In the photo that reportedly shows Amelia Earhart squatting by the docks with her back towards the camera supposedly “in custody,” it’s hard to believe that such a rare sight as a white woman in an isolated island of Japan did not garner more attention from the people.
Where are the crowds of people gathering around her trying to get a glimpse of her? Or the police trying to beat back the curious onlookers? One hundred years earlier, if Amelia Earhart had indeed arrived on the Marshal Islands, I imagine she would have had a similar experience as Mrs. King, one of the first American Caucasian woman to have landed on Japanese soil at the end of the Edo Period.
In July 1837, the American vessel the Morrison reached the shores of Loo-Choo Islands (present day Okinawa). Businessman Mr. King intended to return some Japanese castaways, but because Japan was still under Sakoku Edicts, contact with the west (except for the Dutch) was forbidden and the people were ordered to forcefully drive away any foreigners. But believing their mission was humanitarian in nature, the crew of the Morrison made plans to disembark and meet the locals.
After dinner, Mr. and Mrs. King, Mr. Williams, the interpreter, Captain Ingersoll, and Dr. Parker climbed onto a pinnace and headed for shore. Fishermen, almost naked but for loin cloths, sat in canoes, hallowed out of a single tree, went out to deeper waters with nothing more than a bucket of water and some potatoes. With such a meager offering, they were expected to stay out for days at a time to catch enough fish to buy potatoes for the next day—to catch more fish to buy more potatoes—an endless loop that the fishermen and many peasants were stuck in for their whole lives until they died, their sons inheriting what little they had and unable to accumulate wealth of any substance.
Shortly, thirty people, men, women and children, came to the beach to see them. The islanders were particularly interested in Mrs. King as they ran close towards her “so as to look her full in the face,” but “without ever offering the slightest rudeness.” To protect her face from the sun, she may have worn a bonnet with a wide semicircular brim, decorated with trim, ribbons and feathers. If she were to take off her hat, the crowd may have noticed her hair parted at the middle and dressed in elaborate curls, loops and knots extending on either side from the crown of her head.
The men in their dark cloaks did not get nearly as much attention as Mrs. King’s puffy sleeves in the “leg of mutton” or “gigot” style, or her lacy tippet that covered her shoulders, or her low narrow waist and the bulky floor-length conical skirt to give her the perfect hour-glass figure.
An older woman of 40 years dressed in no more than a tattered robe with a little girl in tow looked closely at the dress with approving nods. She jumped back in surprise when Mrs. King offered her hand:
"The old lady embraced it and looked up with admiration upon her delicate complexion and fine dress…When Mrs. K pulled off her glove, the poor woman uttered an exclamation at the contrast of their hands. Her own were tattooed with dark blue parallelograms upon the back, corresponding to the joints of each finger; a badge of the married state." Journal of an Expedition to Singapore to Japan, Peter Parker, M.D., revised by Rev. Andrew Reed, London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1838, p.11
Since doing research and writing for my book about Japan, I’ve discovered that the peasantry, the everyday citizens, and even the local officials were more curious than malevolent to outsiders. In fact, the peasants were often ill-treated themselves by their leaders.
Instead of being “captured” and put in a jail cell, Amelia would most likely have been treated as an honored guest like Mrs. King.