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3.19.2006

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Otokichi (Japanese 山本音吉, Yamamoto Otokichi, later known as John Matthew Ottoson; 1818–January 1867) was a Japanese castaway originally from the area of Onoura near Mihama, on the west coast of the Chita Peninsula in Aichi Prefecture. He was a 14-year-old crew member on a rice transport ship bound for Edo, the Hojunmaru (Japanese: 宝順丸), 15 meters in length with a cargo of 150 tons and a crew of 14. The boat left in December 1832, but was caught in a storm and blown off-course far out in the Pacific Ocean.

The boat, without a mast and a rudder, was carried across the northern Pacific Ocean by currents, and drifted for 14 months, during which the crew lived on water (they knew how to desalinate seawater) and on the rice of their cargo. Several crew died of scurvy, and only three survived when they made landfall at Cape Alava (the westernmost point of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington) in 1834. The three survivors were Iwakichi, 29, Kyukichi, 16, and Otokichi, then 15.

The three castaways were looked after and briefly enslaved by a Makah Indian tribe, and then handed over to John McLoughlin, the Chief Factor for the Columbia District at the Hudson's Bay Company. During their time in the area, they met with teacher-adventurer Ranald MacDonald, who was inspired by this encounter to travel to then isolated Japan in 1848. Macdonald became the first American to teach English there, and like Otokichi was instrumental in bringing Japan into increasing contact with the western world.

McLoughlin, envisioning an opportunity to use the castaways to open trade with Japan, sent the trio to London on the Eagle to try to convince the Crown of his plan. They reached London in 1835, probably the first Japanese ever to do so.

The British Government ultimately denied interest in the enterprise, and the castaways were instead dispatched to Macao onboard the General Palmer, so that they could be returned to their home country.

Once in Macao, 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 Japanese from the trio, and with their help managed to make a translation of the Gospel According to John into Japanese. The trio was joined in Macao by four more castaways from Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu, who had been shipwrecked on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.

An opportunity to return them to Japan appeared when the American trader Charles W. King offered to send them back to Japan, again with the hope of establishing trade relations with the country. In July 1837, the seven castaways left with Charles W. King onboard the Morrison to Uraga at the entrance of Edo Bay. There the ship was fired on repeatedly, and King was not able to accomplish his objective to establish diplomatic contact. He then went to Kagoshima, but again met with cannon fire, and finally decided to abandon his efforts and go back to Canton. The castaways resigned themselves to a life in exile.

Unable to return to Japan, the castaways started a new life in Macao. They seem to have worked as translators for the British trade legation and British missionaries.

Otokichi is next recorded to have been working for the British trading company Dent & Co. in Shanghai in 1843. He apparently also worked as a crewman on American ships, and worked at helping Japanese castaways to return to Japan onboard Chinese or Dutch boats, the only ones allowed to visit the country.

Otokichi married an Englishwoman who later died of illness. Otokichi then married a Malay woman, with whom he had a son and three daughters. He became a naturalized British subject, taking the name John Matthew Ottoson. "Ottoson" is said to have been a transliteration of "Oto-san" (literally "Mr. Oto"), a respectful nickname used by his Japanese mates.

Otokichi is known to have returned to Japan twice, first as a translator on board HMS Mariner, which entered Uraga Port in 1849 to conduct a topographical survey. To avoid problems with Japanese authorities, he disguised himself as Chinese, and said that he had learnt Japanese from his father, allegedly a businessman who had worked in relation with Nagasaki.

The second time, Otokichi went to Japan under his British name "Ottoson", in September 1854. He was a member of the British fleet under Admiral James Stirling. The fleet docked at Nagasaki and negotiated and signed the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty October 14. On that occasion, Otokichi met with many Japanese, including Fukuzawa Yukichi. He was apparently offered to return to Japan, but he chose to return to his family in Shanghai.

Toward the end of his life Otokichi moved from Shanghai to Singapore, his wife's native country. The British had compensated him generously for his contribution to the treaty with Japan, and he apparently rented a luxurious colonial house on Orchard Road.

He died there at the age of 49, in 1867. Otokichi was buried at the Japanese Cemetery of Singapore. Half of his remains were returned to his hometown of Mihama in Japan on February 20, 2005.


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This incredible story is almost hard to believe and someone (Miguel?) should immediately write a screenplay for it.

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