John had been forced to go to sea to support his family. His dad had died a few years earlier, and the 14 year old had an older brother, but that brother was sickly. Thus, John became the man of the house and, as was often the case in those days, the one to be the breadwinner. Growing up on the coast, it was natural that John would get a job with a fishing crew, and that’s what happened. The year was 1841, and times were tough. John was hired on by the small boat crew to be the helper and the cook during the days out at sea fishing with large nets held up by buoys.
But, on one of his first times out with the boat and crew, a storm blew up and sent the small vessel far off course. They ended up barely making it to a deserted island off the coast, where they were unable to get their craft seaworthy again. Thus, the five person crew had to endure six months of near starvation on the island, eating what fish they could catch near shore.
Then, miraculously, a whaling ship sailed by and spotted the castaways. The captain of the ship, William Whitfield, was happy to take the 4 men and the teenager aboard, but he told them that they’d have to go with his ship, the John Howland, on the whaling voyage before he could land them anywhere. The men eagerly agreed. Anything was better than dying on that island.
Finally, then the whaling ship reached port, the four adult men were happy to be put ashore, and they tried to make arrangements to somehow find their way back to their homes. But Captain Whitfield had taken a liking to John, and he offered the teen a chance for an education in Whitfield’s hometown of Fairfield, Massachusetts. John jumped at the chance. He was thrilled to go, and it was there that he saw things that amazed him. He rode a train for the first time. He learned navigation. He learned to read and write and a foreign language. He apprenticed as a barrel maker. And then Whitfield got John a place on the crew of another whaling ship.
By September, 1849, John was 22 and had a decent amount of money. He’d frugally saved as much as he could of his pay from the whaler, and he decided to join the thousands who were headed to California for the Gold Rush. There, even though he arrived a bit later than many, John managed to make a decent amount from his prospecting. And it was then that John decided that he wanted to return home, to the mother and small family he’d left almost a decade before.
And so he did. He was warmly received by his family and village on the coast, and he became somewhat of a minor celebrity in the area because of his adventures at so young an age. His family never grew tired of his tales of travel, of the things he’d experienced and seen, and of how educated and “proper” he’d become.
In the 1860s, his country called on John. Because of his travel and language experience, he was asked to serve as a sort of ambassador for some visitors to his country. It seems that no one else spoke the language he had picked up back in school in Massachusetts. The country needed John to interpret for them as they welcomed strangers to their shores.
You see, John wasn’t really his name, it was only the name that Captain Whitfield called him. His birth name was Manjiro, and he was one of the first Japanese men to have ever visited the United States. And, when Japan opened its doors to foreign trade, it was Manjiro who represented the Japanese emperor and who translated Japanese into that strange language he’d picked up in Massachusetts.