Thirteenth-century Japan has this in common with early 19th-century Japan: a land culture paying scant heed to the sea until the sea, as though in outrage, rises up and compels attention.
The dominant features of 13th-century Japan are Zen Buddhism and the newly empowered samurai; of early 19th-century Japan, Confucianism and sakoku — the country closed to the outside world. In the earlier period, only fishermen and pirates are afloat; in the later, them and the occasional castaway.
A 13th-century samurai, rigorously trained to an ascetic view of life, would have been astonished to read the dazzled fantasies his contemporary, the great Venetian traveler Marco Polo, was spinning about Japan.
As a teenager, Polo (1254-1324) had journeyed to China with his father and uncle, merchant-traders in gems and silks and other Oriental exotica. For 17 years, Marco stayed on at the Peking court of China’s Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, serving as envoy, confidant and adviser. His “Travels,” written long after his return, recounted his adventures in a part of the world scarcely known to most Europeans.
He never visited “the noble island of Cipangu,” but the rumors he recorded about it changed history, on land and at sea.
Polo’s Japan is a mythical El Dorado, a land overflowing with gold and precious stones. “I can report to you in sober truth a veritable marvel concerning a certain palace of the ruler of the island. You may take it for a fact that he has a very large palace entirely roofed with fine gold . . . They have pearls in abundance . . . and many other precious stones in abundance. It is a very rich island, so that no one can count its riches.”
No one knows who Polo would have heard this from — perhaps from whoever brought the news to Kublai, if Polo himself wasn’t Kublai’s source. In any case, “When tidings of (Cipangu’s) riches were brought to the Great Khan . . . he declared his resolve to conquer the island. Thereupon he sent . . . a great fleet of ships . . . “
The rest of that story is well known; this was the very fleet that in 1274 was repulsed and destroyed, the Japanese believed, by a kamikaze, a divine wind. (A second invasion attempt seven years later met a similar fate.)
It was via Polo that the Cipangu bug bit another great traveler — the Genoese mariner Christopher Columbus (1451-1506). “I have read a good deal in Marco Polo,” he wrote in 1484 to King John of Portugal, seeking sponsorship, “and reached the conception that over this Western Ocean Sea (the Atlantic) one could sail to this Isle of Cipangu and other unknown lands.”
Polo had grossly exaggerated the eastward extent of Asia, with Cipangu, he said, some 2,000 km (instead of 800) off the China coast. Columbus seized on this and other indications to justify his contemplated westward voyage to the fabled Indies. Following Polo, he concluded that “there are no great spaces of sea to be passed.”
King John was not impressed. He dismissed Columbus as “a big talker . . . full of fancy and imagination with his Isle of Cipangu.”
This reminds us that during his lifetime, Columbus was regarded as more crank than hero. It took him years to find a sponsor for his “Enterprise of the Indies.” Finally, in 1492, Queen Isabella of Spain agreed to stake him. Thereafter he made four voyages across the Atlantic. He died in 1506, firm in his belief that his legacy was not an unwanted “new world” but a westward sea route to East Asia.
Japan’s Columbus — its discoverer of America — began life as an illiterate Shikoku fisherman named Manjiro (1827-98). He was 14 when a typhoon wrecked his boat and washed him and four companions onto a desert island somewhere in the Pacific. This was in 1841. Sakoku was still in force. Leaving Japan — or, having left, returning — was a capital offense. Manjiro did not return for 10 years.
He spent those years in the United States, having been rescued by a Massachusetts whaling captain who adopted him, named him John, and gave him an American education. Returning to Japan in 1851 at the risk of his life, he was taken to Nagasaki and thrown in prison. For nine months he regaled his interrogators with fabulous tales of outlandish wonders — tales as fantastic as Marco Polo’s of Cipangu — with the difference that the steamships, telegraphs and railways of America actually existed.
John Manjiro was eventually released and accorded samurai status. Summoned to Edo (present-day Tokyo) in 1854, he helped negotiate with the Americans who came in their “Black Ships” to demand an end to sakoku. The ensuing Treaty of Amity was ratified in 1860, Manjiro accompanying the Japanese delegation to Washington and New York as its chief interpreter.
“Over the Western sea hither from Niphon come,/ Courteous, the swart-cheek’d two-sworded envoys,” wrote the American poet Walt Whitman, celebrating the occasion.
He saw vast implications.
“Bend your proud neck,” he urged his countrymen, “to the long-off mother now sending messages over the archipelagoes to you.”