthplace. He died there in January of 1867, at age 49. He was buried in a Christian cemetery. In 2004, his remains were exhumed and cremated. The next year, a delegation from Mihama visited Singapore and brought back a portion of his ashes, in a homecoming of sorts for the erstwhile sailor.


James F. Goater, "Otokichi -- Japan’s First Great Wanderer," Part 1, Avenues, September 2007 (http://www.centraljapan.jp/history_details.php?id=11) and Part 2, Avenues, December 2007, Avenues website accessed June 2009(http://www.centraljapan.jp/history_details.php?id=7); Frederik L. Schodt, Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan (Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 2003); Grant Keddie, "Japanese Shipwrecks in British Columbia: Myths and Facts," August 15, 2006, Royal British Columbia Museum website accessed June 2009 (www.bcarchives.bc.ca/Content_Files/Files/JapaneseShipwrecks.pdf);  The Letters of John McLoughlin from Fort Vancouver to the Governor and Committee ed. by E. E. Rich (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1941-44); "The Real-Life Story of Otokichi," Town of Mihama website accessed May 2009 (www.town.mihama.aichi.jp/kikaku/english/6/1/index.html); "Commodore Perry and the Opening of Japan" Naval History Center website accessed May 2009 (http://www.history.navy.mil/branches/teach/ends/opening.htm); Tom Brown, "Sister-State Delegation Explores Economic and Cultural Ties," The Seattle Times, August 2, 1989, p. G-9; Evelyn Iritani, "Hands Across the Sea: 1834 Cape Alava Shipwreck Opened a Link with Japan," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 19, 1991, p. A-1; Imbert Matthee, "Makah, Japanese Mark Historic Link," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 1, 1997, p. B-1; Tom Vogt, "Japanese Scouts Hail Sailors’ Survival," Columbian (Vancouver, Washington), June 12, 2006, p. C-1; James F. Goater, "The Otokichi Saga -- a Postscript," Avenues, April 2008, Avenues website accessed June 2009 (http://www.centraljapan.jp/history_details.php?id=1).

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