“No Japanese ship or boat . . . nor any native of Japan, shall presume to go out of the country; whoso acts contrary to this shall die.” -Tokugawa Shogunate pronouncement, 1638. From 1641-1853, Japan cut itself off from the rest of the world with very limited trading. The Japanese were not allowed to leave and if they did leave, they were not allowed to return. In Manjiro: The Boy Who Risked His Life for Two Countries by Emily Arnold McCully, fourteen year old Manjiro is working on a fishing boat just a few miles off shore. All is well and there is no concern for the edict until a storm hits and the ship starts to founder.
As Manjiro and the other fisherman try to head back to shore, they lose an oar and are at the mercy of the winds. After eight days at sea, they land on a tiny rocky island. The men discover a cave on the island, home to hundreds of nesting albatrosses. Food and shelter, but would they ever get off the island? Will they ever get home?
Six months after they land, a huge ship comes into view. Finally rescue! But the men on the boat speak a strange language and no one understood anything the other people said. Manjiro was fascinated by the strange men. He followed them all over the ship, trying to learn their language. The captain, William H. Whitfield, gave Manjiro a slate with letters on it and he practiced writing. He also learned to read a map and use a sextant, things he’d never seen before. When the boat stopped at the port of Honolulu for supplies, the other fisherman asked to be left there to find jobs. But Manjiro was invited to continue with the ship to Massachusetts.
When they arrived in New Bedford, Massachussetts, Captain Whitfield took them to a church to say thanks, only to be told that Manjiro couldn’t sit with him. They left and found another church where they could sit together. Manjiro was tutored in English and other subjects before being sent to school, but he still worried about his family.
He was determined to get back to Japan. With Mrs. Whitfield’s permission, he accepted a job as a steward on a boat. He worked hard, but it still wasn’t enough money to buy a vessel to get him to Japan. In 1849, the California Gold Rush had started and determined to earn enough money, Manjiro headed for the gold fields. In just 70 days, he managed to collect $600 worth of gold dust. He returned to San Francisco and boarded a ship bound for the Sandwich Islands. When he arrived in Honolulu two of his former shipmates were eager to join him in attempting to return to Japan. What would happen in Japan? Would they be allowed to return to their families? Be put to death under the Shogunate pronouncement? What would the Japanese officials think of everything they’d seen and done in America? Would they even believe them? You’ll have to read the rest of the story to find out.
Manjiro is a well written story of an unusual period in history. The illustrations are great at conveying everyone’s emotions and the contrasts between Japan and the U.S. at the time. Manjiro’s travel report can be found in the Tokyo National Museum and there is a statute of him in Ashizuri-Uwakai National Park, near where Manjiro was born and shipwrecked.