Shio lived in the seaside village of Nakanohama, Japan. Her husband was a fisherman and she expected her three sons to become fishermen, too. Her two daughters would become wives of fishermen and stay close to home.
That’s how it was in Japan two hundred years ago.
Could Shio see a different destiny for her second son, Manjiro? Ever since he was born, Manjiro glowed like a firefly and he was always curious.
“Manjiro,” she’d say, “it’s up to you.
There’s nothing you can’t do.
If you keep trying, you’ll see it through.”
When Shio’s husband died, nine-year-old Manjiro started going to work every day. With no father and an older brother too sick and weak to work, it was up to him to provide for the family. Little Manjiro may have looked skinny as a rice stalk, but he became strong as bamboo. He helped empty the nets on fishing boats and brought home fish for the dinner table. At least they had something to eat with their rice.
Every morning, Shio told her little son,
“My dear Manjiro-chan,
try your hardest again today
and remember: Gaman!
Gaman means to stay strong
like a tree stands in a storm.
Don’t give up and don’t give in.
Have patience and go on.”
Manjiro’s two brothers and two sisters depended on him. Sometimes they called out to him as he left for work,
You can do it.
You’ll get through it.
At this time in 1836, Japan had hundreds of rules, like the rule that children always grow up to work in the same jobs as their parents. No Japanese citizen could leave to visit other countries, and no person from another country could visit Japan. People who broke the rules were punished and imprisoned. That’s how it had been in Japan for a long time.
When Manjiro was fourteen-years-old, he was working on a small fishing vessel with four other fishermen when a storm came up and blew their boat far away from Japan. When her son did not return, Shio had to accept that he was either drowned or shipwrecked somewhere. After a while, the family even had a funeral for him. Shio was very sad, but she told herself, “Gaman. Stay strong like a tree in a storm.” She had to keep going and take care of her family.
Manjiro’s family didn’t know he was still alive.
Almost twelve years later, on October 5, 1852, they got a big surprise. Guess who was coming to their door! Shio heard someone calling “Okasan” and went outside her little house. A man who seemed somehow familiar was coming towards her, walking very fast. “Mother, I’m here! I’m here!” he said. Then he stopped and bowed his head low. “I’m sorry I left you for so long.”
“Manjiro? Could it be you?” Shio said. Tears came to her eyes. Then her son hugged her and cried along with her. His brothers and sisters came running to see what was happening and stopped short in surprise. Shio drew herself up and said, “It is your brother. He has come home.”
Their shock gave way to joy as they shouted, “You’re back! Hurray!” And then, “Manjiro! Where have you been?”
“Yes, Manjiro, what happened to you?” asked his mother. If she had known, she would have been a wreck herself.
The family gathered outside on straw mats with cups of tea. It was a warm autumn afternoon in their village between the mountains and the sea. “Manjiro, we thought you were dead. You left here a boy and now you’re a man. Where did you go?” his mother asked.
“I’ve been around the world and back,” Manjiro said. Then he realized that his family would not understand what that meant. They knew as little of the planet as he had twelve years ago when he was shipwrecked. He decided to start at the beginning of his journey.
“I was fishing on a boat with four others. A storm broke our mast and oars. The cold rain and winds lasted for seven days and blew our boat far, far out in the Pacific Ocean. All we could do was hang on.”
“Gaman,” said his mother, glad that her son had remembered what she taught him.
“Then we used planks of wood to row ourselves toward a tiny island. Our boat broke to pieces on the rocks, so the five of us swam to shore.”
“Oh,” said Shio, with a sharp intake of breath. “You didn’t give up.”
“There were no people living on the island, only albatross birds. We ate their eggs. We also found shellfish to eat. We saved rainwater and allowed ourselves three sips a day. That’s how we lived for five months! At night we slept in a cave.”
A tear rolled down Shio’s cheek as she thought of their loneliness. “So much for a boy to endure!”
Manjiro’s sisters remembered the words they’d shouted to their brother as he went to work. Now they chanted them again in order to cheer up their mother and to help Manjiro continue telling his story.
You can do it.
You’ll get through it.
Manjiro laughed, remembering how their high spirits had lifted his mood so many years ago. He decided not to dwell on his trials as a castaway, such as the earthquake that almost buried them in their cave, and jumped ahead to a happier part of the story. “We always looked for boats to come take us home. One day while I was looking for food on the shore, I saw a ship. I shouted and the others came running, waving their clothes until the sailors on the ship saw us. We were rescued!”
Manjiro’s mother, brothers, and sisters leaned toward him with their eyes wide. “By Japanese?” asked his sister.
“No, they were Americans from far away, hunting for whales in a big ship. They rowed a small boat to our island and picked us up. Then they took us on board the big ship and fed us rice and soup. They gave us sailor clothes to wear and washed our old things for us. But they could not bring us home, because Japan does not allow foreign ships to enter its ports.”
“Weren’t you scared, Manjiro?” asked his littlest sister.
