True Life Adventures of Otokichi (1817-1867)


The Voyage and the Northwest Territory Chapters

As the Japanese crew readied the Hojunmaru to set sail on the cold late-fall morning of November 12, 1832, little did the 14 sailors realize that they were about to embark on an epic voyage that only three would survive and from which none would ever return home.

The Hojunmaru, a 150-ton Japanese junk (capable of carrying 1200 sacks of rice), set sail from a small seaport village and headed east towards Edo - now known as Tokyo. Less than a day into another seemingly routine trip, the skies turned black and violent winds started to churn the seas. The ship was tossed around as if it were a toy boat and then cold seawater began to breach her decks. A powerful and un-seasonal typhoon pounced upon them, snapping their rudder shaft and leaving the ship without steering. With the Honjunmaru rocking wildly and in peril of capsizing, the crew used an axe to chop off the mast to stabilize the freighter. The strategy worked and the ship miraculously rode out the storm.

Although thankful to be alive, the crew soon realized that they had an even grimmer challenge, surviving on a ship without a mast or rudder. Even worse, their cargo included only a sizable payload of rice, Japanese Sake, one barrel of drinking water, and fine Japanese porcelain for the Shogun in Edo.

Days turned into weeks, and then months, as the crew drifted helplessly in the Pacific currents, heading eastward away from Japan. The crew did what they could to stay alive. They made drinking water by boiling seawater with fires fueled by wood pirated from their vessel and cooked rice with the Sake. But the lack of proper nourishment began to take its toll. Some crew became delirious, others depressed. All contemplated how their fate would be determined. Exposure? Starvation? Madness? Then, one-by-one, the sailors began to die.

Overwhelmed by the stentch of rotting flesh, the dwindling crew was forced to throw the lifeless bodies of their comrades overboard. As he lowered his older brother’s body into the sea, 14-year-old Otokichi wondered what he had done to deserve such a forbidding fate.

Then, in December of 1833, after 13 epic months adrift in the Pacific Ocean, the now 3-member crew spotted land. As they drew close to shore, however, their excitement was tempered by a strange feeling that someone was watching them. Soon they realized the source of their concerns, because standing on the shores of Cape Alava in the Oregon Territory (present-day Ozette, south of the Olympic Peninsula, were dozens of the fierce-looking coastal Makah Native Americans. Wearing whalebone jewelry and wrapped in the soft yellow-cedar tree bark for warmth, the Makah gave a menacing appearance.

Having miraculously survived their arduous voyage, the three remaining sailors found little joy as they finally set foot on land. Fearful for their lives, they surrendered to the Makah and begged for mercy. Their captors plundered the ship and enslaved the teenage boys: Kyukichi and Otokichi and the slightly older Iwakichi.

News of the Makah taking three “Chinese” as slaves was soon communicated by an Indian scout to “Big Chief” - Dr. John McLoughlin - head of the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) in Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. A rescue party of 20 led by a “Voyager” was dispatched, but they could not pass the snowcapped peaks of the coastal mountains and the muddy flatlands and had to return to Fort Vancouver.

Summer arrived in the Northwest and in June of 1834, a ship preparing to sail north from Fort Vancouver was order by Dr. McLoughlin to stop at Cape Alava and learn more about the three captives. If possible, the captain was to buy the men’s freedom. Captain McNeill invited the Makah chief aboard the brig Llama to trade, but once aboard, immediately took the chief captive in exchange for the three sailors. As it turned out, only two of the “Chinamen” were located and their freedom was secured, but the third, Otokichi, had gone into the forest with a Makah maiden to collect berries. He was nowhere to be found, so the ship left without him!

On the ship’s return voyage south, however, Otokichi’s freedom was purchased with several colorful cotton blankets that the Makah cherished. The freed sailors were then taken to Fort Vancouver in the summer of 1834.

