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Bringing John Manjiro’s story to the world: The first Japanese person to live in the U.S.

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From a teenaged shipwreck survivor brought to the United States to becoming an influential samurai in direct service to the shogun, the life of Nakahama Manjiro (also known as John Manjiro or John Mung) is worthy of a thrilling tv show series.

John Daub, the content creator and Japan-based reporter who produces the popular YouTube channel ONLY in JAPAN *, spent over seven months creating a detailed documentary about “Japan’s first international citizen.” The journey led him from Tosa Shimizu in Kochi Prefecture, where Manjiro was born, all the way to Fairhaven in Massachusetts, Hawaii, Okinawa, the Izu Peninsula and his final resting place in the Zoshigaya Cemetery in Tokyo.

Daub became fascinated by the life and trials of Manjiro in 2022. “I happened to stop by the John Manjiro Museum in a far corner of Kochi Prefecture and discovered his story. I wondered why I hadn't heard of him during my 26 years in Japan,” he notes. “He really inspired me, not just as a historical figure who helped modernize Japan and bridge the relationship with the U.S., but also as a person: genuine, honest, curious and daring. He had had so many adventures in the 12 years of his life away from Japan, enough for a lifetime!"

With support from Kochi Prefecture and Jarman International, the cinematographer was able to start the long process of research, filming and scripting to bring Manjiro’s story to life, and bring attention to this important historical figure who is rarely heard of outside of Japan.

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As there are no images of Manjiro as a boy, Daub used technology to recreate his likeness for viewers.

This new documentary is timely, as the "Shogun" series has grabbed the attention of viewers worldwide through the story inspired by the experience of William Addams (the first Englishman to reach Japan) and the power struggles for the shogunate. Daub shows a different side of this tumultuous era through the experiences of Manjiro, and how his influence impacted the dramatic switches of the modernizing Meiji era in Japanese Shipwreck Survivor's Unexpected Life: The Manjiro Story.

Starting from Manjiro’s humble beginnings, working on a fishing boat at 14 to support his family in southern Kochi Prefecture, the documentary follows his life through the harrowing shipwreck that stranded him and five others on remote Torishima Island, where they spent six months before being rescued by Captain William Whitfield and taken to the United States. Manjiro adapted quickly to these completely new circumstances and was given a solid education. Missing his family, he prospected for gold in California to earn the money needed to return himself and his former crewmates to Japan, which he managed through various travails just under 12 years after he had been “lost at sea.” But he had little time to enjoy reuniting with his mother and siblings, as he was called first by the Tosa domain lord and later by the shogun himself to teach English, translate and help negotiate treaties, even being granted the honor of a last name.

Viewers have been captured by the story and influence of this figure that many of them had never heard of before. “It really showed the extent of Manjiro's life contributing to sowing a deep connection between the two countries which is really cool as someone who loves Japanese history,” writes user @shoyutheworld. “As soon as it started, I was hooked. Living in the UK, I had never heard of this great Japanese person, Manjiro. Thank you for another outstanding documentary,” says @brucehutcheson5302.

"By telling this story, I hope people learn how our future is never set,” says Daub. “Had Manjiro never been caught in that storm, what would his life have become? Because of his experiences, he was able to help Japan work with Commodore Perry in 1854, give the shogunate an idea of life in the West, help build Japan's navy, build the country’s first embassy in the U.S. and move towards the Meiji Restoration in 1868.”

Daub hopes that his video will bring the remarkable story of Manjiro to a larger audience. “His loyalty and dedication to both his mother in Kochi and Captain Whitfield, who found him and basically adopted him, still makes me tear up,” Daub says. “He returned to see his mother in 1851 in defiance of the sakoku isolation policy, knowing he might be executed. He also returned to America in 1870 as a diplomat to see the captain one last time, who must have been so proud, like any father would be."

Who knows, perhaps the next big movie or Netflix series will feature Manjiro’s story, the emotions and adventures of which are still so relevant almost 200 years later.

© Japan Today

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5 Comments
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He returned to see his mother in 1851 in defiance of the sakoku isolation policy, knowing he might be executed.

Says all you need to know about why Japan needed to be opened up. Could have gone about 100x worse.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Maybe a plot for an NHK Taiga Drama??

4 ( +4 / -0 )

interesting. kudos.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

History is full of amazing stories, and, the truth is stranger than fiction. This story sounds like a cheap work of fiction, but instead it is a remarkable true story.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

There is a John Manjiro room in the Fairhaven Massachusetts town library. I opened the guestbook and in it was the signature of Crown Prince Akihito.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

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