On a Shipwrecked Teenager

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.


On a Trip to Hawai’i

Hawai’i is one of the most beautiful places in the United States, and people from all over the world go there to enjoy the beauty of the beaches, forests, and the hospitality of the people. Asian tourists visit the islands routinely and have for decades. One such tourist from Japan was named Takeo.

Takeo’s desire to go to Hawai’i was so strong that he stayed several months. He arrived in Hawai’i in March of 1941, and he rented an apartment overlooking the harbor in Honolulu. Using that place as a base, Takeo wandered all over the island of Oahu, learning about its beaches and hills, and he took copious notes so he could remember all that he saw. Like many tourists, he enjoyed taking tours of the island by air. The view from above, he said, gave him a wonderful perspective on all that lay below.

Takeo enjoyed swimming in the harbor. He snorkeled there often, and he sometimes took the ferries and boats that chugged around the island. He mingled with the populace, shopped in the markets, and listed to their stories about life there. Over the course of nine months, Takeo learned all he could about the place. You could easily say that he was obsessed.

Today, almost 1/5th of the population of the state is of Japanese descent. When Takeo was there, the place housed about 160,000 people from Japan. That helped Takeo blend in better and made him feel much less conspicuous, much less of a “foreigner” in what was still at that time an American territory. When the United States entered World War II, the overwhelming majority of those Japanese people residing in Hawai’i chose loyalty to the United States over their native land. Fear of “the other” and racism led the United States government to implement a policy of internment for many Japanese-Americans on the mainland.

Takeo, however, had other ideas. You see, the reason he was so interested in Hawai’i was not that he was a casual but deeply attached tourist. No, rather, he worked for the Japanese government as a gatherer of intelligence. He was the chief Japanese intelligence agent in the American territory.

In fact, Takeo Yoshikawa’s copious notes and research that he radioed back to his home country over the nine months he lived in Honolulu helped Japan carry out the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.