A 19th-Century Rescue Forges Ties Between Two Towns Half A World Away

Mar 13, 2017

Manjiro Nakahama
Credit Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society

In 1841, a 14-year old Japanese boy named Manjiro and four others set out on a fishing trip. After getting caught in a fierce storm, their boat lost its mast, stranding the boys on a remote island where they survived – barely – for six months.

Eventually, crew members from the New Bedford whaleship John Howland came ashore on the island searching for food to supplement their provisions. They came upon the starving castaways and took them aboard their ship, but they couldn’t return the boys to Japan as the country had a closed-door policy at the time. So the ship’s captain, William Whitfield, brought Manjiro and his companions to Honolulu.

Townspeople respected the fact that Captain Whitfield treated Manjiro like a son, and they quickly embraced him as well.

During that time, Majiro and Captain Whitfield became very good friends. “Although Manjiro had never been to school in Japan, he was very astute and very curious,” said Jerry Rooney, president of the Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society. “And so the Captain said ‘It’s a shame you didn’t go to school at all. Why don’t you come to the States and get some schooling?’ And two years later they came back to Fairhaven.”

William Whitfield, captain of the whaleship John Howland
Credit Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society

Manjiro would become the first Japanese person to live in the United States. Although somewhat of a curiosity at first, townspeople respected the fact that Captain Whitfield treated Manjiro like a son, and they quickly embraced him as well.

After living and studying in Fairhaven for three years, Manjiro decided to return home. He went to sea aboard the whaling bark Franklin, eventually making his way back to Japan. But when Manjiro tried to re-enter the country, he was turned away and had to return with the Franklin to Fairhaven…a journey of 3-1/2 years.

Manjiro eventually found work on another ship and ended up in San Francisco in 1849 – the year of the Gold Rush. He managed to earn $600, just enough to attempt another return to Japan.

Jerry Rooney, President of the Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society in Fairhaven.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

“When he first got back to Japan, he got arrested and interrogated for almost a year before he was allowed to go home,” said Rooney.

Manjiro began to teach celestial navigation - one of the most important skills he learned in Fairhaven. In 1860, Manjiro was aboard the first Japanese ship to cross the Pacific to California. He saw Captain Whitfield one last time in 1870 – it was their first visit in 21 years.

Japanese Emperor Akihito on a visit to Fairhaven in 1987.
Credit Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society

Manjiro died in 1898 at age 71, but the bonds of friendship between Fairhaven and Japan continue to this day, and were further cemented when the Emperor of Japan visited Fairhaven in 1987. Two years later, Fairhaven signed a “sister-city” agreement with Manjiro’s hometown, Tosashimizu, Japan.