Sorry to interrupt...this will only take a moment.
This site is an independent reader-supported project.
Because you have viewed at least a few articles now...
Can you give a small donation to keep us online?
We can give you e-books and audiobooks and stuff.
This site is an independent reader-supported project.
The cost of keeping it running are considerable.
If you can spare a few dollars it would help us enormously.
We can give you e-books and audiobooks and stuff.
Experimental Feature

Select 'Atmospheric Audio' from the Audio menu to add subtle background audio to certain portions of the article.

Otokichi’s Long Trip Home

Article #352 • Written by Marisa Brook

▼ Scroll to Continue ▼

While most of the major powers of western Europe spent the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries racing around the world carving out empires for themselves, Japan felt threatened by the influx of foreigners and ended up spending this period as one of the most reclusive nations on the planet. In the 1630s, a series of proclamations closed the country’s borders, marking the beginning of the period now known as sakoku (‘locking the country’) or sometimes kaikin (‘sea-restriction’). Non-Japanese-citizens were not permitted on Japanese soil; potential violators were warned that they would be subject to capital punishment. Only a small amount of trade with China, Korea, and the Netherlands was permitted, and the Dutch were restricted to Dejima, an artificial island in the harbour at Nagasaki. Nor were Japanese citizens allowed to leave Japan. Even the construction of long-range ships was illegal. These measures remained in place well into the 19th century.

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.

Dr. John McLoughlin
Dr. John McLoughlin

With absolutely no idea as to where they were, the three men went ashore. They were greeted by people who ultimately turned out to be Native Americans from the Makah group; the castaways had unwittingly crossed the North Pacific in its entirety, reaching present-day Washington State. Otokichi and his two shipmates were not the first Japanese castaways to inadvertently travel to North America, but most of the rest had arrived a good deal farther south. Certainly the Makah had never encountered Japanese sailors before, and were curious. They are said to have boarded the Hojunmaru to examine its contents before leading its three remaining crew-members to their own settlement. They fed the sailors just in time to save them from the threat of scurvy, and cared for them more generally as well. On the other hand, the Makah also enslaved the Japanese men for a time, as servitude was a fairly common part of local cultures.

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.

Japanese world map c. 1853
Japanese world map c. 1853

It came as a surprise that officials in London were not interested in either the Japanese men or the possibility of trade with Japan. The main problem was timing: Britain in 1835 was preoccupied with trade involving China. Britain had been importing opium into China in order to raise profits, and efforts on the part of the Chinese to keep the opium under control were gradually leading up to the First Opium War between the nations. With this to deal with, British officials were in no mood to explore new trade possibilities with Japan. They also did not appreciate having to decide what to do with the Japanese men; in fact, they sent John McLoughlin the bill for the costs of dealing with them. The English eventually gave the three a short tour of the city of London and then put them on a ship bound for the Portuguese-owned port of Macau on the Chinese mainland.

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.

A Japanese drawing of the <i>Morrison</i>
A Japanese drawing of the Morrison

In 1849 Otokichi managed to sneak into Japan for a brief visit by planting himself on board a topographical expedition to Uraga Bay, posing as the son of a fictional Chinese businessman. However, it was not until five years later that Otokichi had a true homecoming. By this point Britain had revisited the idea of procuring trade relations with Japan; Otokichi served as part of the British fleet commanded by Admiral James Stirling that travelled to Nagasaki and signed the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty on 14 October 1854. In the wake of the agreement, Otokichi stayed in Japan for some time, meeting with a number of important officials. They appear to have offered him the chance to stay in his home country, 22 years after the storm that had forced him to leave it. (Back in 1832, the locals in Otokichi’s hometown had logically assumed that the entire crew of the Hojunmaru had been lost, and had set up a gravestone in their honour.)

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.

Article written by Marisa Brook, published on 08 August 2013. Marisa lives in Toronto, Canada. She collects postcards, fridge magnets, lapel pins, interesting rocks, and linguistics degrees.

Podcast sound design by Alan Bellows. Podcast narration by Simon Whistler. Edited by Alan Bellows.

For more science, history, and psychology, follow us:

More Information
Related Articles

Posted 09 August 2013 at 07:37 am

Firing cannon at the Morrison? Heaven forbid they try to contact the vessel to see what it is they wanted.

Posted 09 August 2013 at 08:05 am

I dunno, IMHO, very well written article but far from the Damn Interesting stuff I've come to expect...

Posted 09 August 2013 at 08:12 am

IMADR said: "I dunno, IMHO, very well written article but far from the Damn Interesting stuff I've come to expect..."

I'm prone to agree with you. He's an interesting person, but I was somewhat reminded of William Adams (upon whom the Shogun book was based). That is, the story had been done before, and in a much more interesting way at that.

Dan Kurt
Posted 10 August 2013 at 11:53 pm

Thanks for the article. I enjoyed it.

Dan Kurt

Posted 11 August 2013 at 08:57 am

IMADR said: "I dunno, IMHO, very well written article but far from the Damn Interesting stuff I've come to expect..."

Couldn't disagree more, I thought it was a nice change of pace. DI articles always capture my imagination, this one is no different.

Well done Marisa, I'm happy to see articles are still being posted regularly. DI readers tend to be a picky lot. Intelligent, well informed, and picky.

