Manjirō Nakahama became the first known Japanese immigrant to the United States when he arrived in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on board the American whaleship John Howland. He was only 16 at the time.
Manjirō had been a fisherman in the coastal village of Naka-no-hama on Shikoku, one of Japan’s four main islands. His life underwent a dramatic change when, early in 1841, he and four friends set out in a boat to catch sea bass in the Pacific Ocean. A strong storm ended up pushing their vessel a lot further out into the open sea than planned. The boat carrying Manjirō and his friends eventually ran aground on an uninhabited volcanic island called Tori-shima that was about 300 nautical miles (555.6 kilometers) away from their village.
The five of them remain stranded on Tori-shima for five months (subsisting on albatross, shellfish, and seaweed) before the John Howland dropped anchor there during a search for sea turtles. Captain William H. Whitfield and his crew rescued the five castaways. Manjirō’s four companions sailed on the ship until she reached Hawaii (at the time an independent kingdom). Manjirō, who was nicknamed “John Mung” by Whitfield, chose to stay on board the ship for the remainder of her long voyage back to New Bedford.
After arriving in the United States, Manjirō settled in Whitfield’s hometown of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. It was there that Manjirō enrolled in the Oxford School and studied both English and navigation. With Whitfield’s connections and support, Manjirō became part of the crew of the whaleship Franklin when she left New Bedford in September 1847 for a voyage to the Pacific. Manjirō and his fellow crew members made their way back to Massachusetts nearly two years later.
Manjirō subsequently sailed to the west coast of the United States to seek his fortune during the California Gold Rush. He then made his way to Hawaii. Two of Manjirō’s friends who had been dropped off there by the John Howland accompanied him on his return trip to Japan. (One of the other friends had died, while another deemed it too dangerous to go back to their still-insular homeland after being away for so long.)
Manjirō, who died in Tokyo in 1898, is also widely considered to have been the first Japanese person to travel on both a train and steamship. When the commemoration now called Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month was established in 1990, May was selected as the month for that commemoration in large part because it marks the anniversary of Manjirō’s pioneering immigration to the United States.
For more information on Manjirō Nakahama, please check out http://fairhaventours.com/manjiro-nakahama/ and https://edsitement.neh.gov/feature/asian-pacific-heritage-month