Sometime in January 1834, three young Japanese sailors run aground on the Olympic Peninsula in a disabled ship. They are inadvertent travelers, blown off course by a storm, then carried by ocean currents to the coast of a land they had not known existed. They are found and briefly held as slaves by Makah Indians; ransomed by the Hudson’s Bay Company; brought to Fort Vancouver for a few months, and then sent on their way. The first Japanese known to have set foot in what is now Washington state, they travel the rest of the way around the world, but are never able to return to their homeland.
The three sailors were the sole survivors of a crew of 14 that set out on October 11, 1832, from the port of Onoura, on the southeast coast of Japan, with a cargo of rice and porcelain. They were bound for Edo (Tokyo) on what was supposed to be a routine journey of a few hundred miles. Instead, their ship -- the Hojunmaru -- was caught in a typhoon, stripped of its rudder, and carried out to sea.
Isolationist policies adopted by Japan’s rulers in the 1630s prohibited the construction of ships capable of sailing on the open ocean. The Japanese relied instead on single-masted vessels with large rudders that could be raised or lowered for navigation in coastal waters. The size and design of the rudders made them vulnerable to being torn away in heavy seas. In that case, crews could try to stabilize the craft by cutting down the mast, but that left them with no way to sail or steer back to port.
The Hojunmaru had a solidly built hull, making it somewhat seaworthy. The crew had sufficient food (rice from the cargo and fish from the sea). They had a barrel of water and the ability to augment it by desalinating saltwater and collecting rainwater. What they did not have were fruits or vegetables. Most of the crew died during the long months adrift, probably of scurvy.
After drifting for about 14 months across 5,000 miles of ocean, the ship washed ashore near Cape Flattery. The precise location is unknown, but some evidence points to Cape Alava, about 20 miles south of Cape Flattery, adjacent to the ancient Makah fishing village of Ozette. Left alive were the ship’s navigator, Iwakichi, 28, and two apprentice cooks, Kyukichi, 15, and Otokichi, 14. Like most of the rest of the crew, they were from the village of Onoura, then a port city, now a beach resort. Their names are known in part because of a memorial erected by their fellow townspeople shortly after their ship disappeared.
Interlude at Fort Vancouver
The survivors staggered to shore and promptly encountered a group of Makah seal hunters. Neither the Japanese nor the Makah would have had any idea that the other existed. Japan had been sealed off from the rest of the world for more than 200 years, and the Makah had had only limited contact with European fur traders. In any case, the Indians took command of the situation and claimed the sailors as captives.
The Indians reportedly retrieved a number of items from the beached ship. Five fragments of ceramic bowls believed to have been on the Hojunmaru were later found on Makah land at Cape Alava. Alexander C. Anderson (1814-1884), an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, reported meeting a group of Indians at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1834 who "produced a map with some writing in Japanese characters; a string of the perforated copper coins of that country; and other convincing proofs of a shipwreck" (quoted in Keddie, 10). But the ship apparently broke up and sank before much could be salvaged from it.
The Makah escorted the castaways inland to a nearby village -- possibly Ozette -- and held them there as slaves for several months. News about the strange captives was forwarded from tribe to tribe until it reached John McLoughlin (1784-1857), chief factor of Fort Vancouver, regional headquarters for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He sent out an overland expedition to rescue the sailors in mid-March 1834, but that effort failed. He then ordered William H. McNeill (1803-1875), captain of the Hudson's Bay Company brig Lama, to ransom the men while on regular business near Cape Flattery. The captain was to "do your utmost to Recover the unfortunate people said to be wrecked in the Vicinity of that place." He was also 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).
McNeill retrieved the sailors in June and delivered them to Fort Vancouver early the next month. Through sign language and drawings they were able to communicate a fairly accurate account of what had happened to them. "They were first driven from their course by a Typhoon," McLoughlin later wrote to his superiors in London, "and subsequently a sea unshipped their rudder or broke their rudder irons, when the vessel became unmanageable . ..." When they ran aground, "about a year from the date they left their home," they still "had plenty of rice and water yet on board but that a sickness had broke out among the crew which carried off all except these three. A little after the vessel grounded and before the natives could get anything worth while out of her a storm arose and broke her up" (Letters of John McLoughlin, November 18, 1834).
The "three kichis" remained at Fort Vancouver for about four months. They learned a little English, were introduced to the precepts of Christianity, and gradually adapted to western clothing, diet, and customs. It is easy to imagine that they were "alternately befuddled and shocked by such exotic items as shoes and trousers, glass windows, the eating of red meat (generally prohibited in Japan) and the worship of the Christian god (punishable by death at home)" (Schodt, 55).
'Dealt a Harsh Hand by Fate'
McLoughlin had originally assumed the sailors were Chinese. When he learned that they were Japanese, he thought they could be used to help open trading relations between Japan and Great Britain. He arranged to send them on to London, expecting that Hudson’s Bay officials and the British government would welcome the opportunity to return them to their homeland.
The rescued mariners left Fort Vancouver on November 15, 1834, on the company's brig Eagle. (Their names were recorded in the ship’s passenger manifest as Youakeeche, Quikeeche, and Otakeeche.) They arrived in London, via Honolulu and the Straits of Magellan, in June 1835. Instead of praising his initiative, Hudson’s Bay officials scolded McLoughlin for not leaving the sailors in Hawaii to find their own way home, "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 by now well-traveled voyagers were confined to the ship for about 10 days while it lay at anchor in the Thames River and the government decided what to do with them. Finally they were transferred to another brig and sent the rest of the way around the world, to the southern China port city of Macao. They were allowed one day to tour London before they embarked, becoming the first Japanese known to have visited that city.
An American merchant named Charles W. King made an effort to repatriate them in 1837 but failed. Under edicts intended to insulate Japan from all foreign influences, Japanese citizens were not allowed to leave the country and any who did so -- even unwillingly, as in the case of sailors blown off course by storms -- were not allowed to return, on the grounds that they had been contaminated. When King approached Japan with his would-be repatriates, his ship was fired on, twice. He gave up and took the hapless seafarers back to Macao.
Caught in the tangled diplomatic web governing Japan’s relations with the outside world in the mid-nineteenth century, the "three kichis" remained exiles for the rest of their lives. "They were ordinary sailors," writes historian Frederik Schodt, "dealt a harsh hand by fate, who survived against all odds, but their own government most cruelly prevented them from returning home" (Schodt, 60).