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Otokichi (wikipedia.org)
262 points by Thevet 9 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 71 comments

It is endlessly fascinating to me to contemplate how much the world has changed in a relatively short period of time, and specifically with regards to how much time was required for communication between people separated by great distances.

That's what I was thinking. Even after reaching London, it was two years before someone offered to take them to japan

I thought this was going to be one of those random Japanese words that people pretend have deep philosophical meanings like "ikigai" and "tsundoku".

> Once in Macau, Otokichi, Kyukichi and Iwakichi were welcomed by Karl Gutzlaff, a German missionary and Chinese translator for the British Government. Gutzlaff, who had views on evangelizing Japan, enthusiastically learned the Japanese language from the trio, and with their help managed to make a translation of the Gospel of John into Japanese.[citation needed]

Impressive work of language learning to pick it up from three homesick teenagers. Or maybe not, since there was noone to tell him if he got it wrong.

> one of those random Japanese words that people pretend have deep philosophical meanings

...you mean, the Japanese terms for philosophical concepts relevant to / embedded in their culture?

this would be like complaining if Japanese people latched onto "amen" as a statement of completion and finality. uh yeah, the concept is applicable across various different cultural configurations

According to a source posted elsewhere in the discussion here (https://www.historylink.org/File/9065), communication might not have been such a difficulty as they had started learning English years before that.

> In Macao, the British government handed the sailors over to Karl Gutzlaff, a German missionary and linguist. Gutzlaff continued their training in English and also enlisted their help in translating parts of the bible into Japanese.

Who have you met that thinks tsundoku has a philosophical meaning? It's buying too many books...

It just occurred to me, boats have been around way before 1492, and they would drift away by accident, just like in this case, more often than not.

Hence, folks from East Asia drifted away and landed on west coast of North America all the time, from time immemorial to 1492, and all of them were designated native/indigenous.

Conclusion: Asia to America migration didn't only happen through Bering/Beringia land bridge pre-10000 BC?

Question: Has there been any investigation of similarities between west coast indigenous languages and Asian languages, esp. Japanese?

Ship building technology development is an important factor you didn't factor in. You'd need a ship that can survive crossing the pacific and also enough rations of food to survive the trip.

In this case they also used some desalination tech to survive those 14 months, per the article.

Edit: More details:


> The crew had an adequate food supply (rice from the cargo, supplemented with fish and an occasional seagull). They could collect rainwater for drinking. They probably had on board a device called a ranbiki, normally used to brew sake, which they could have used to desalinate water from the sea. They also could have distilled saltwater simply by boiling it. But they had no source of vitamin C. By the time the ship washed ashore near Cape Flattery on a wintery day in 1834, there were only three survivors. Most of their crewmates had died of scurvy.

(That essay seems to have a lot of other interesting details, by the way.)

From the essay you linked:

"Traces of Japan were not entirely unknown in the Northwest. More than 1,000 Japanese ships are estimated to have disappeared during the Exclusion Era (1633-1854). Most presumably sank in storms, but iron fittings and other remnants of some of those ships washed up on the Northwest coast over time. A few drifted to coastal areas farther south with survivors on board. According to historian Frederik L. Schodt, at least 34 Japanese sailors reached the shores of North America or Mexico on disabled ships between 1806 and 1852. One of the best known cases involved the Tokujomaru, which ran aground near Santa Barbara, California, in 1813, with three survivors out of a crew of 14. But until the Hojunmaru, there is no record of the presence of any Japanese, sailors or otherwise, in what is now the state of Washington."

And the iron was being reused to make tools, on a fairly large scale apparently[1]

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metallurgy_in_pre-Columbian_Am...

I was reading an historical newspaper article from West coast America about a sole shipwreck survivor whos boat drifted from Japan after a storm in that time period.

> Hence, folks from East Asia drifted away and landed on west coast of North America all the time, from time immemorial to 1492, and all of them were designated native/indigenous.

Most of them would be designated "dead" at the very best. Odds were they wouldn't be designated anything because the ship would sink long before it got through the pacific: aside from polynesian navigators (which likely had at least some pre-columbian contact with the americas) navigation was coast-hugging and ships were simply not designed to survive through the Pacific. And then the crew would still need to survive through a journey they were completely unprepared for.

Not to mention the pacific doesn't really work that way: usually the ship would get caught in the gyres and never make it out, without wilful navigation it'd have incredibly low odds of catching the Alaska current or the equatorial counter-current.

