Makah tribal members join delegation from Japan in commemorating three shipwrecked Japanese sailors on September 29, 1997.

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 7/16/2009
  • Essay 9074

On September 29, 1997, members of the Makah Nation join a delegation of nearly 100 citizens from the town of Mihama, Japan, in ceremonies commemorating the lives of three young Japanese sailors who ran aground in a crippled ship on the Olympic Peninsula in 1834. The sailors, the first Japanese known to have reached what is now Washington state, were found by a group of Makah seal hunters. The commemoration is part of a week-long celebration of historic ties between Japan and the Pacific Coast.

Fluke of History

A fluke of history brought Japan and the Makah Nation together for the first time, on a wintery day sometime in January 1834. Three young sailors from the port of Onoura, now part of Mihama-cho on the Chita Peninsula in southeast Japan, stumbled ashore near a Makah village. They were the sole survivors of a crew of 14 that had left Onoura in October 1832 on a ship bound for Edo (Tokyo) with a cargo of rice and porcelain. The ship was caught in a storm, stripped of its rudder, dismasted, and blown out to sea. It drifted across some 5,000 miles of ocean before reaching the Northwest coast.

A group of Makah seal hunters found the survivors and escorted them to the village, where they received the reception customarily given to strangers among the coastal tribes at that time: They were held as slaves and put to work gathering seaweed and shellfish. Agents from the Hudson’s Bay Company ransomed them a few months later and took them to the company’s regional headquarters at Fort Vancouver. After several months at the fort, the castaways were sent on to London and eventually to China. Efforts to repatriate them failed because of feudal Japan’s self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. They ended up living out their lives as exiles.

The outlines of the story are well known in Japan, thanks in part to the efforts of Koichi Saito (b. 1939), mayor of Mihama (population 25,000). In the 1980s, he read a book by a Japanese writer about the life of Otokichi -- the youngest and best- documented of the sailors -- and became enthralled. "History is usually a tale of winners, but when I learned about Otokichi, I thought it wasn't right that such an admirable person's life should remain unrecognized," he said. He has since led several excursions from Japan to sites associated with Otokichi, beginning with Washington state and including trips to London and Singapore (where the erstwhile sailor died, in 1867).

As historian Frederik L. Schodt points out, the trips are both a personal mission for Saito and a civic cause. Promoting the story of Otokichi and his fellow sailors is a way to bolster the town’s prospects for tourism when its more traditional industries of fishing and farming are declining. "Otokichi was left out of our history, mainly because he never returned to Japan," Saito told Schodt. "We want to make sure that he’s known and that there’s enough information on him to get into textbooks, and we want to publicize Mihama in the process" (Schodt, 57).

Pilgrimage to Ozette

The Mihama delegation came to Ozette to commemorate the souls of the sailors and to thank the descendants of the people who found them. The delicate matter of the Indians’ treatment of the sailors after the initial encounter on the shore was set aside in order to focus on contemporary relationships. The visit, sponsored by descendants of the sailors and Mihama businessmen, was "in essence a goodwill mission that both sides hope will provide more opportunities for cultural exchanges and tourism development," noted reporter Imbert Matthee (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1997).

The visitors, some in their 70s and 80s, hiked four miles through the Olympic National Forest to Ozette, believed to be near the place where the three sailors washed ashore. They built an impromptu Buddhist altar, stuck sticks of burning incense in the sand next to it, and chanted prayers for the dead. Makah tribal members sang traditional songs and beat drums. Then the group hiked back through the forest and boarded buses that took them on to Neah Bay for more observances.

In Neah Bay, Saito ceremoniously returned to the Makah Museum five fragments of Japanese-made pottery thought to have come from the sailors’ wrecked ship. The fragments had been excavated from a site at Cape Alava, near Ozette. Saito had seen them when visiting the museum in April 1996 and arranged to borrow them for a temporary exhibit in Mihama. The ceramic shards, some containing kanji characters (Chinese pictographs used in Japanese writing) were displayed in Mihama "like religious relics to awed visitors" (Schodt, 56). To citizens of Mihama, they symbolize a link to the past and to the fate that brought two Pacific Rim cultures together at a time when both were effectively isolated from the outside world.

Makah leaders expressed hope that the visit would lead to further exchanges. "The Japanese seem real interested in ancient cultures and that's something we can share," said Dave Sones, natural resource director for the Makah tribe. "Perhaps they can begin to look at Neah Bay as a tourist destination. Things haven't changed a lot around here in 160 years, so the Japanese can see this area just the way their ancestors saw it" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1997).


Imbert Matthee, "Makah, Japanese Mark Historic Link," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 1, 1997, p. B-1; Frederik L. Schodt, Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan (Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 2003); Leland Donald, Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); "Bowls of Edo Period Seaman Return from U.S.," The Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo), May 31, 1996, p. 1 (; Evelyn Iritani, "Hands Across the Sea: 1834 Cape Alava Shipwreck Opened a Link with Japan," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 19, 1991, p. A-1; Setsuko Kamiya, "Otokichi: A Life Lost and Found," Japan Times, August 29, 2004, Japan Times website accessed June 2009 (;  Mihama Town (Japan), "The Real-Life Story of Otokichi," Mihama Town website accessed May 2009 (

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