It can be tough teaching English in Japan. The chain school grind of late hours, noisy kids and boring middle-aged office workers takes its toll. Uppity teachers at public schools treat ALTs with contempt and all English instructors feel the humiliation of being looked down upon by their foreigner brethren who don’t teach.
The money isn’t there anymore either; the gravy train has derailed. The days when backpackers and graduates fresh off the plane could step right into well-paying jobs are long gone. Wages everywhere, from mom-and-pop schools to universities, are in steady decline as speed-learning CDs, Skype lessons from teachers in developing countries and outsourcing spread.
But no matter how bad things get, English teachers can take heart in the little-known fact that they have a de facto patron saint watching over them. John Manjiro, also known as John Mung and Manjiro Nakahama, one of the coolest figures from Japan’s past, paved the way for English teachers in Japan today, and they can hold their heads high and take pride in their profession knowing they are following in the footsteps of this pioneer.
While an American named Ranald MacDonald (no, really) is credited with being the first to ever teach English in Japan, Manjiro is the archetype of the eikaiwa sensei. He introduced the alphabet song to Japan, made the first poster explaining the pronunciation of the ABCs in katakana and taught English to some of the architects of the Meiji Revolution.
There are few from Japan’s past more colorful than the swashbuckling Manjiro. His extraordinary tale begins in 1841, when he was shipwrecked on a deserted island in the Pacific while fishing off the coast of Shikoku. Manjiro and his four friends survived for 143 days until an American whaling ship rescued them.
As English teachers today awe students with their suave and debonair ways, Manjiro impressed the ship’s captain, William Whitfield, with his intelligence and resourcefulness. Like kindly Japanese who take young foreigners under their wing, Whitfield adopted the 14-year-old Manjiro and, after dropping the other castaways off in Hawaii, took him back to Massachusetts and provided him with an education.
Manjiro encountered a myriad of items in America unknown to the Japanese at that time, including daguerreotype cameras, gimlets and violins — in much the same way as foreigners new to Japan come across wonders like toilets with heated seats and bidets, talking vending machines and street lights that chirp.
Manjiro had many new experiences in America — he ate beef steak and bread, wore Western clothes and was the first Japanese to ride a locomotive — much like many wide-eyed foreigners today navigate subway systems, sample octopus sushi and bow in greeting for the first time in Japan.
Manjiro excelled in America, learning English, apprenticing as a barrel maker and mastering navigation, later joining the crew of a whaling ship and receiving an equal share of the ship’s profits — much more than he ever would have earned in Shikoku. English teachers doing better than they were digging ditches or frying chips back home can surely identify with Manjiro’s good fortune.
Like ambitious English teachers who teach private lessons in coffee shops on the side, Manjiro was restless and not satisfied with his newfound success in America. He went to California to join the Gold Rush, striking it rich and earning the enormous sum of $600.
Manjiro put his newfound wealth to good use, deciding to return to Japan. First, however, he headed to Hawaii to pick up his mates, persuading two of them — one had died and another wanted to stay — to come with him. Offering his labor for passage to an American captain, the trio set sail, finally returning to Japan via Okinawa after 10 years abroad.
Manjiro was not welcomed home with open arms, however — a reception that some English teachers experience on their return to their native countries. Japan was still under the sakoku closed country policy, under which foreigners were not allowed to enter and Japanese were forbidden to leave on penalty of death. Manjiro and his friends were viewed with suspicion, thought to be spies and imprisoned in Nagasaki.
Fortunately the three were able to provide a credible account of their shipwreck and time overseas and prove they had not adopted the prohibited Christian religion by performing fumie, or stepping on Christian images. Manjiro attended church services while living in New England but it is unknown how religious he actually was. Eventually Manjiro and his shipmates were allowed to return to their native Tosa in modern-day Kochi on the condition that they wouldn’t leave the area or engage in any work related to the sea.
Manjiro was reunited with his mother and extended family and hoped to finally settle down, but just as English teachers are needed today to help Japan compete globally, Manjiro was called upon by his country to teach English and foreign relations to young samurai and translate when Commodore Perry’s Black Ships came knocking. Manjiro’s services were in such high demand that he achieved the unheard-of promotion from commoner to samurai, much like foreign teachers that were nobodies before coming to Japan but are now addressed as sensei.
Manjiro taught Japan’s ruling class about the U.S. economic, education and political systems, just like English teachers today give captains of industry tips on the global economy and share investment strategies with elite bankers. A world map drawn by an Englishman that Manjiro brought back with him was the most accurate and detailed the Japanese had ever seen, and the shipbuilding and coastal defense knowledge he imparted was invaluable.
However, samurai born into the rank were jealous of Manjiro’s new status, and plotted against him, prompting him to return to the safety of Tosa. (Not unlike the way “real” university professors look down on nontenured foreign professors in the English department who learn to keep to themselves.)
Manjiro likely would not have had many choices for female companionship had he remained a poor fisherman, but he ended up marrying three times and fathering seven children, setting the stage for generations of foreign men who went dateless at home before becoming teachers but then find themselves the objects of desire of impressionable Japanese women.
Manjiro was an unsung hero of 19th-century Japan, his story mostly ignored and his contributions to his country largely unappreciated, much like English teachers whose efforts go unrecognized and meagerly awarded. Manjiro taught Yukichi Fukuzawa — the founder of Keio University, whose picture is on the ¥10,000 bill — how to speak English. Fukuzawa contributed greatly to the modernization of Japan, was a strong promoter of democracy and was the first to translate the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution into Japanese.
Similar to English teachers who prove to their students that foreigners aren’t all that bad, Manjiro’s writings convinced Ryoma Sakamoto — who was instrumental in overthrowing the Tokugawa Shogunate and ushering in the Meiji Era — to convert from a xenophobic nationalist into a supporter of opening up Japan to the outside world. It is believed Manjiro’s descriptions of American democracy influenced Sakamoto, who advocated for a new Japanese government with a national assembly.
In 1860 Manjiro, serving as an official translator, sailed to San Francisco with Fukuzawa as a member of Japan’s second delegation to the U.S. aboard the Kanrin Maru, the first Japanese ship ever to cross the Pacific. A student of Manjiro’s in Kochi, Yataro Iwasaki, founded a maritime transport company that went on to become Mitsubishi.
Most Japanese got their first glimpse of Manjiro after a book was written about him in 1938 in which he was called by his adopted Western name for the first time. The book was popular and the name stuck, and if you mention John Manjiro today, many Japanese will say that he was clever because he was able to communicate with foreigners by using katakana, famously saying wara for water.
Manjiro struggled with being viewed as an outsider — like foreigners in Japan who will never be accepted as equals by the Japanese no matter how long they live here, how many kanji they learn and how much fish they eat — but he took it in stride. Manjiro also retained some of the habits he picked up living abroad, such as drinking coffee instead of tea every morning, just as some long-term foreign Japan residents still prefer a shower in the morning to the Japanese custom of a bath at night.
Foreign English teachers and folks everywhere can be inspired by John Manjiro, who proved that average people can do great things in the face of overwhelming odds by persevering, using their wits and being tactful. Intrepid foreign pedagogues who stick it out for the long haul in Japan could even achieve the success that Manjiro eventually did and become university professors like him (provided they abandon any hopes of ever being tenured).
Light Gist offers a humorous take on life in Japan on the last Tuesday of the month. Send comments and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org