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 Morrison
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.