But occasionally a group of Japanese citizens left Japan by mistake. Smaller ships were still permitted under sakoku since they played an indispensable role in the transportation of goods and people, and once in a while unpredictable forces of nature would drag one of these vessels away from the coast of Japan. In the autumn of 1832, for instance, a cargo-ship known as the Hojunmaru was transporting rice and porcelain to Edo (now Tokyo) when it ran into a storm and was blown off-course. The 15-metre-long ship was left far from shore without a rudder or a mast, meaning that there was no way to steer it. All that the crew could do was let their vessel drift on the ocean until they happened upon either another ship or a useful bit of land. For one of them in particular – 14-year-old Yamamoto Otokichi – this would prove to be only the beginning of a decades-long accidental circumnavigation of the globe.
In the aftermath of the 1832 storm, Otokichi and 13 of his crewmates were left adrift on the maddeningly empty North Pacific Ocean. Most of them had been sailors since their teenage years, but their combined skills could do nothing to help nudge the crippled vessel towards civilisation. Month after month passed. The sailors’ odds of surviving were enhanced considerably by a makeshift seawater-desalination facility, possibly adapted from sake-brewing equipment that the ship had happened to be carrying. There was also plenty of rice to eat, and occasionally someone managed to catch a fish or a sea-bird as well. However, nothing that the crew-members consumed was able to provide an adequate amount of Vitamin C, and most of them fell victim to scurvy; by the time approximately a year had passed, the only sailors remaining were 29-year-old Iwakichi, 16-year-old Kyukichi, and now-15-year-old Otokichi. And only after fourteen months of being pushed around by ocean currents did the disabled Hojunmaru finally hit a shoreline.
It wasn’t long before people of European descent in the area heard about the castaways of unknown origin. A record of the men’s arrival – probably a small set of drawings – had been created and passed around from one Native American community to another, and eventually it fell into the hands of Dr. John McLoughlin, a British official at Fort Vancouver (now Vancouver, Washington, near Portland, Oregon). McLoughlin was a somewhat fierce-looking man; he was six foot four with long, prematurely white hair. However, he had a reputation for dealing very fairly and responsibly with people from all societies. He examined the description of the castaways, which included a number of Japanese written characters. McLoughlin suspected these to be Chinese – a very good guess given knowledge of the time – and sent out a party to bargain with the Makah and retrieve the castaways. Weather and impassable trails intervened, but McLoughlin tried again. He instructed an American captain to stop in at Cape Flattery, to “do [his] utmost to Recover the unfortunate people said to be wrecked in the Vicinity of that place” and also to “reward the Indians for their trouble”. McNeill found Iwakichi and Kyukichi on his first attempt, and Otokichi on his second. All three men were taken to Fort Vancouver in the summer of 1834.
A local church-assistant taught the three men English, noting that they were “remarkably studious” and showed “very rapid improvement”. Interestingly, the castaways were only one part of an eclectic mix of ethnicities and backgrounds at Fort Vancouver: there were British, Irish, and French-Canadian employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company that had established the fort, as well as Hawaiian labourers and all sorts of Native Americans. A number of younger people were bi- or multi-racial.
McLoughlin soon learned that the castaways were not Chinese but Japanese. Although McLoughlin did want to see Otokichi and company return to Japan, he was acutely aware of the potential value of having citizens of a closed country on-hand. In the previous few decades, Britain had expressed interest in establishing trade with Japan; and McLoughlin realised that having Japanese sailors could make for a unique opportunity to instigate trade talks. He therefore put the three men on board the Eagle, a Hudson’s Bay Company ship that set sail in November 1834 on a seven-month-long journey to England by way of Hawaii and then south almost as far as Antarctica in order to sidestep South America.
In Macau, Iwakichi, Kyukichi, and Otokichi were warmly received by a German missionary working for the British as a translator. For two years the Japanese sailors remained at Macau; they were supported financially by the British, but never given the chance to make a trip back to Japan. It was only when an American tradesman named Charles W. King appeared in Macau with four other Japanese castaways--these ones found in the Philippines--that there was a chance for Otokichi and the two other survivors of the Hojunmaru to return to their native country. Like McLoughlin, King was interested in attempting to open up a greater degree of trade with Japan, and was delighted to have the seven castaways as an excuse to sail there. In early July 1837, King and all of the Japanese men set off for Japan on board the Morrison, a trade-ship owned by the company that employed him.
On 30 July the Morrison approached Edo Bay. However, the Japanese recognised that it was a foreign vessel, and let loose a wild stream of cannonballs in an unequivocal demonstration of their views on immigration. The Morrison was only slightly damaged, but there was no way to get any nearer. Relatively undeterred, King sailed to Kagoshima Bay and made another attempt at reaching the Japanese mainland. Again the locals fired their cannons at the ship. Here King managed to get close enough to shore to send word to local authorities, who arrived and took two of the castaways into their custody. Shortly thereafter, however, fishermen approached the vessel and urged King to leave lest he be attacked again. There was nothing King could do except comply, and return to Macau with five disappointed castaways. It is uncertain which two had been repatriated, but we do know that Otokichi was not one of them.
Otokichi made the most of his situation, settling in Macau and then Shanghai, and becoming an esteemed translator for American and British traders. He was briefly married to a British woman, though the relationship was short-lived; either death or divorce appears to have intervened. But soon thereafter, Otokichi met and married a woman from Singapore and fathered four children with her. He also became a British citizen and adopted the English name John Matthew Ottoson, the surname being an Anglicisation of ‘Oto-san’, or ‘Mr. Oto’, which is what he had often been called by his Japanese shipmates.
But, possibly feeling somewhat disconnected from Japan after so long, Otokichi opted to return to his family in Shanghai. He and his wife and children later moved to Singapore, where the British are reported to have rewarded Otokichi handsomely for the prominent role he had played in working towards the treaty with Japan. Now able to enter and exit his native country as he pleased, Otokichi was satisfied to live out the rest of his life in what seems to have been a luxury home in Singapore. He died there in 1867 shortly before his 50th birthday, having circled the globe--and, in doing so, having served as an inadvertent ambassador in the process of connecting Japan with the rest of the world.