Borne on a Black Current

For thousands of years, the Pacific Ocean’s strong currents have swept shipwrecked Japanese sailors onto American shores

The Kuroshio, or "Black Current," is the Pacific Ocean's answer to the Atlantic's Gulf Stream. (© Alain Nogues / Corbis Sygma)

(Continued from page 2)

As the centuries progressed, the number of Japanese coastal vessels, hence the number of drifters, soared. By the mid-1800s an average of two Japanese derelicts appeared each year along the shipping lanes from California to Hawaii. Four showed up near Hawaii in one thirty-year period in the early nineteenth century; at least five crewmen survived. Many other junks passed unseen along less-traveled routes. During my visits to Sitka, I was afforded the privilege of interviewing many Tlingit elders. I would tell them one sea story, and they would reciprocate with an ancient tale of their own. One elder, Fred Hope, told me that every village along the West Coast has passed down a tale of a Japanese vessel drifting ashore nearby. To the south, around the storm-wracked mouth of the Columbia River, strandings were so frequent that the Chinook Indians developed a special word, tlohon-nipts, “those who drift ashore,” for the new arrivals.

Then, in 1854, a very different landing took place on the other side of the ocean. Commodore Matthew Perry and his “black ships” arrived to open Japan to the world. Perry found skilled interpreters—Japanese who had never left Japan but were fluent in English—waiting to meet him. How could this be in the hermetically sealed hermit shogunate?

The answer lies in the drifts along the Kuroshio. In October 1813, the junk Tokujo Maru left Tokyo, returning to Toba after delivering the shogun’s annual tribute. The nor’westers swept it out to sea and it drifted for 530 days, passing within a mile of California when offshore winds blew it out to sea. Eleven of the fourteen men aboard perished. Then, 470 miles off Mexico, an American brig hailed the hulk and rescued the three survivors. After four years away, the Tokujo Maru’s captain, Jukichi, returned to Japan. Somehow he escaped execution and secretly recorded his travels in A Captain’s Diary. Though it was officially banned, Jukichi’s Diary intrigued and influenced Japanese scholars, paving the way for Commodore Perry and for another foreign guest who arrived six years before him. “Unquestionably,” James W. Borden, the U.S. Commissioner to Hawaii, remarked in 1860, “the kindness which had been extended to shipwrecked Japanese seamen was among the most powerful reasons which finally led to the opening of that country to foreigners and foreign commerce.”


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus