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.