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John Manjiro was first to connect U.S. - Japan

By: David Knickerbocker

Date Posted: 2001-11-29

The story of John Manjiro has been told in many books in countries around the world, but a new twist of the tale is now being told for the first time. Hiroshi Gima and Yoshimasa Kamiya, creators of the book “John Manjiro and the Ryukyu Kingdom,” thought it would be of great value to publish a book of Manjiro’s activities in Okinawa. This is a wonderful book, full of adventure and insight, but its strength lies in the compassion it encompasses. One point of interest is the small piece by poet Shinichi Kawamitsu at the end of the book. It gives a brief summary of Manjiro’s life and the differences between Okinawa and mainland Japan at the time and concludes, “I am pleased that my kind-hearted ancestors, the people of the Ryukyu Kingdom, took care of the foreign strangers that they couldn’t communicate with via words. I hope the compassion of the kind Itoman women who said, ‘Eat some potatoes – it will give you strength,’ will always be remembered.”

For those unfamiliar with the story of John Manjiro, he was the first person to act as a bridge between Japan and America. He also played a big role in the Meiji Restoration. After returning to Japan from abroad, he told young people about life overseas and worked hard in the shadow of many famous people to build a democratic society in Japan.

The story of John Manjiro is one that needs to be shared with all generations and cultures; it is one of peace and brotherhood. In 1841 Manjiro, then a young man from Kochi, went fishing with four of his friends. While at sea, their boat was hit by a severe storm and shipwrecked. However, an American whaling ship under the command of Captain Whitfield found them and saved their lives. At that time, the Tokugawa government ruled Japan with a national isolationist policy banning foreign ships from coming to Japan, so the boys could not return to their homeland. Even Japanese returning from overseas were punished. Manjiro’s friends headed to Hawaii, while Manjiro went to Massachusetts to study. Ten years later, he decided to return home. Japan was still in isolation, so the group of boys decided to stop over in the Ryukyu Kingdom, now Okinawa. The islands had been occupied by the Japanese Satsuma clan, which promptly arrested and investigated the group. They were forced to stay in a farmer’s home in Tomigusuku Village. The Satsuma samurai treated Manjiro and his friends like criminals, but the local Ryukyu people treated them like brothers. This encouraged Manjiro and had a big impact on his life. After finally returning home 12 years after his shipwreck, the Tosa clan appointed Manjiro as a samurai and ordered him to educate young students. He also taught English and navigation techniques to high officials and explained the importance of opening Japan’s ports to trade.

“This story is not being taught in high schools in Japan,” says writer and illustrator Hiroshi Gima, one of Japan’s most talented woodblock artists. This story has been long forgotten by most people, and the two creators of the book feel that it needs to be told. The project began one year ago, and draftsman and translator Yoshimasa Kamiya along with Gima both feel this is a good time to release the book since it is the 150th anniversary of Manjiro’s landing on Okinawa. The project got started when Kamiya heard the story and told it to Gima. Both became more and more interested and started doing research.

While in America, Manjiro became acquainted with the American traditions of freedom and democracy, and the point of the book is that he knew what he had learned from America but wondered what he had learned from Okinawa. In the end, he came to understand that in Okinawa we are all brothers and sisters. In life, he learned about friendship and peace in Okinawa and applied what he had learned in Japan by asking that the ports be opened. Manjiro wanted friendship throughout the world, but because he was just a fisherman, his story was forgotten over time. He should be a hero, and Gima feels Captain Whitfield was another hero in the story. “Whitfield was a great guy for the generosity he showed to John. I think the captain expected John, in return, to work for all of the world,” Gima speculates.

One reason Gima and Kamiya chose to tell the story was because there is a lot of negative information about Okinawa being spread around. We hear about Okinawans suffering under the Satsuma clan and the powerful Japanese force, about Japan using Okinawa in World War II and now the U.S. military causing difficulty in Okinawa. All of this information is negative in some ways, but the two feel that Okinawa has far more positivity than negativity; Okinawans are very open-minded and full of love. The most important point Gima and Kamiya are trying to portray is that they want Okinawan children to adopt the Okinawan mindset and local pride.

To research their story, Gima and Kamiya followed the footsteps of John Manjiro, going to many of the places he had gone. “Americans should be very proud of Manjiro because they raised him,” says Gima. “This is a good story of peace between cultures.”

Gima and Kamiya say they will donate a few copies of the book to various organizations and will also bring it to Bookmark to try to sell on base. Gima hopes that many people will pick up a copy because books can last forever and teach powerful lessons. Those of Okinawan heritage should be very proud of this book.

Gima has won many prizes and has released several books, including “Funahiki Tara,” “Tetsu no Ko Kanahiro,” “Ehon Okinawa no Warabe-uta” (Children’s Songs of Okinawa), “Tobi Anri” (Aviator Anri) and “Ehon no Sekai” (The World of Picture Books). Draftsman and translator Kamiya was born in Itoman City in 1956. The Japanese government sent him to the United States in 1976 as an agriculture trainee. He studied English at Big Bend College in Washington state before specializing in animal science at the University of Nebraska. He was hired by the Itoman City office in 1981 and is currently in charge of international relations and peace promotion programs.

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