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)

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Europeans call drifting ships “derelicts” once their crews have taken to the longboats. But the Japanese use the word hyôryô for a marine mishap in which a vessel, the hyôryô-sen, loses control and drifts without command. Traditionally its crew and passengers—hyôryô-min, drifting people—would stay aboard, awaiting their fate.

In half of known hyôryô cases, at least some hyôryô-min survived to reach land. And some of those survivors dramatically affected the societies they beached upon. Around 1260 CE, a junk drifted nearly to North America, until the California Current caught it and sent it into the westbound trade winds, which deposited it near Wailuku, Maui. Six centuries later the oral history of the event had passed down to King David Kalakaua, Hawaii’s last reigning monarch. As the tale came down, Wakalana, the reigning chief of Maui’s windward side, rescued the five hyôryô-min still alive on the junk, three men and two women. One, the captain, escaped the wreck wearing his sword; hence the incident has come to be known as the tale of the iron knife. The five castaways were treated like royalty; one of the women married Wakalana himself and launched extensive family lines on Maui and Oahu.

That was just the first accidental Japanese mission to Hawaii. By 1650, according to John Stokes, curator of Honolulu’s Bishop Museum, four more vessels had washed up, “their crews marrying into the Hawaiian aristocracy, leaving their imprint on the cultural development of the islands…. Hawaiian native culture, while basically Polynesian, included many features not found elsewhere in Polynesia.”

The Japanese presence in Hawaii may go back much further. Hawaiian legend recounts that the first Polynesian settlers there encountered diminutive menehune (“little people”), marvelous craftsmen who still dwell in deep forests and secret valleys. At that time, the Japanese were more than a foot shorter than average Polynesians and adept at many strange technologies—from firing pottery and spinning silk to forging metal—that might indeed have seemed like marvels.

Japanese influence likewise spread in mainland North America. Archaeological digs occasionally unearth traces: iron (which native Americans did not smelt) discovered in a village buried by an ancient mudslide near Lake Ozette, Washington; arrowheads hewn from Asian pottery discovered on Oregon’s coast; and, of course, the six-thousand-year-old Japanese pottery shards in Ecuador. Just as Betty Meggers found unique artifacts, viruses, and DNA markers in Ecuadoran subjects, the anthropologist Nancy Yaw Davis found telltale Japanese traits in the Zuni of northern New Mexico, distinct from all the other Pueblo peoples. Davis concluded that Japanese had landed in California in the fourteenth century, trekked inland, and helped found the Zuni Nation.

All told, the University of Washington anthropologist George Quimby estimated, between 500 and 1750 CE some 187 junks drifted from Japan to the Americas. The number of drifts increased dramatically after 1603—thanks, ironically, to the efforts of a xenophobic regime to keep foreign influences out of Japan and the Japanese in. In that year the Togugawa shogun, who had united the nation after years of civil war, closed Japan to the outside world, exempting only restricted trade through the port of Nagasaki. Western ships and castaways were to be repelled. Missionaries and other foreigners who entered were to be killed—as were Japanese who left and tried to return.

To ensure that Japanese mariners remained in coastal waters, the shoguns dictated that their boats have large rudders, designed to snap in high seas. Vessels blown offshore were helpless; to avoid capsizing, crews would cut down their main masts and drift, rudderless and unrigged, across the ocean.

Politics conspired with geography, weather, and ocean currents to set this slow-motion, accidental armada adrift. Over the centuries, the shoguns transferred their power to Edo, now Tokyo, and demanded annual tributes of rice and other goods. But Japan’s mountainous terrain made land transport impossible, so each fall and winter, after the harvest, tribute-laden vessels sailed from Osaka and other cities in the populous south up the outer coast to Edo. To get there, they had to traverse an exposed deepwater reach called Enshu-nada, the infamous Bay of Bad water. And they had to cross just when the storms blew down from Siberia—the same weather pattern that rakes Labrador, Newfoundland, and New England and drives kayaks across the Atlantic. Of ninety drifting vessels documented by the Japanese expert Arakawa Hidetoshi, storms blew 68 percent out into the Black Current during the four months from October to January.

To see where the hyôryô-min drifted, the girls of the Natural Science Club in Choshi, Japan, threw 750 bottles into the Kuroshio in October 1984 and 1985. By 1998, beachcombers had recovered 49: 7 along North America, 9 in the Hawaiian Islands, 13 in the Philippines, and 16 in the vicinity of Japan—percentages remarkably similar to those of the known hyôryô. A few swung back onto the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka, just north of Japan. Kamchatkans adopted the slang term dembei for bobbing castaways, after a Japanese fisherman named Dembei whose junk drifted there in 1697—the first known contact between Japanese and Russians.

A few twentieth-century adventurers have traveled as far in open boats as the hyôryô. In 1991, Gerard d’Aboville rowed a twenty-six-foot boat solo for 134 days and 6,200 miles, from Japan to North America. In 1970, Vital Alsar and four companions sailed a balsa raft from Ecuador to Australia, covering nearly eighty-six hundred miles in six months. And in 1952, Dr. Alain Bombard set out to prove that humans could survive being lost at sea by drifting for sixty-five days across the Atlantic in a collapsible raft, catching fish and sipping seawater. But none of these daredevils came near to lasting as long at sea as the hyôryô-min, who often drifted more than 400 and once more than 540 days. Typically just three out of a dozen in a crew would survive—the fittest and most resourceful, who were best equipped to influence, even dominate, the societies they encountered.


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