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‘MacDonald’s,’ the first English school in Japan, was its teacher’s prison

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Although it has been largely ignored by history, the first unofficial English school in Japan was “founded” in the late fall of 1848 in a prison cell in Nagasaki. Lessons took place within a compound encircled by a 6-foot stone wall. On top of the wall was broken glass, in case any of the criminals, including the teacher of this “school,” wanted to escape.

The school had no name, but if forced to create one, it would have to have been “MacDonald’s,” in honor of the first foreign English teacher in Japan: Ranald MacDonald.

MacDonald had loved Japanese culture ever since he was a 10-year-old boy, when he learned that a Japanese ship, the Hojun Maru, had wrecked and washed ashore in what is now Washington state, near Cape Flattery. There were only three survivors, and they temporarily joined MacDonald as students at the school he attended. Once their English improved enough, they told their harrowing tale: They had drifted across the Pacific Ocean for 14 months after losing their mast and rudder while on a routine domestic journey to deliver rice and porcelain dishes to the shogun. As was the policy back then, when Japan was still a closed country, now that the three survivors had made contact with the West, they could never return.

MacDonald listened in awe, impressed by their resilience. The three Japanese sailors — Otokichi, Kyukichi and Iwakichi (aged 14, 15 and 28, respectively) — described how they had survived on nothing but fish, rainwater and their surplus of rice. Dead bodies were placed inside barrels and thrown overboard.

The seed for adventure had been planted in MacDonald’s mind. As he moved through his childhood, he remained fascinated by that closed, unique country. And then, at the age of 17, he decided to do something about it.

On the cusp of manhood, MacDonald found himself sitting inside a bank. He’d become an accountant, and the tediousness of the position had been gnawing at him ever since he started the job. He contemplated college, then the military, but those cost more money than he had, and his father had refused to cover his costs.

So, completely on his own, and without informing his colleagues, friends or family, MacDonald packed up some clothes and books and left the rest of his life behind him. The sea was calling.

His overall mission was to reach Japan, and the only way he could do that was by joining a whaling ship. For years he worked as a sailor, eventually seeing the world and coming to understand the corruption that permeated it. On a trip across the Atlantic, MacDonald discovered that the captain had secretly taken on Africans meant to be sold for slavery. Unable to save them, MacDonald watched in horror as a British ship intercepted MacDonald’s captain’s ship. To escape penalty, the captain threw the African men and women overboard before they were discovered.

Perhaps disgusted with his own culture, MacDonald became ever more desperate to complete his own, far purer mission: to see the interior of Japan, no matter what the cost.

In the summer of 1848, he got that chance. MacDonald made a deal with the captain of a whaling ship to allow him to leave the ship with a small boat, so that he could paddle his way to Rishiri Island, off the coast of Hokkaido. When he reached the shore, he was taken captive by the indigenous Ainu, who eventually contacted the mainland. From this came a series of starts and stops. From Rishiri Island he was taken to Soya — Hokkaido’s northernmost tip — then to Matsumae, and finally to Nagasaki in the far south.

As he was transported, local residents were prevented from seeing this tall, thin gaijin (foreigner). Sailors and other men put up white curtains around him decorated with the coat of arms of Matsumae, for example, to ensure MacDonald was not revealed to the public. Often he was carried via palanquin, a cube mounted on two horizontal poles carried by four men.

During his trek to Nagasaki — Japan’s only window to the West, where the Dutch alone were permitted to trade — there were very few who had even a passable level of English. Most often he heard words or phrases meant to discourage ships from coming ashore, such as “no” or “go away.” The majority of Western language came from the Dutch and Portuguese. MacDonald often heard interpreters use the word “padre.”

It took some time, but eventually MacDonald gained enough trust in Nagasaki to be given a small room — a form of house arrest, or, as biographer Jo Ann Roe refers to it, azuke (custody).

There had obviously been quite a few English-speaking sailors who had made it to Japan before MacDonald; however, almost all of them had proven to be either illiterate or too emotional during confinement. MacDonald’s calmness and sincerity (not to mention his above-average education) proved to be just the right mix for aspiring Japanese interpreters eager to sharpen their skills and learn more about the outside world through someone without connections to the Dutch perspective.