For a direct answer to your question, the Polynesians populated much of the vast Pacific ocean and founded many island native lineages. There is some strong evidence they came into contact with West Coast American natives within the last couple thousand years [0].

> We find conclusive evidence for prehistoric contact of Polynesian individuals with Native American individuals (around AD 1200) contemporaneous with the settlement of remote Oceania. Our analyses suggest strongly that a single contact event occurred in eastern Polynesia, before the settlement of Rapa Nui, between Polynesian individuals and a Native American group most closely related to the indigenous inhabitants of present-day Colombia.

[0]: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2487-2.epdf

It's probably a good idea to point out that the evidence for Polynesian/S. American contact is extremely scant and mostly conjectural. This is a very controversial topic among archeologists and historians and there are biased interpretations on both sides.

The kumara really bolsters the theory https://www.pnas.org/content/110/6/2205

Isn't there some speculation about Chumash dugout making techniques too around Santa Barbara?

> Has there been any investigation of similarities between west coast indigenous languages and Asian languages, esp. Japanese?

Yes, plenty, and no similarities have been found in reputable scholarship. (Note that when Gavin Menzies, the crackpot historian whose claim is that the Chinese explored the whole world pre-Columbus, stated that West Coast indigenous languages bear a resemblance to Chinese, he had to base himself on 19th-century conjectures that were pre-scientific and now totally discredited. Nancy Yaw Davis’s theory that the Zuni people of North America are related to the Japanese, is also not taken seriously by any historical linguist).

The Japanese language itself only entered Japan in the last centuries BC/first centuries AD. Japanese is originally from the Asian continent and displaced whatever languages were spoken on the Japanese isles before. So, that’s only a few centuries when Japanese speakers could have somehow come into contact with Native Americans, and there doesn’t seem to be any firm evidence for it.

You need to also take into account the likelihood of them surviving the trip and reaching a shore. It has likely been an extremely minute amount of people who would have done this, almost certainly too insignificant to influence the culture or genes in any way.

I'm not familiar with boat technology through the ages but it seems like it would be pretty uncommon for someone to survive an accidental journey across the Pacific considering people die doing so in modern times when attempting it intentionally.

I think this is almost trivially true due to https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yupik_peoples

That crossing was from North Asia (Siberia), not East Asia though? Crossing the Bering strait (88 km) seems a lot less demanding than crossing the pacific from East Asia to North America (~7000 km or so).

I think that is the point of the parent. People made numerous crossing between Asia and America as it was and is simple with good canoes (and later kayaks).

Note also that Kamchatka is not that far from Chukotsky and it is not far fetched to think that the Aino peoples from Northern Japan could have some shared cultures with the Yubik peoples, the latter bringing that culture to Northern America and the Indians that had been living there for 10.000 years.

Check out Thor Heyerdahl and his Kon Tiki expedition. I believe that his theory was about religions and this pacific drift phenomena. There’s a very cool museum outside of Oslo.

I think that their findings have eventually been proven less meaningful than they thought, but still cool.


That's an interesting question, though I wonder if many such people would have survived the journey all the way across the ocean without access to fresh water or an understanding (and the necessary materials) for desalinating seawater. Some may have, but there are lots of filters working against survival, of increasing efficiency the further back in time we look.

I feel like people often leave the numerous Inuit and pre-inuit migration across the Bering straight on canoes and kayaks.

Follow up questions: Is there any research on how much of pre-inuit culture spread southwards to Indian cultures? How much Asian culture did the Inuit and pre-inuit cultures take with them to America?

People don't leave out the connections, it's just that there isn't much firm evidence to outline whatever nature it had. More difficult statements about relationships outside the circumpolar world remain purely speculative.

As for the follow up questions, Asia is a big place, and India is on the order of 4,000-5,000 miles from the Bering strait where pre-Thule cultures likely originated. There's no identifiable, historic relationship between modern Inuit/eskimos and people in India. However, they remain closely related to the Yuit on the other side of the strait.

Sorry, I meant Indian culture as in American Indian. Native American is confusing in this context as it could refer to Inuits as well.

The Asian culture I’m thinking about would be from Siberia or Kamchatka.

Interestingly, the Ainu people historicly lived pretty close to the Kamchatka peninsula (perhaps even on it), guessing that some culture that later was adopted by the Japanese from the Ainu but was also brought to North-America by proxy of pre-inuit peoples is not that far off.

