Posted : 2012-06-17 17:26
Updated : 2012-06-17 17:26

A Japanese boy who mastered English

By Nam Sang-so

In his article `Triumph of English”, published in The Korea Times on May 31, Gwynne Dyer quoted the second U.S. president John Adams, who predicted in 1780 that ``English will be the most respectable language in the world and the most universally read and spoken in the next century, if not before the end of this one.” A 14-year-old boy named Nakahama Manjiro was the first Japanese person who understood the truth of this prediction in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in 1841.

A whaling ship named John Howland with Captain William Whitfield in command sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts and detected a distress signal on a small deserted island in the South Pacific Ocean, not far from the present-day Mariana Islands. Captain Whitfield rescued five Japanese fishermen including a boy named Manjiro. A storm caused the Japanese fishing boat to drift towards the island.

On the whaler, Manjiro voluntarily and with zeal helped with the deck work in an effort to show his gratitude. He also learned English. The whaler made a port call at Honolulu and all the rescued fishermen disembarked except Manjiro, who asked Whitfield to take him to America. Noticing that the little boy was hardworking and bright the captain kept him on his ship and voyaged back to New Bedford via Cape Horn in present day Chile via the South and North Atlantic Oceans.

Manjiro was astonished to see on the ship’s navigation maps that Japan was only a group of tiny islands and that the world was round and vast, and he was sailing to the other side it. The boy was excited and decided to learn the language and culture of the Americans. He worked very hard and Whitfield loved the eagerness and sincerity of the little Japanese boy. He adopted him and called him John Mung.

On her six month voyage back to Massachusetts the crew caught 15 large whales and John Mung learned whale-catching techniques and ocean navigation by measuring the sun’s angles and observing stars at night. I heard up to this point in the story from a tour guide working for Grayline that operates a Boston based whale-watching tour.

Whitfield sent John Mung to school and again the boy studied hard and did well. His English was fluent now. After spending a few years on the whaler as a harpooner, he decided to return to Japan, so he went to California and joined the gold rush to earn money. On a commercial ship headed to China he finally landed on the island of Okinawa. He was 21 years old.

The Tokugawa Shogunate was having problems with U.S. Navy Commodore Mathew Perry, who in his black-hulled steam frigate in a port near Edo in 1853, demanded that Japan open for trade. John Mung, now called Nakahama Manjiro, was recruited as a translator. He was the only Japanese who spoke English and Perry was pleased at his presence. Manjiro taught English to the Japanese and told them the world was round.

In 1860, as the English translator of a delegate for the ratification of the first Japanese-American trade agreement, Manjiro went to Washington and met his benefactor and foster father William Whitfield.

Eventually, Manjiro became a professor at a school (now Tokyo University) thanks to his fluency in English. He died at the age of 72 and his gravestone was set in a cemetery in Tokyo. (It was damaged by a B-29 bombing of the city during World War II.)

Manjiro was the first Japanese person to introduce the “ABC” song, wear a necktie, ride on a steamship and train, dig for gold in California, experience racial discrimination, and above all, tell the Japanese that the Earth was round, and about the importance of learning English.

The writer is a retired architect-specifications writer, who shuttles back and forth between Seoul and New Jersey. Email him at
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