Japanese Retrace Path of History Making Castaways, 180 Years Later

By Tom Banse

After 180 years, it's not too late to say thank you. That's what a Japanese delegation did on a visit last week to the Makah Indian Reservation on the Washington coast. The visitors retraced the history making path of three castaways.

Japanese Boy Scouts donated this replica of the ill-fated junk to the Makah Museum. Courtesy of Friends of MacDonald.This story starts when a typhoon disabled a coastal trading vessel off central Japan. Three survivors drifted all the way across the Pacific until their boat wrecked on the Olympic Peninsula coast in early 1834. That made them the first Japanese to set foot in the Pacific Northwest. 

The trio were rescued by Makah seal hunters. But then the tribe held them captive and ransomed them a few months later to the Hudson's Bay Company. Now comes a delegation from the sailors' hometown to meet the present-day Makah. Travel agency vice president Masaru Yatabe of Portland was one of their guides.

"The people of Mihama came to express their appreciation," said Yatabe. "Because the Makah people saved them, those three (shipwrecked sailors) were able to regain health."

From Neah Bay, the castaway sailors and their 21st century descendants both traveled onward to Fort Vancouver, Washington (across from present-day Portland). The modern pilgrims utilized tour buses; the historic castaways, a Hudson's Bay Company trading ship.

Photo: Japanese Boy Scouts donated this replica of the ill-fated junk to the Makah Museum. Courtesy of Friends of MacDonald.

Actors from the current generation presented the sailor's odyssey in a play called "The Tale of Otokichi." It was staged at Clark College in Vancouver and at Seattle Center this past week.

Masaru Yatabe: "The story is not as well known as the people of Mihama would like... They are trying to spread the story."

Yatabe says businessmen and politicians in the delegation hope people-to-people connections can expand into closer economic ties. A foundation already exists. The Chita Peninsula, where the castaways came from, is home to aerospace companies that supply fuselage parts for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

This month's cultural exchange was the third time that history buffs from the Mihama area have retraced the steps of the "three kichis" - so-called because of the castaways' names, Otokichi, Iwakichi and Kyukichi.

Yatabe says the ill-fated sailors never made it back to their homeport despite efforts by the British government to repatriate them. In the early 19th century, Japan's rulers pursued an isolationist policy.
"Even shipwrecked Japanese could not return," said Yatabe. "The Tokyo Shogunate was afraid that they may be influenced by the West or Christianity."

Of the three castaways rescued on the Pacific Northwest coast, the life of Otokichi is the best documented. Fans of Otokichi give him credit for a number of other firsts including his conversion to Christianity while in exile making him the first Japanese Christian. Otokichi went on to help a missionary in Macao translate the Bible into Japanese.


HistoryLink overview:

First Japan-Makah exchange (1997):

Friends of MacDonald on 2009 visit:

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