EDIT: And as for what they brought over, couldn’t the American Indians further south have benefited from escaped domesticated animals like the dog breeds they brought over from Asia. And wouldn’t the closest neighboring tribes have learned different hunting techniques from each other, techniques that would have traveled south. Did pre-inuit people never trade or fight with American Indian people? I’m sure there is a lot of interesting interactions going on there that we are missing.

Now I'm not sure if the poster was influenced by this Omnibus episode:


or I've been influenced by these episodes:



I think it’s hilarious that the head of the British colony found 3 random Japanese people (2 of which were not even 18) and sent them to England to attempt to use them as trade diplomats

Glad I am not the only one who thought this.

To be fair, average life expectancy of people around that period (early to mid 1800s) was at best ~40, so "18" would have been basically middle-aged ;-)

average life expectancy is a trap -- the distribution is binomial. People tended to either die early, as infants, or live to an average 60.[0] Specifically, if you were age 0, you have an expected lifespan of 40, but by age 10, you have an expected lifespan of 60. Today expected lifespan after reaching age 10 is better, but not as extreme as the average tells you: you'd expect to hit to live to 77. [1]

So most people who were actually wandering out of their cribs would have found 60 to be a perfectly normal age; and 40 would still be middle aged -- the past wasn't that much different from the present :)

you just wouldn't expect to see great-grandfathers as often (but at the same time, you don't see many today because the average first child-birth age has shifted upwards as well[2])

[0] https://www.infoplease.com/us/health-statistics/life-expecta...

[1] https://gcanyon.wordpress.com/2009/06/25/life-expectancy-in-...

[2] https://www.researchgate.net/figure/A-Average-maternal-age-a...

> the distribution is binomial.

That would be odd. I think you mean "bimodal". ;)

Sorry for the nitpick.

It was a good nitpick since I read the first sentence and was really confused what the person was on about.

That's expectancy at birth. If you made it to 20, you were likely to make it to 60, even in the mid 1800s.



I mean, the derived conclusion is entirely wrong because of it. It's kind of 100% relevant.

It was a joke...

I understood that, but your joke was nonsensical. Making jokes about HN being overly pedantic in general, when no pedantry is occurring, is just randomly complaining. There's no context.

It would be sensible if you thought there was pedantry in progress..... but you'd be wrong :-)

No I’m saying that the comment that brought up life expectancy was a joke. Responding to that with a 15 pager was the aforementioned pedantry. My comment was not a joke just a cheap shot

Fascinating story. I had to dig a bit but I found the Johnny Cash film mentioned in the article:


Is it any good? What's with all the dislikes?

Meta question:

> What's with all the dislikes?

Assuming that you're referring to the GP, I'm curious how you're determining it's disliked-ness. It's not grey for me.

I don't think some massive karma level confers ability to see comment scores, either.

My HN comment has 8 upvotes. I assume they meant the dislikes on the YouTube video itself (362 likes, 103 dislikes.)

Facepalm. Thanks.

Fascinating. Something that made me curious:

> There the ship was fired on repeatedly, and King was not able to accomplish his objective to establish diplomatic contact

So...why not place a brief message into a few bottles and drop them in the waters around the populated zones? "We have here your citizens named so-and-so, and will return around this date, and then this date + about 12M, to try again. Please don't shoot." Include handwritten notes from the survivors to the families / friends.

Surely this method (among others) would stand at least a chance...as compared to ~20 years of unfortunate delay in connection.

My understanding is that during the period (1600 to 1868) leaving the country, even by accident was punishable by death. better treatment of shipwrecked American sailors was part of the demands of Perry's expedition in the Convention of Kanagawa.

>For the Japanese the punishment for leaving the country (and coming back) was death. The Japanese view at the time was that their world was complete and their was no place in it for crude, materialistic and barbaric Westerners. It was one of the few times in modern history that a nation rejected "progress." Punishments were equally harsh for foreigner that arrived in Japan. Thirteen members of a group of Portuguese merchants that arrived in 1640 were executed. The rest returned home with the message: "Think of us no more."[1]



That's curious. So did the survivors not know about the perishable by death factor? Otherwise I'd expect that they'd also fight the return in any way possible...

I would guess they knew what awaited them, but hoped efforts to open the country would be successful and they would be allowed to return. The Manhattan was able to return some sailors to Japan in 1845[1] that shipwrecked in Japanese waters, making the rule seem somewhat flexible.

I think an earlier version of the Perry expedition helmed by John Aulick intended to try and return 17 Japanese sailors as a sign of good faith/bargaining tool.[2]



I suspect the goal would have been to sneak back home (rather than arrive on a big western sailing ship)

If they wanted to get them to shore, they could have thrown anchor at any spot other than next to a fortress armed with guns. Then you row them to the shore and leave. It's not like there was mass surveillance or ability to identify anyone.