At “MacDonald’s,” Ranald taught a total of 14 students. Among them, according to a 1923 biography of MacDonald by William S. Lewis and Naojiro Murakami, were Hori Tatsunosuke, who would later act as interpreter for U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry, and Moriyama Einosuke and Uemura Sakushichiro, both of whom would go on to accompany MacDonald on his travels around Japan.

MacDonald used a variety of English teaching resources. Most of the materials were given to him as a 1849 New Year’s gift by a Dutch resident named Joseph Levyssohn. The gift comprised 68 copies of London’s Atlas and Weekly Dispatch newspapers.

Students still, like today, struggled with the difference in pronunciation between ‘l’ and ‘r,’ and also had a tendency to add an ‘o’ to the endings of words ending in consonants.

In a way, for his English services, MacDonald was paid in food. He received bread (baking being a skill learned from the Portuguese), as well as pork once a week. His home was also the classroom, whose front wall consisted of bars 10 cm thick and 10 cm apart. He had a wooden screen in place for a semblance of privacy, and slept on a straw mattress.

You could not simply express an interest in learning English and visit MacDonald. Only the most reputable of interpreters received instruction.

MacDonald did have other visitors, however. Priests, dressed in different colored garbs, came to view this foreign captive. Roe describes the way they looked at MacDonald as resembling someone viewing an “exotic animal” at a zoo. When MacDonald was visited by scholars, he would attempt to have conversations with them; however, they were always, in his own words, “studiedly on their guard against saying too much in exposition of their affairs and general public or even private life.”

The attempts to keep MacDonald a secret from the general public bordered on madness. He was always under the surveillance of guards. Once, a guard decided to break protocol and allow his wife and children to come in and see this strange creature. This action proved fatal. The guard was immediately beheaded for violating the rules.

‘MacDonald’s” was in business for six months, between November 1848 and April 1849. At its peak, the school was best described by Japan scholar and lecturer William Elliot Griffis, who wrote: “On winter nights, Ranald’s cage became a house of reception, lit with wax candles on low square stands. Men of all orders came to see and talk with the first teacher of English in Japan.”

Four years later, Commodore Perry sailed into Japanese territory and pried open the country. His message could have very easily been miscommunicated had it not been for the training interpreters received at that little prison/business in Nagasaki from an educated American sailor named Ranald MacDonald.

As 2015 passes by, Japan is now home to thousands of conversation schools and more than 2 million foreign residents — people who did not have to risk their life like MacDonald in order to enjoy this wonderful country. Although by Western standards Japan remains slow to change its ways, we only need look back 167 years to see how truly different life once was for a foreigner in Japan.

Patrick Parr (www.patrickparr.com) is a lecturer for the University of Southern California’s International Academy in Los Angeles. His work has previously appeared in The Humanist, USA Today and The Writer, among others. You can contact Patrick by email: pdparr14@gmail.com. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • 610nm

    What a fascinating story.

    • Thomas Lockley

      Yeah, shame about the kichi errors. And their boat was not delivering goods for ‘the shogun’ but far more mundane produce for the good people of Edo. However, the story is superb and I wish more people knew about him. It should be mentioned that his mother was a Native American princess too and he went on to Australia to take part in the gold rush there. A movie should definitely be made.

  • At Times Mistaken

    That error does tangle this tale up a bit but Parr still spins a gripping yarn here. I hope to get my hands on “Native American in the Land of the Shogun” to unravel the story of MacDonald even further.

  • Tim Johnston

    That was an amazing story.
    Was there ever a movie made about this?

  • 田辺先生

    We in Oregon are very proud of MacDonald, an inspiring, innovative, industrious Native American/Scottish Oregonian.

  • COYP

    Funny how the first English teacher in Japan shares a name with the restaurant most of the modern day esl teachers will end up working at post Japan.

  • Toolonggone

    It’s always good to share the stories of westerners who set their foot on a foreign land in an extremely difficult time–yes, Japan’s isolationism in the Edo period is one of those.