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The Mikado’s Unseen Interpreter


Tokyo Shopping Alley Photo: Dillemma Photography/foter/CC BY-NC-ND

Tokyo Shopping Alley Photo: Dillemma Photography/foter/CC BY-NC-ND

[by Earl Blacklock] Prior to 1854, Japan was a reclusive nation ruled by a shogunate that had isolated the nation for 200 years. When Commander Perry sailed into Tokyo harbour aboard the frigate Susquehanna, he demanded a treaty between the two nations that would guarantee the safety of shipwrecked American sailors and allow American ships to refuel on their way to Asian markets.

Much has been made of the threat that the American guns posed to the Japanese that day. Less known is the story of the role played by a Japanese man who had returned to Japan after being rescued by American sailors.

Nakahama Manjirō was only 14 when, in 1841, he was shipwrecked with four others. They made it to an island where they survived for six months. They were rescued by the American whaler ship John Howland and taken to Honolulu.

Manjirō persuaded the captain to allow him to go back with him to his home in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. There, Manjirō studied navigation, a skill unknown to Japanese sailors at the time.

As he saw the advancement of the American people, Manjirō realized that the Japanese policy of isolation deprived its people of untold benefits. He also felt an obligation, as the head of his house, to return.

After acquiring the needed resources, he went to Honolulu and persuaded three of his former crewmates to make the journey back to Japan with him. They knew there was an imperial edict which prescribed death for anyone who left Japan, but they decided to return in a whaleboat Manjirō purchased, stocked with supplies that they hoped would excite the wonder of Japanese officials, hoping to be spared.

When they landed, they were arrested and imprisoned. Nariaki, the ruler of the region, decreed that they should remain in prison, but he personally interviewed Manjirō, and was astounded at his account of his journeys and experiences. He commanded him to build a foreign-style boat as proof of his claims of western superiority and, when Manjirō delivered, he notified more senior officials of the incredible find he had made.

Nariaki was immediately ordered to send the young sailor to Nagasaki where Manjirō was questioned interminably by Lord Shima, who had heard of strange ships that moved without sails in any direction. Manjirō used a boiling teakettle to explain how steam could be used to power a vessel.

Shortly after, Manjirō was summoned to Tokyo. Strange black ships had arrived with a message from the President of the United States to the Mikado. Manjirō’s knowledge of English and of the potential of ocean navigation made him an obvious choice to serve as an unseen interpreter and analyst of the American demands.

Manjirō was a gifted mathematician who easily learned navigation. As a result, his nation was able to call on him to serve in an extraordinary way.

Similarly, each of us has been given by God “different gifts for doing certain things well” (Romans 12:6a). Let us use our gifts to serve others and His kingdom.

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