Changing direction

Posted by Ken Campbell March 4, 2010 0 Comment 1095 views

Sometime in January 1834, the tattered hulk of a Japanese ship hit the Olympic coast near Cape Alava. The Hojun Maru was a merchant ship that had left her home port of Onoura 14 months before on what was supposed to have been a downwind run to Tokyo. Instead, the easy trip to Edo – with a payload of 5000 pounds of rice, some fine china and a cask of sake – ended up going in a different direction entirely. Swept out to sea by a storm, rudderless and foundering, the crew took the drastic measure of cutting down her mast in order to stabilize the craft. This meant that, although they were able to ride out the storm, they were hundreds of miles out to sea with no way of directing their course. The Hojun Maru, with her crew of 14, was adrift.

It’s a fascinating story, the way that the crew lived off the cargo of rice and desalinated seawater for as long as they could, then began the slow and ugly process of dying, one by one. Scurvy took some and dehydration claimed others as they drifted aimlessly on the spiral gyre. By the time the boat finally ran aground near Cape Alava, only three crew members remained alive, the youngest of whom was a cabin boy of 15, named Otokichi. Within minutes of their arrival, they were taken as slaves by local Makah who had watched them jump from their ruined vessel and make their way to shore.

The Japanese had arrived in North America.

There’s more to this story, how the unfortunate crew members were released by the Makah to the local factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, how young Otokichi lived to play a role in later diplomatic efforts to bring Japan out of 250 years of isolation, how none of the survivors would ever return to live in their native land. More on this later, perhaps.

For now, it is awesome enough to consider the way that fate can rearrange the rules of the game without any advance notice. Those Japanese sailors that left port on October 11, 1832, had no idea what they were in for. The policy of total isolation that had been rigidly enforced in Japan for generations dictated that all boats be designed for coastal use and incapable of open-water voyages. Once she had been swept away by the gale, the Hojun Maru was started down a path from which there would be no return. For all of those aboard, those who survived as well as those who did not, everything had changed.

Life turns on a dime.

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