Photo possibly of John Manjiro, first Japanese to live in U.S., with skipper found in Massachusetts library


An unpublished photo of a man who could be Nakahama Manjiro (1827-1898), the first Japanese known to have lived in the United States, has been found at a public library in Massachusetts.

Nakahama, better known as John Manjiro, lived and studied in America after he was rescued by a U.S. whaling ship along with a few other fisherman colleagues when their fishing boat became stranded on an uninhabited isle in the Pacific Ocean in 1841.

The photo shows a man, clad in a three-piece suit with a hat in his hand, who could be Manjiro as well as a bearded, gray-haired Caucasian man, who could be William Whitfield (1804-1886), the skipper of the ship that rescued them and took them to Hawaii.

Whitfield took Manjiro to his home in Massachusetts and adopted him. Manjiro stayed there for several years and learned English, mathematics and navigation.

He returned to Japan in 1851, when the government maintained its seclusion policy. He was later hired as a government interpreter at a time when Japan started undergoing a drastic shift into the modern era and opening its doors to the world.

He is known to have revisited the home of Whitfield later in 1870.

Few photos of Manjiro exist, and none of them show him and the ship captain together.

About the discovered photo, Junji Kitadai, an expert on Manjiro and a member of the Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society, said, “While it remains within the realm of guessing, I believe it is Manjiro, given the facial features. It’s an important piece of evidence.”

The black and white 25 X 20 cm photo was found in 2013 at the New Bedford Free Public Library. It is a reprint and has whitened due to age.

While no caption was attached, the library initially named it “Manjiro and a bearded man” after it was found, assuming it was Manjiro, and has kept the photo on file.

A separate photo of the captain from when he was assumed to be around 60 shows him with dark hair and beard, which stands in contrast to the discovered photo.

Janice Hodson, a curator of art at the library, said there is no definite evidence to prove it is Manjiro in the photo and further research is necessary.

Kyo Nakahara, a fifth-generation descendent of Manjiro, told Kyodo News that the photographed man “has cheeks and lips similar (to Manjiro’s) and I believe ninety percent it is him.”

In October 1870, he joined a group of Japanese government officials on a visit to Europe. On the way, he visited the home of the skipper in Fairhaven, a port town across the river from New Bedford.

Manjiro, a native of what is now Kochi Prefecture, is known to have wished to meet Whitfield even after he returned to Japan, feeling indebted to his kindness and generosity for rescuing him and then providing him an opportunity to study in the United States.

  • Eric

    Great story, but although Manjiro is the first Japanese “known” to have lived in the United States, he most definitely wasn’t the first.

    Japanese seafarers have been washing up on the North American west coast for thousands of years, and even fathering children from unions with the locals, according to numerous legends of Indian tribes living in those regions.

    One example, in 1834 three fishermen from Japan (Iwakichi, Kyukichi and Otokichi, aka John Matthew Ottoson) washed up on a beach at the northwest corner of Washington state. After brief enslavement by the Makah Indian tribe, they were taken to Fort Vancouver where they met Ranald MacDonald (no relation to the Golden Arches), the son of a Scottish father based in Fort Astoria and a Chinook Indian mother. Ranald apparently had reason to believe he had a Japanese ancestor through his Chinook lineage.

    Anyway, Ranald became obsessed with the idea of visiting Japan, and long story short, he ended up in Japan in 1848 (before Perry) and ended up teaching English to around 14 samurai. He is credited as being the first American English teacher in Japan.

    A Wikipedia search gives much more extensive details about these four somewhat forgotten figures of history.