‘Robinson Crusoe” has fascinated explorer Daisuke Takahashi ever since his elementary school days, when he first read the classic adventure tale about a British sailor who lived on a desert island for 28 years. Imagining that he, too, was marooned on an isolated island, the young Takahashi would roast fish he caught from a stream, and even tried building a hut in his parent’s garden in Akita Prefecture, northern Japan.
His enthusiasm for the novel, written in 1719 by Daniel Defoe, did not wane, even after he grew up; his taste for adventure only grew stronger. As a university student, he hitchhiked alone across the Sahara Desert and traveled along the Amazon River. He recalled that on those journeys, Defoe’s book was like bible to him.
The fictional hero eventually inspired Takahashi, 38, to go on an even more ambitious journey — a search for the campsite of the real Robinson Crusoe, Scottish mariner Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721).
Selkirk was left alone on a desert island about 670 km off the coast of Chile in 1704 after he quarreled with the captain of the ship, on which he had embarked as navigation officer. He survived there for four years and four months by building two huts and domesticating goats to use as food and clothing, until a British ship, commanded by Captain Woodes Rogers, found and rescued him in 1709.
Based on the story, Defoe wrote “The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.” In the novel, Robinson Crusoe meets Friday, a native boy who escapes from a cannibal tribe on the island who have been holding him captive. Eventually, the hero helps a ship’s captain retake his vessel from mutineers and returns home.
In 1992, Takahashi, who was then working at a major advertising agency in Tokyo, learned that “Robinson Crusoe” was based on a true story and that Selkirk’s campsite on the island had never been discovered. Obsessed with the dream of finding it, he researched the life of the marooned Scotsman by reading Captain Rogers’ accounts and even visiting one of Selkirk’s descendants in the village of Largo, Scotland.
In 1994, Takahashi landed on the island for the first time. Originally called Mas-a-Tierra, it had been renamed Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966 by the Chilean government and designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve site for its abundant indigenous fauna and flora.
In order to get a taste of what Selkirk’s life on the island had really been like, Takahashi spent a month living there in complete isolation, far away from the island’s only village, San Juan Bautista, and its 600 residents. Having brought rice, chocolate and vitamin tablets with him, he did not need to catch goats for food, but had to endure the same solitude as Selkirk.
“When laying in my tent near the beach one night, waves hitting the rocks grew louder and louder, as if a tsunami were approaching. I was frightened and poked my head out of the tent and looked around, but nothing like that was happening,” he said.
“Spending a few days alone, I found myself talking to rocks, saying, ‘I’m just a visitor to this place, but you have been here forever.’ When I caught fish from the sea, I couldn’t help but cry ‘Thank you!’ to the sky and shout ‘Banzai!’ at the sea,” he continued. “I felt like I was losing my mind.”
During his stay, Takahashi explored the island’s hills and valleys but failed to find any indication of Selkirk’s camp. However, on a second visit to the island in 2001, he found ruined stone walls near an abandoned trail in the hills.
To carry out an excavation of the site, Takahashi quit his job at the advertising agency in 2003 and formed an expedition team with Scottish and Chilean archaeologists. Sponsored by the U.S.-based National Geographic Society, the team dug up the site in January and February 2005 and found evidence that Selkirk had lived there; a 16-mm piece of copper; traces of a campfire; and pillar holes that could have been dug by Selkirk.
Experts later confirmed that the piece of copper was the tip of a set of dividers, an 18th-century navigation instrument. Radioactive carbon dating also showed that soil at the site was from around the time when Selkirk was there. As Selkirk was known to be carrying dividers, the team concluded that the site was the place that Takahashi was searching for.
“When I was obsessed with the dream of finding Selkirk’s hut, I thought my adventure would end in two to three years. But it took me 13 years. I was glad that I could discover his camp,” he said.
While searching for the real Robinson Crusoe, Takahashi, a member of the New York-based Explorers Club, was also working on another project: researching the real-life origins of the story of Urashima Taro, a popular Japanese folktale that dates back to the eighth century.
In the story, Urashima, a young fisherman, is taken by a sea turtle to the Ryugujo underwater palace, where Princess Otohime welcomes and entertains him with dancing fish. After a while, Urashima decides to go back to his village with a treasure box that Otohime has given him, but warned him not to open. Upon returning home, however, he finds that 300 years have passed during his supposedly three-year absence. He is stunned, and, unwittingly, he opens the treasure box. Smoke rises from it, covers his face, and in a flash, Urashima becomes an old man with white hair and beard.
As part of his efforts to track down the real-life location, if any, of Ryugujo, Takahashi opted for an unconventional method: a turtle project sponsored by the Sea Turtle Association of Japan, based in Hirakata, Osaka Prefecture. “People don’t know where the Ryugujo is, so I though I should ask a turtle,” he said.
In November 2004, he did just that, releasing a blue turtle with a transmitter on its shell from the coast of the Tango region in Kyoto Prefecture, which many believe to be the home of Urashima Taro, and tracking its movements.
“The turtle swam westward to China against the tidal current,” he said. “Then it advanced to the East China Sea and we lost its track near Kyushu. I think the transmitter was somehow removed.”
The turtle didn’t lead him to the Ryugujo, but after following up leads in ancient Japanese historical texts and conducting research in China, Takahashi came to an interesting conclusion: that Urashima actually represents not a person, but an ancient Japanese seagoing tribe that visited a palace in China and brought back advanced technology, culture and knowledge to Japan. As people passed on their knowledge of this actual historical event down the generations, it gradually turned into the fictional tale of Urashima Taro.
His efforts to reveal the actual people and events behind classic adventure novels and fairy tales continue, Takashashi said, with future projects including investigations into “Momotaro (Peach Boy),” a Japanese folktale hero who wipes out a bunch of ogres; the classic British adventure tale “Treasure Island,” by Robert Louis Stevenson; the “koropokkur” dwarf of Ainu legend; and even Santa Claus.
“Adults don’t take fairy tales seriously but just see them as reading for children,” Takahashi said. “I have found fertile fields to explore in those stories.”