"Beachcombers found an exotic coconut seed
from an unknown South Sea Island
I wonder how far it has traveled and how long been adrift?"
- From a poem sung by Toson Shimazaki (1872-1943)
We were taught at school that the tropical coconuts traveled on the black current (Kuroshio) drifting up north towards Formosa and Japan. Smithsonian Magazine reported on an experiment conducted by the girls of the Natural Science Club in Choshi, Japan. They threw 750 bottles into the Kuroshio in October 1984 and 1985. By 1998, beachcombers had recovered 49 of them - 7 along North America, 9 in the Hawaiian Islands, 13 in the Philippines and 16 in the vicinity of Japan, percentages remarkably similar to those of the known Hyoryubutsu or sea scruff. Back in the 19th Century, there were reportedly two Japanese shipwrecks every year. You can imagine the debris drifting away from the coastlines at the mercy of the wind and current.
My friend, a marine accident investigator, who traveled around the globe on a boat in his prime, left with me A Captain’s Diary from the 19th Century. History recorded many castaways off the Japanese seashores during the Tokugawa Shogunate, most notably John Manjiro (1827-1898) and Joseph Heco (1837-1897). John Manjiro served as the Shogunate interpreter when U.S. Commodore Perry opened up the doggedly closed border policy of the Japanese seclusion. Joseph Heco was the first Japanese immigrant to the U.S. and reportedly was introduced to President Abraham Lincoln through California Senator Bill Gwin, to whom Heco served as a secretary in Washington DC. Both were rescued by American boats and taken to the U.S.
The subtitle of A Captain’s Diary is “Jukichi’s Four Year (1813-1817) Odyssey Across the Pacific, through California, Alaska, Kamchatka, and back to Japan,” which was translated to English by Richard Sczippl, professor of Nanzan University in Nagoya. I saw many other names credited in the book as contributors, annotators and researchers. The original Japanese text was written in 1822 by Hirochika Ikeda, a scholar and a vassal of Lord Suganuma. I saw the names of father and son, Taichi and Yasuhiko Suzuki, as the discoverer of the author Ikeda’s book and the annotators. I saw also the name Katherine Plummer, a Californian, residing in Japan as a YMCA English teacher. She was a dedicated researcher of Japanese castaways. In the appendix was Plummer's gallant discovery in Boston of a letter written by Captain William Pigot who rescued the surviving crew of the shipwrecked Tokujo-Maru, including Jukichi, which verified that it was a true story. Yes, Jukichi landed at Refugio Beach in 1813, accompanied by Captain Pigot of the British ship “Forester” which precedes landing records of all other Japanese.
Today, this very place is a California State Beach that belongs to the City of Goleta, just 15 miles west of the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara where my daughter works. It is a very scenic and open beach to the Point of Conception, with the Santa Rosa Mountains in the background. Mission Santa Barbara was dedicated in the l780’s, so Jukichi’s landing was about 30 years after the dedication. Jukichi rode double-up on a horse and visited Ortega Ranch. He was advised that he was in New Spain. The next port of call seemed to be Bodega Bay to the north, but Jukichi met Russians there.
The ship Forestor sailed all the way up to Kamchatka via Sitka, Alaska and Jukichi knew that Captain Pigot arranged with the Russians his return route to Japan through Etrofu, one of the Kurile Islands. The friendship that developed between Captain Pigot and Jukichi is beautifully written.
I questioned why Jukichi had not written about his adventures himself, since both John Manjiro and Joseph Heco had authored their own memoirs. Since both John and Joseph secured Samurai status, they had the freedom to publish. Like all others in similar situations, Jukichi was banned from disclosing what he saw overseas after the magistrate officers took his depositions. Depositions by Jukichi and others often turned up in the underground as the hidden sellers reportedly dealt with some low-paid Samurais who wanted to add to their income.