“My four fellow fishermen were very scared. They expected to be killed. I was too curious to be scared, so I followed the sailors around to see what they were doing. Some of the men were friendly even though they laughed when I tried to repeat the words they said. Then one of them touched the tall tree trunk holding their sail and said mast. I repeated it and this time I knew what it meant. I learned new words every day and soon I could talk with the crew and even the captain.”
Shio sipped her tea, saying “My bright firefly Manjiro. Always learning.”
“The whaling ship took us to the island of Oahu where there were many good people. The four other fishermen decided to stay there. The ship’s captain, William Whitfield, asked me if I’d like to go home with him to America. I said yes.” Manjiro took a chopstick and sketched a map in the dirt to show how far he traveled. “In America, in a place called Massachusetts, I lived with Captain Whitfield and his family. I went to school and learned many things.”
“You learned another language?”
“Hai, Okasan. Yes, Mother, I learned to speak, read, and write in English.” Manjiro scratched in the dirt to show them. He wrote John Mung, the name the Americans gave him because it was easier for them to say than Manjiro. Then he continued with his story. “Some people did not like me at first because I was different. I was the first Japanese person they’d ever seen, so, of course, I was strange to them. But I made many friends and learned from everybody. I even learned to ride a horse.”
This was astonishing to Manjiro’s family, because the only people who rode horses in Japan were samurai who served the shoguns and nobility. They did not expect a boy from a poor fishing village to ever have that privilege.
His mother looked confused. “How did you get back to Japan from the other side of the world?”
“There was something called a Gold Rush on the west coast of America. I went there and found gold.”
His brothers and sisters pumped their fists in the air and cheered him again. “And what did you do with the gold?” his mother asked.
“I sold the gold and made enough money to buy my own small boat, the Adventurer, to put on a big ship. The captain of the ship brought me close to Japan and I went the rest of the way in the Adventurer.”
“Where is your boat?” asked his younger brother. After all, a boat is a good thing to have for a fishing family.
“Naturally, I was arrested when I got here, because I have been out of the country. Local officials took my boat away. Then they locked me behind bamboo walls and questioned me for more than a year. Finally, I was released so I could visit you. I hiked ninety miles to get here.”
No one could speak for a few moments as they thought how far Manjiro had come. His brother patted him on the back a few times. Then Shio wiped her eyes on the cotton sleeve of her yukata. She was so grateful her boy who was lost at sea was alive and well. With a smile for Manjiro she said, “I must get you something to eat.” She hurried to the cooking fire. Her son, the firefly, was home at last.
Manjiro stayed at his childhood home for three days. After that, he was taken to a castle in Kochi for questioning and then to Edo (now called Tokyo) for more questioning.
Fortunately, he did not have to stay in jail again. The more Manjiro talked to officials, the more they realized that he could be a valued advisor to the Shogun and other leaders of Japan. A scribe wrote down and illustrated what the traveler told them. Those writings and pictures became a book called Drifting Toward the Southeast that is still available today.
Manjiro became a teacher and taught English and other subjects to samurai.
In December 1853, Manjiro was given the rank of samurai himself. The young fisherman from Nakanohama received payment, two special swords and a new name, Nakahama Manjiro. (Only high-ranking people in Japan had second names. Manjiro named himself after his village.) He could finally help support his family as he’d tried to do as a child.
Manjiro was often asked to tell people about America. He told the Japanese leaders how helpful and friendly the Americans had been to him. Manjiro’s words helped the leaders consider being friendly, too, and in 1854 Japan entered into a treaty of peace, friendship, and trade with the United States. They opened two ports to ships from the United States of America and other countries. After 250 years of closed doors, Japan was open to the rest of the world.
Manjiro had gaman, guts, and grit. He did more than endure his difficulties. He took action, made friends, and changed the world.
JAPANESE WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS
Gaman = Endurance, strength, and perseverance
Hai = Yes
Okasan = Mother
Oni-chan = Brother (informal)
Oniisan = Brother (formal)
Samurai = Warrior in service to the shoguns
Shogun = Head of the samurai government
Yukata = Cotton kimono
Bernard, Donald R. The Life and Times of John Manjiro. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.
Blumberg, Rhoda. Shipwrecked! The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
Hirasuna, Delphine. The Art of Gaman: Arts & Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2005.
Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. Humanity Above Nation: The Impact of Manjiro and Heco on America and Japan. Honolulu: The Joseph Heco Society of Hawaii, 1995.
Manjiro, John and Kawada, Shoryo. Drifting Toward the Southeast: The Story of Five Japanese Castaways. Told in 1852 and translated by Junya Nagakuni and Junji Kitadai. New Bedford, Mass.: Spinner Publications, Inc., 2003.
Rosenbach Museum and Library, Nakahama Manjiro’s Hyosen Kiryaku: A Companion Book. Philadelphia: Rosenbach Museum and Library, 1999.
Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society, Fairhaven, Mass., http://www.whitfield-manjiro.org