Placed under the protection of the Hudson Bay Co., the Japanese at first found it difficult to acclimate to their strange new world, but still young, they quickly adjusted. The land was plentiful, the people were friendly and the summer weather was mild, unlike the hot, humid Japanese summers to which they were accustomed. With no other obligations, they learned English under the tutorship of Reverend Sheperd, a missionary sent by the American Board to the Oregon Territory.

Even though great friendliness was shown to them by Dr. McLoughlin and the employees of HBC, the boys wondered if they ever would see their families in Japan again and longed to return home. Then in November of 1834, the brig Eagle arrived at Fort George in Astoria and the three boys were put aboard.


The Voyage Home

Commanded by Captain Downs of the Hudson Bay Company, the brig Eagle was headed for England, from where the boys were to make their circuitous way back to Japan via another ship.

After making port calls in Hawaii, St. Helena and Downs, the Eagle finally reached London in June 1835. However, Lord Palmerston, the foreign ministry secretary (and future prime minister) would not allow the three Japanese to disembark for an entire week. The now well-traveled Japanese boys could only view the busy city streets from their ship.

At issue was a disagreement with the HBC over whether the government had a responsibility for the boys’ welfare. The British government wanted to send the Japanese home directly. Dr. McLoughlin, however, saw a bigger opportunity. He intended to send the three home, but he also considered the possibility of using the boys to open up trade again with their native Japan, which had been sealed tightly from the outside world under self-imposed isolation for more than two hundred years. Dr. McLoughlin believed that when the three Japanese were taken home, it was imperative that the ship bears the British flag and that diplomatic channels be made available for approaching the local authorities.

In the end, the Crown conceded the importance of Japan to expanding Pacific trade, both as a market for English goods and a source of coal to power English steamships. Hence, the day before their departure, Lord Palmerston saw it in the Crown’s best interests to permit them one day on shore to see the city sites, in hopes that they might convey the prominence of western society to their countrymen.

Never before had any Japanese walked through the cobblestone streets of London, nor laid eyes on the impressive architectural wonders of the world’s most cosmopolitan and advanced society of its day. For the three sailors from Japan’s countryside, their tour of Windsor Castle and London Bridge was an awe-inspiring experience.

Finally, a half-year later, the trio arrived back in the Far East aboard the HBC ship General Palmer, which dropped anchor off of Macao in December 1835. Back then there were no Casinos like there are today, only the muddy bay flats known as “Macao Road.” Although they were now closer to home than they had ever been in years, they gradually realized that returning to Japan would not come soon.

Given their newfound appreciation of the importance of the three Japanese boys, their welfare was entrusted upon Charles Elliott, British Consul & Trade Commissioner, stationed in Macao. Consul Elliott assigned the task of learning Japanese to his assistant, an interpreter and German missionary. The Reverend Dr. Karl Friedrich August Gutzlaff, who already had fluency in several languages, relished the opportunity to learn Japanese.

For nearly one year, the three boys spent day after day teaching Dr. Gutzlaff their native language. Dr. Gutzlaff polished his Japanese skills while completing the Otokichi, the only semi-literate of the three, edited the draft work phonetically in simple katakana letters. After these daily sessions, Dr. Gutzlaff’s wife would teach English to the intellectually curious Otokichi at the Macao Free School.



The Final Leg

In June of 1836, Charles King, an American businessman and major shareholder in the successful Olyphant & Co. of New York City, arrived in Macao to manage several ships for trading in Chinese silk and tea. King heard of Dr. Gutzlaff’s undertaking and introduced the Reverend to four more shipwrecked Japanese sailors, whom he had rescued several months earlier. King had set his heart on using their language abilities to expand his growing business empire by opening up trade with Japan.

Upon meeting Kyukichi, Iwakichi and Otokichi, the four rescued Japanese couldn’t believe what they were seeing: three Japanese adorned in exquisite western clothing, speaking English. Likewise, these were the first fellow countrymen that the trio had seen in nearly three years. Although having never met before, the seven Japanese castaways embraced like long-lost friends.

Meanwhile, the British government had fallen on hard times, making it increasingly difficult to justify supporting the trio in Macao. After considerable discussion, the British decided they could no longer pay for their upkeep.

