Daily Archives: 12 March 2005

Hirahara Zenmatsu, the First Japanese in Hawai‘i

Hirahara Zenmatsu was a Japanese seaman who lived among the people of the island of O‘ahu for about three and a half months in 1806. Zenmatsu was a native of the province of Aki, now Hiroshima prefecture, during the reign of the Tokugawa feudal government (1603-1867). He and seven others aboard the Inawaka-maru, a small Japanese cargo ship, were shipwrecked off Japan and remained adrift in the Pacific Ocean for more than seventy days….

On March 20, 1806, a foreign ship appeared. The crew of the Inawaka-maru climbed onto the deckhouse roof and signaled the ship by waving a mat and shouting for help. At first they seemed not to have been seen, but finally, the ship came closer and lowered her sails. Four foreigners, including one carrying a sword, who seemed to be the captain, came up on deck as the ship circled around the Inawaka-maru. Upon realizing that the Japanese vessel was disabled, they came aboard. Two sets of Japanese swords that belonged to the two officials from Iwakuni were found in a closet at the stern and were confiscated.

The captain asked the Japanese something, but they could not understand English. The Japanese asked for food by putting their hands on their stomachs, pointing to their mouths, and bowing with their hands together. The captain touched each one’s stomach and took a look around the galley. When he realized that they had no food or water, he took all eight Japanese on board his ship, assisting them by taking their hands and putting his arms around them. Personal belongings of the Japanese were also transferred.

The rescuing ship was an American trading vessel [returning from China], the Tabour, commanded by Captain Cornelius Sole. The Japanese had been rescued after being adrift in the Pacific for more than seventy days.

Aboard the Tabour, the Japanese were served a large cup of tea with sugar. It tasted so good that they asked for more, but the captain did not allow them to eat anything more on that day. On the following day, they were given two cups of sweetened tea followed by a serving of gruel. This was repeated for another three days. On the fifth day, when everyone gradually became well, they were served rice for breakfast and dinner and bread for lunch. The bread, tasted by the Japanese for the first time, was described by Zenmatsu as similar to a Japanese confection called higashiyama, which is shaped round like a cross-section cut of a thick daikon (radish).

The Japanese had no words to express their gratitude, and they were deeply touched by the kind treatment received from the foreigners.

It sounds as if Capt. Sole had prior experience reviving starving, dehydrated sailors.

On May 5, 1806, the Tabour arrived in Hawai‘i after forty-five days of sailing following the rescue…. On August 17, 1806, all eight Japanese left Hawai‘i with [Captain Amasa] Delano aboard the Perseverence.

They arrived in Macao in October, then were transferred to a Chinese ship bound for Batavia (now Jakarta), where five of the eight Japanese contracted various tropical diseases, so that only three survived by the time the crew reached Nagasaki in June 1807 aboard an American vessel flying a Dutch flag.

Unfortunately, one more died soon after returning to Nagasaki, and another committed suicide during the official interrogation there. Zenmatsu was jailed and underwent severe interrogation by the officials as he had violated the sakoku edict, which prohibited Japanese subjects from leaving the country. Zenmatsu was kept at Nagasaki for five more months before being allowed to return to his village on November 29, 1807. Soon after his return, he was summoned by Lord Asano of Aki to report on his overseas experiences. He died six months after his return.

SOURCE: Observations of the First Japanese to Land in Hawai‘i, by Hideto Kono and Kazuko Sinoto, in The Hawaiian Journal of History, vol. 34 (2000), pp. 49-62

The account by Kono and Sinoto was based primarily on Japanese and Hawaiian sources, and makes no mention of an interrogation of the Japanese crew recorded in chapter XXI of Delano’s Voyages and Travels, orginally published in 1817 but now available online as Master Mariner: The Life and Voyages of Amasa Delano, by James B. Connolly.

On arrival at Canton, Amasa hunted up a linguist who knew Japanese. He found one of a sort, a Chinese, and through him he questioned the Japanese, being curious to get their story of the wreck. The Japanese could not understand the Chinese linguist’s Japanese speech, but they could read his Japanese writing, and he could read theirs; so it was question and answer on pieces of rice paper, which Amasa took over and kept for his own information later:

QUESTION: What place did you leave last, previous to your being shipwrecked?
ANSWER: The town or city of Osaca, on the island of Niphon.
QUESTION: How many men were there of you on board, when you left Osaca?
ANSWER: Twenty-two.
QUESTION: What happened to the other fourteen?
ANSWER: Some were washed overboard in the gale of wind in which we lost our masts, rudder, and were otherwise materially injured, and a number were killed and eaten for food to save life; all of which died by lot, fairly drawn.
QUESTION: How were you treated by Captain Sole?
ANSWER: We acknowledge him as our saviour. He not only took us away from that death which stared us in the face; but he gave us victuals, and carried us safe to land; after which he befriended and provided for us.

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