Posted 11 August 2013 at 10:46 am

Cool story bro.
Who's got the cooler story? Otokichi, or Hiroo Onoda?

Posted 11 August 2013 at 02:27 pm

I just discovered this website after doing a Google search for "interesting stuff" out of shear boredom. What a great find! The articles are quite well written and researched, with just enough subtle humor to make them entertaining. Also, the fact that the majority of the reader's comments are both intelligent and topic related (this one excluded) is a refreshing change. I am in the process of reading all the archived articles. I only have 256 to go!

Posted 12 August 2013 at 08:57 am

Damn interesting article well done!

Posted 12 August 2013 at 12:55 pm

Yes, very DI article - as I am finding the vast majority of them are. My regret is that I did not discover this site earlier as, in reading back through the archives, I found I missed out on some very poignant discussions. Article #271 "Wall Street Terror" had a very heated debate going in comments that I would have enjoyed being a part of. However, as the last entry was in May of '07, I doubt that my input now would have any value. I do wonder if the opinions in that debate would now take a different turn with the recent world events.

Posted 12 August 2013 at 01:34 pm

As I am new to this site, I feel I should put forth something of an introduction as you regulars can rest assured you have not heard the last of me. I probably enjoy an intelligent discussion on almost any topic more than I enjoy sex. I am fairly well educated ( both formally and by personal choice ) on a wide variety of topics. I quite often have been known to take the role of Devil's Advocate just to keep the discussion interesting. I am a 57 year old white, American, Libertarian, ex-hippie, Druid who lives in the Upper Midwest but longs to move back to Arizona where I spent 20 of the best years of my life. Or not. You decide. ( D. A. speaking there ). My likes are: moonlit walks on the shooting range, all words that start with the letter "Q" ( but not followed by a "U"), and anyone that does not use "lol" in every post they type. My sign is: "lane ends; Merge left", and it is very good to virtually meet you all!

Posted 14 August 2013 at 07:57 pm

Lol, you crazy Michnu! But in seriousness I'm in AZ, it's hot as hell right now. No one wants to be here.

Posted 15 August 2013 at 07:42 am

This is my all-time favorite website! I anxiously await each new article. Damn interesting article, my only gripe is that I would like more details. Only one paragraph describing 14 months of survival on the open ocean? If I was a filmmaker, I would use this site as a source for all my movie ideas.

Posted 24 August 2013 at 05:00 pm

A life of adventure. He couldn't have had it any better.

Posted 08 September 2013 at 07:29 pm

Fascinating story!

Posted 13 September 2013 at 10:25 am

Never mind all that palaver about not being the same pace and structure as earlier articles. This must just be an evolution of delivery, perhaps reaching out to a bigger audience?

Anyways, a good enjoyable read. Thank you!

Posted 22 September 2013 at 09:45 am

An interesting story indeed. And a well written article too. I don't find it that all of the articles should be quite as sensational as the last one. I've been a reader for a couple of years now. Keep up the great work! Cheers from across the Pacific!

Posted 28 October 2013 at 08:35 am

Anyone know where the Makah lived? I'd like to go up that way to take some pictures.

Posted 25 November 2013 at 03:42 pm

Awesome post! That map of the world circa 1853 is very close to satellite-accurate! I do find it DI that once he had the chance to stay home in Japan, he specifically chose Shanghai instead ...

I'd like to make one suggestion:

You wrote, in part:
"... let loose a wild stream of cannonballs in an unequivocal demonstration of their views on immigration."

What about "... let loose a wild fusillade of cannonballs in an unequivocal demonstration of their views on immigration."

Just 2¢ for accuracy / readability / entertainment reasons ...

Posted 07 March 2014 at 10:08 pm

Museful said: "A life of adventure. He couldn't have had it any better."

The first guy to make it all the way around - magellan's servant. Don't recall his name. Fernao picked him up in the Phillipines I believe, on an earlier expedition. When he made his famous circumnavigation, his servant came along on the trip. So technically, when Magellan arrived in the Phillipines, his servant had made a complete trip around the world. Wish I could remember his name. Magellan never made it. He was hacked to pieces on the island of Mactan.

Posted 01 May 2014 at 11:07 am

hamellr said: "Anyone know where the Makah lived? I'd like to go up that way to take some pictures."

I live in Washington state. They are located on the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula.

Posted 08 July 2014 at 02:40 am

Wonderful article...Very Interesting read...:)

Posted 21 July 2014 at 12:50 pm

I really love that image at the top of the story, with all the different flags. Who is it by? Where is it from?


Alan Bellows
Posted 21 July 2014 at 02:21 pm

Travis said: "I really love that image at the top of the story, with all the different flags. Who is it by? Where is it from?"

Thanks! It's actually a collage I created based on several pieces of old Japanese artwork. I cut out the bits I wanted, arranged them all fancily, added the flags in the background, stitched it all together with a few brush strokes of my own, and gave it a simulated weathered paper effect.

Add Your Comment

Note: Your email address will not be published, shared, spammed, or otherwise mishandled. Anonymous comments are more likely to be held for moderation. You can optionally register or login.

You may use basic formatting HTML such as <i>, <b>, and <blockquote>.