On August 1, 1989, a monument to three nineteenth-century Japanese sailors, believed to be the first Japanese to arrive in what is now Washington state, is dedicated at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. The sailors had drifted at sea in a disabled ship for more than a year before running aground on the Olympic Peninsula in 1834. The monument, financed largely by a Boy Scout troop from the sailors' home province, commemorates their remarkable journey and the inadvertent role they played in opening relations between Japan and the United States in the 1850s.
Storm at Sea
The sailors were part of a crew of 14 on the 15-meter (50-foot), 150-ton Hojunmaru, which left its home port of Onoura on October 11, 1832, bound for Edo (Tokyo) with a cargo of rice and porcelain. Japan at that time had been closed to foreigners for nearly 200 years. As part of an effort to insulate the country from outside influences, the construction of ships capable of ocean voyages was prohibited. The Japanese relied instead on single-masted vessels designed for navigation in shallow coastal waters. The ships had sturdy hulls but were easily disabled during storms. The Hojunmaru was such a craft.
Sometime after making a call at the port of Toba in early November 1832, the Hojunmaru was hit by a typhoon, stripped of its rudder and mast, and carried away. The crew had rice from the cargo and fish from the sea to eat. They were able to collect rainwater and to desalinate seawater for drinking. But they had no access to vitamin C. By the time the ship washed ashore near Cape Flattery, in January 1834, all but three of the crew had died, probably of scurvy.
The survivors were three young men, all from the village of Onoura, in the township of Mihama: Iwakichi, 28; Kyukichi, 15, and Otokichi, 14 (the use of surnames was uncommon in Japan at that time). They were found by a group of Makah Indian seal hunters and briefly held as slaves. When word of their capture reached John McLoughlin (1784-1857), chief factor (supervisor) of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver, he had them ransomed and brought to the fort.
Adrift in Strange Lands
The "three kichis" stayed at Fort Vancouver for about five months. They learned a little English, were introduced to the precepts of Christianity (the practice of which was illegal in their homeland), and became accustomed to such oddities as shoes, forks, and glass windows.
In November 1834, McLoughlin arranged to send them to Hudson’s Bay headquarters in London. He thought the British government could use the men as a wedge to establish trade relations with Japan. The response from London was chilly: "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).
After a brief stay in London -- all but one day of it confined to their ship -- the sailors were sent the rest of the way around the world, to the southern China port city of Macao. They arrived in June 1835, after a six-month journey, and were handed over to a German missionary and linguist. Two years later, an American merchant named Charles W. King made an attempt to return them to Japan on one of his ships. Like McLoughlin, King hoped to gain commercial advantages by repatriating the sailors. But his ship was twice greeted with cannon fire, first when it sailed into Edo Bay and then when it approached Kagoshima Bay. He gave up and returned to Macao.
"The three sailors had come within miles of their home, only to be turned away twice by a government that had declared anyone who touched foreign soil was contaminated" (Iritani, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1991). They lived the rest of their lives as exiles.
Japan remained closed to the outside world until July 1853, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry (1794-1858) sailed into Tokyo Bay with his four "black ships" (steam-powered frigates), paving the way for a treaty signed the next year between the United States and Japan. The key translator for the Japanese during the treaty negotiations had learned English from Ranald MacDonald (1824-1894), who had intentionally marooned himself in Japan in 1848. MacDonald, the son of a Hudson’s Bay Company trader, later said that his fascination with Japan began with stories he heard as a child about the shipwrecked Japanese sailors. In that sense, the "three kichis" contributed to the chain of events that ended centuries of self-imposed Japanese isolationism.
Celebrating the 'Three Kichis'
A two-ton granite monument commemorating the seamen was erected at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, just west of the visitor’s center, in 1989. It was donated by the Hyogo Boy Scouts Rover Troop, with assistance from the Washington Centennial Commission, the National Park Service, and the Japanese American Citizens League. A crowd of about 200, including 50 Boy Scouts from Hyogo, watched in a drenching rain as the monument was dedicated on August 1 by Toshitama Kaihara, governor of Hyogo Prefecture, and various other officials from Japan and Washington state. The dedication was part of a series of events held to celebrate Washington’s centennial and the 25th anniversary of Washington’s sister-state relationship with Hyogo Prefecture.
The seven-foot monument bears a likeness of three sailors with Japanese inscriptions, carved into one side. The only English words are on a small copper plaque on the other side. They mistakenly identify Iwakichi, Kyukichi, and Otokichi as "the first Japanese to arrive on the continent of North America." In fact, a number of other shipwrecked sailors preceded them to North America, including three who reached the California coast in 1813. The "three kichis" are, however, the first Japanese known to have been in Washington state.
According to Frederik L. Schodt, a scholar and author who is fluent in both spoken and written Japanese, the Japanese text also "represents a miniature hijacking of history" (Schodt, 72). The most prominent name engraved on the slab, he adds, is that of the governor of Hyogo Prefecture. Nonetheless, the monument stands as an important symbol of a historic link between Washington and Japan, and it has become a popular site for Japanese tourists, businesspeople, and school groups.
"One of the most extraordinary stories we tell here is this story," Tracy Fortmann, superintendent of Fort Vancouver, told a group of eight Boy Scout leaders from Japan who visited the monument in 2006. The officials presented her with a certificate of appreciation, for the compassion shown the sailors by people at Fort Vancouver in 1834; and placed a wreath on the monument, honoring the forbearance and courage of the erstwhile sailors. "It's a story I believe binds our people together," she said, "one of endurance, courage, commitment and compassion. This is a story we must keep alive for young Japanese, and young Americans" (Vogt, Columbian, 2006).