Thursday, December 25, 2014

Otokichi Long Trip Home

Sakoku- Locking the Country/Kaikin- Sea Restriction 

During the 17th, 18th and 19th century, when most of the major powers of western Europe spend time around the world making out empires for themselves, Japan were threatened by foreigners which led them to spend that period as one of the most reclusive nations at that time.

Towards 1630, several proclamations forced the country to close its borders which marked the beginning of a period presently known as sakoku or locking the country or at times known as kaikin – sea-restriction.

Non-Japanese were not allowed on Japanese soil and the citizen of Japan was not permitted to leave the country.

 Those violating this were warned of capital punishment. Only a certain amount of trade with Korea, China and Netherlands was allowed, The Dutch were restricted to Dejima which was an artificial island in the harbour at Nagasaki.

The construction of long range ships were considered illegal and these measures continue to exist right through the 19th century. But at times groups of Japanese citizen did leave the county by mistake since smaller ships were permitted under sakoku since they operated in the transportation of goods and people and at time due to unpredictable forces of nature would drag the vessel away from the coast of Japan.

Cargo Ship Hojunmaru Lost at Sea & left to Drift

In 1832, one autumn, a cargo ship Hojunmaru was sailing with rice and porcelain to Edo, presently Tokyo, when it ran into a storm and got blown off-course. The ship which was 15 metres long was left away from the shore, far out in the Pacific Ocean without a mast or a rudder with no way to steer the ship.

The crew were unable to do anything rather than drift on the ocean till they came across a ship of some land in sight. Yamamoto Otokichi, a 14 year old along with 13 other crew mates was left to drift on the ship. Most of his mates had been sailors since their younger days but their skills could not help them to nudge the vessel to a proper destination.

Several months passed and the sailors’ survivalwas enhanced by a makeshift seawater desalination facility which probably adapted from sake-brewing equipment which the ship was carrying. Since they had a great amount of rice to eat and with an occasional catch of a fish or a sea bird, they managed to survive.

A year had passed though most of them died of scurvy with only three of them surviving which included 16 years old Kyukichi, 29 years old Iwakichi and now a 15 year old Otokichi and after a long period of fourteen months of being tossed around by ocean currents the Hojunmaru finally sighted some land.

Reached the North Pacific/Washington State

Having no idea of their bearings, the three went ashore and were greeted by people who appeared to be Native Americans from the Makah group. They had unknowingly crossed the North Pacific which is presently Washington State.

The Makah had not encountered Japanese sailors before and were curious on seeing them. They also examined their ship with its contents before leading them to their own settlement and took care of them just in time to save them from the threat of scurvy. Many got to know about them and Dr, John McLaughlin, a British official at Fort Vancouver, on examining the descriptions of the three castaways suspected them to be Chinese but soon realised that they were Japanese.

Realising the potential value of having citizens of a closed country on hand, who were Japanese sailors provided an opportunity to instigate trade talk which they were looking forward to. He then put them on board the Eagle, a Hudson’s Bay Company ship which sailed in November 1834 on a seven month journey to England through Hawaii, then south as far as Antarctica to sidestep South America.

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