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The Story of Zenmatsu: The First Japanese on the Sandwich Islands

Unlike Otokichi in my book, Hirahara Zenmatsu and the rest of crew of the Inawaka-maru made it to Edo. They even enjoyed the New Year’s celebration in the great capital with visits to the temple to usher in 1806, filling their stomachs with mocha, pounded sticky rice with bean paste, traditional New Year’s food.

On the way home on January 8, they were caught in a storm that blew them into the Pacific Ocean. In a month’s time, the crew ran out of water and food. When the survivors were asked what had happened to the other 14 men in their party, they replied, “Some were washed overboard in the gale of wind…and still a greater number were killed and eaten for food to save life; all of which died by lot, fairly drawn.”

Fortunately, On March 28, 1806, the American trading vessel, the Tabour commanded by Captain Cornelius Sole spotted them. They had spent more than 70 days adrift on the Pacific Ocean—in comparison, Otokichi and the crew of Hojunmaru had spent 14 months. The Captain headed to the Sandwich Islands, where he could not only replenish the provisions but also drop off the Japanese castaways, where they could catch the first ship heading west to China or thereabouts. Sole negotiated with King Kamehameha I to allow the eight Japanese to be accommodated. To compensate, the King was given the anchor from the disabled Japanese ship and 40 axes. Captain Sole also left a note for any captain bound for Asia, outlining how the Japanese ended up on these Islands, and how they were looking for a way home to Japan.

A crowd of Islanders soon gathered around, about 500 in all, anxious to meet the new arrivals. For Zenmatsu and the others, it would be home for the next three and a half months. Under charge of King Kamehameha I, a hut was built and food was brought to them, including taro and sweet potatoes, staple foods for the local population. Some of the more inquisitive villagers peeked through the door to better see how they lived—some even entered their hut unannounced. To dissuade such intrusions, a fence was built around the hut to keep the crowds back. The Japanese walked around the enclosure, while multitudes gathered each day talking amongst themselves, pointing at the Japanese men’s unusual hairs styles and clothing and the strange sounds coming out of their mouths. When the onlookers got tired of the spectacle, they left gossiping about the most sensational thing they saw that day.

The weather was warm, comparable to early summer in Japan. The people had similar physical features to Japanese, though more heavily built, but much more different than the Americans who resided and traded in the area. Both men and women had their hair cut short and wore little clothing with only certain parts of their body covered with 6x6 square paper-like material (kappa) as loin cloth or skirts. Zenmatsu also noticed how perfect the Islanders’ teeth were, even the older ones had a perfect set. They often pointed at Zenmatsu and laughed at his missing teeth.

And when they talked, the people often brought up the word “Karaimokui” whom they thought must have quite the appetite for taro since the word “karaimo” was literally translated as “taro eater.” He seemed to be an important person. Zenmatsu and the other Japanese preferred calling him taisho or “big boss” probably out of respect for him as they tittered over his name.

The people were likely talking about Kalanimoku, the Prime Minister of the Kamehameha government. Unlike Japan’s rice tax due every year at Edo, there were no taxes on this small island nation, and it looked as if the taro, sweet potatoes and even the fire wood were collected only as needed. There was no competition against their neighbours, no sense of greed that the Japanese witnessed in the upper classes, including the samurai and daimyo who lived a life of luxury compared with the peasant class. To Zenmatsu, it seemed all the people did was eat, sleep, and fornicate.

During the next few months, the Islanders and the Japanese must have a made such a bond that when they found a captain who could take them back to Japan, the farewell was an emotional one:

The Hawaiians, old and young, who had become friendly to us during our stay, brought taro, sweet potatoes, beef, pork, and chicken to the ship and stayed around us, and one by one bade farewell to us. When the ship left…about 500 Hawaiians came out to the shore, waving their hands and shouting “goodbye.” They stayed to see us off until the ship was out of sight. We were so deeply touched that we all could not hold back our tears.

They did not know it then, but the dream of returning back to Japan would not be the sweet homecoming that they expected and hoped for. On August 17, 1806, the eight Japanese departed on the ship Perseverance with Captain Amasa Delano at the helm. They made a stop at Macao and then a longer layover at Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies, waiting for another ship that would take them the rest of the way to Japan. Unfortunately, to the locals and the Dutch, Batavia had a nickname, “Het kerkhof der Eeuropeanen” or the “The Cemetery of the Europeans.” Malaria was rampant in the region and not exclusive to Europeans, for in the four months the Japanese castaways stayed, five of the them succumbed to the disease. Eventually, only two surviving Japanese (one died in transit) arrived back to Japanese soil in Nagasaki. The Japanese officials hardly welcomed them with open arms. Instead, the interrogations began.

Before they returned to their homes, the officials wanted to know every bit of detail about their experience outside Japan. Every day had to be accounted for, every person they met, every detail had to be spelled out—over and over again until they were satisfied that their departure was unintentional and that they were not inundated with Christian and Western ideas—one in the same for the officials. No doubt, the officials were curious of the outside world and questioned the castaways to satisfy their own curiosities.

For Zenmatsu’s fellow castaway, the burden was too much and he ended up hanging himself in his cell. It was only Zenmatsu left and after five months of interrogation, he was allowed to return home to his village in Kitani. Unfortunately, instead of the hero’s welcome that Manjiro encountered and his eventual rise to fame and glory, Zenmatsu died six months later of unknown causes.

Did the physical and mental strain of daily interrogations get to him? And was there the guilt of being the only survivor of a crew of 14? Did he get a glimpse of an outside world in the Sandwich Islands that changed him forever, alienating him from his friends and family, who knew little of what he was talking of?

When the excitement of Zenmatsu’s homecoming waned and his health dissipated, and as the reality of the toils of peasant life hit him, did he ever dream of the islanders waving him goodbye from the beaches of Honolulu?

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