It's likely the captain had no big incentive to go out of his way for these Japanese so when he wasn't allowed in port, he just left.

Good points, I took a deeper look and found this article with more details:


> King anchored at a safe distance, out of range of the shore batteries. Men from several small fishing ships boarded the SS Morrison, and sake and cookies were shared until late in the night. By daybreak, however, cannons had been brought closer to the seaside, and they were again fired at the ship. Hundreds of small boats, each with a small cannon at the front, also started to surround and attack the ship. The Morrison sailed away, with little damage.

> King then sailed to Kagoshima in Kyūshū.[2] The first day he met some officials there, who took two of the castaways into custody. The following day, a fisherman came alongside and warned the sailors to leave immediately. As the ship was setting its sails, the Japanese opened fire from cannons they had moved to the proximity of the ship during the night. King decided to abandon the mission and returned to Canton with the remaining castaways.

...and eventually:

> The nature of the ship's mission became known one year after the event, and this resulted in increased criticism of the Edict.

So it sounds like a lot of ignorance collided with the Big Foreign Ship phenomenon and the castaway got caught in the middle. Some lucky, some not so lucky (for now)

> sake and cookies were shared until late in the night. By daybreak, however, cannons had been brought closer to the seaside, and they were again fired at the ship. Hundreds of small boats, each with a small cannon at the front, also started to surround and attack the ship.

That reads like comedy.

Leaving Japan was punishable by death

Was this really the case for castaways caught in storms, who expected to come back?

in the wiki article it's stated twice that they feared coming back due to this (once going back only disguised as a Chinese person. Although the second time he came back it appears he did not hide his identity). I'd bet it's a question of credibility. E.g. would you risk that the Japanese do not believe you and hence kill you? It's tough.

> Although the second time he came back it appears he did not hide his identity

The second time he went back, it was apparently as part of the group negotiating the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty[1], so it makes sense he wouldn't necessarily fear being killed

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Japanese_Friendship_Trea...

Is there anybody who could confirm that even castaways were subject to death penalty upon return to the shogunate? That sounds really cruel.

Yes, this was a well-known part of the Sakoku policy:


Having heard what had happened in much of the rest of Asia, the shoguns were extremely concerned about Christian proselytizing, and this was their extreme but effective way of making it impossible. All local Christian converts were also put to death.

There was another castaway who eventually did return to Japan and was made a samurai because of his English skills and potential utility to the government: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nakahama_Manjir%C5%8D

Otokichi's Wikipedia article also indicates that he was given permission to live in Japan again.

Presumably it would have been assumed they were lying to avoid death.

Cruelty is the second name of humanity, with Japan creating many such events such as the Nanjing Massacre (also known as the Rape of Nanjing) where they killed over 200.000 Chinese people and raped over 80.000 women, and I quote "many soldiers went beyond rape to disembowel women, slice off their breasts, and nail them alive to walls, Fathers were forced to rape their daughters, and sons their mothers, as other family members watched[...] So sickening was the spectacle that even Nazis in the city were horrified, one proclaiming the massacre to be the work of bestial machinery"

I would love to see that life story in a film (any Netflix people around?!). One of the most captivating Wikipedia entries I’ve ever read.

Scorsese put out a film called 'Silence' a few years ago. It's set in that period, stars Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver. It's a heavily skewed religious film but very good.

The article mentions that there's a film from 1983 starring Johnny Cash. It's not even on Netflix DVD but I found it hosted on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLOFpfjW_So

Starts with Japanese audio and has Japanese subtitles, but the film itself is in English.

A very interesting little story. I wasn't surprised when I saw that a movie about this had been made in the 80s. Although, I was also not surprised to see a healthy amount of [citation needed]. Oh well, no good story comes without a bit of embellishment, right?

> drifted for 14 months, during which the crew lived on desalinated seawater and rice

Doesn't sound like fun.

The amount of Japanese-centric content on the English wikipedia is quite staggering. It goes to show you that the interest (and/or bias) of the contributors is what will ultimately shape the content of the site.

Interesting! Reminds me of this guy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gonzalo_Guerrero

> The three castaways were looked after and briefly enslaved by the Makah Indian tribe.

Seems a bit brutish to enslave half-dead, washed-up youths.

Really interesting read about an interesting person. Thanks HN community for continuing to inspire, intrigue and educate!

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