Thursday, April 21, 2011


     Most of us will never do even one of the following in our lifetime:
  • Get shipwrecked on a deserted island 
  • Stumble across $600 worth of gold
  • Talk to our country's chief military leader
  • View our own tombstone
  • Become a samurai
  • Change our name-twice
  • Sail halfway around the world-twice
  • Drastically change the world
     Manjiro did  all this and more.
     In the 1630's, the leaders of Japan decided to cut of contact with other countries so they could keep order in Japan. Leaving the country was punishable by death. In the isolated two hundred years that followed, Japan developed a strict form of feudalism, dividing everybody into social classes. Your class determined everything-that food you ate, the clothes you wore, how you made your living, and even your name. Manjiro, the son of peasants, ranked rock bottom. He had no hope of going to school, since his father had died and his mother was too poor to send him to the Buddhist temple for lessons. On January 5, 1841, Manjiro went on a fishing trip with four friends. In the first six days, the tiny crew caught nothing at all. On the seventh, huge waves washed away most of their oars and snapped their rudder. They were stranded on a rocky island far from shore. To survive, they killed albatross and drank rainwater from the hollows of rocks. After six months of this, they spotted a ship far away. The others hesitated, but Manjiro swam towards it. He and his friends were taken aboard the John Howland, a whaling ship that had sailed all the way from Massachusetts.
     William Whitfield, the ship's captain, was impressed by Manjiro. He was brave, strong, and wanted to learn everything. Manjiro's four Japanese companions got off when the ship reached Hawaii, but he stayed on until they docked in New England, he took on the name John Mung and enrolled in school, determined to learn everything he could so he could introduce Japan to modern ideas and machines. But to introduce Japan, he would have to get back their first. And  to do that, he would need money. So John went west to California. One day, he found a glittering, egg-sized nugget. He buried it in the ground, sat on it all night, and the next day sold it for six hundred dollars so he could buy a boat.
     In January 1851, ten years after he first set out for sea, Manjiro neared the Japanese coast. After landing, they saw a sign that said:
     "The sending of ships to any foreign country is hereby forbidden. Anyone who secretly enters into a ship is later detected will be put to death. Any person who leaves the country to go to another and later returns, then he, too, shall meet meet with the same fate."
     Manjiro was found and taken to a local official, who took him to a higher official. He was questioned by authorities again and again for the next two years. He even told his story to the shogun, Japan's military leader.  He became a hatamoto, a samurai who directly served the shogun. Higher class people like the samurai had two names, so he called himself Nakahama, after his village. Nakahama Manjiro is believed to have influenced Japanese officials to open up and trade with Americans. Think of all the great things Japan has given the world-cars, phones, Nintendo (who could live without it?), even instant ramen, the staple food of college students everywhere. Where it not for Manjiro, who decided in his teenage years to change the world, the world might be a very different place.

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