On July 4, 1836, Charles King agreed to return the castaways to Japan and left with them aboard the Morrison under the command of a Captain Ingersol . Among the crew were two missionaries, Reverend Samuel Wells Williams (later to become Otokichi’s Godfather) and a medical doctor named Parker. Besides Kyukichi, Iwakichi, Otokichi, the passenger list also included the four additional recently shipwrecked Japanese.

A few days later, the ship arrived in Napacan (present-day Naha, Okinawa), the capital of the Ryuukyuu Kingdom. The Morrison was permitted to dock long only enough to gather supplies, but while in port, Dr. Parker noticed several locals were infected with small pox. With Otokichi interpreting, the doctor used his medical supplies to treat several islanders, thus winning their favor.

Soon thereafter, Dr. Gutzlaff also arrived in Napacan from the uninhabited Peal Islands (south of Edo and now know as the “Ogasawara” islands), where the U.K. had a stockpile of provisions and merchandise. Dr. Gutzlaff, joined them as an official observer on behalf of the British government to monitor the American’s progress on opening a port in Japan.

By the end of July, the Morrison set sail for Edo (present-day Tokyo). When the first sighting of Japan was made, Iwakichi - a seasoned helmsman - immediately recognized the mouth of Edo Bay, which he had through countless times. In the distance, he saw the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Fuji as the scent of the Kuroshio waters grew stronger, something only a veteran sailor would recognize.

To their surprise, however, they were greeted by cannon fire in still what is known by historians as “The Morrison Incident” nearly 16 years before Commodore Perry would storm his way here. “How could it be?” Five years of involuntary exile, only wishing to return home and their own country was firing cannons at them!

But the reaction of the garrison on land should not have come as a surprise: Japan had been closed to outsiders for nearly 200 years and the Shogunate government wasn’t about to make an exception for the Morrison. It would be nearly 16 more years before Commodore Perry would sail his gunships "The Black Ships" into Edo Bay and force Japan to open a window to the outside world. The cannonballs continued to bombard the Morrison until one finally hit her hull. They retreated to ponder their options, including sending the Japanese to shore in a small boat, or trying to land at night. Eventually, it was decided that their best hope would be to try to find a friendlier port before nothing was left of their ship. Attempting to land near Edo would risk further damage to their ship, so they headed south along the Coast of Honshu Island, just out of reach of cannon fire.

Soon thereafter, Iwakichi began yelling at the top of his lungs, “Tobaura! Tobaura!” Then he spotted the small port from where they had originally embarked on their epic adventure in 1832. He begged to be given a dinghy, but the ship was too far out to reach shore by paddle. Captain Ingersol decided not to risk sending their already damaged ship any closer to land, so they continued sailing south, much to the disappointment of Otokichi and friends.

It was a terribly bitter moment for the trio, having waited so long to return home, only to sail by and leave Tobaura in their wake.


Bright Lights of Manhattan & The Opium War

In disbelief, Otokichi turned to the missionary Reverend Williams and denounced his home country that turned its back on him. Deep inside, he and the others knew that they could never return.

Thus, Otokichi entered a new chapter in his life and became a sailor on The Morrison and working for Olyphant & Co. With no home to return to and a burning desire to see other magnificent places that he had heard of, he sailed with The Morrison to New York City and took up residence briefly at a boarding house for sailors in the East River district of Manhattan in 1838.

While sailing later that year, Otokichi found his old guardian Reverend Williams working at Mission Press in Macao. It was here that Otokichi was christened and given the name “John” from his work with Mr. Gutzlaff to translate the “Bible of John.” His middle name “Matthew” was his given Christian name. However, his last name “Ottosan” has a more curious origin.

When Otokichi first arrived in the Oregon Territory, it was noted that his friends called him “Oto,” but to give him proper respect in accordance with Japanese tradition, they added “san” after his name. Thus, when said together, it sounded like the common Swedish name “Ottoson” or son of Otto. Thus, his christening name became “John Matthew Ottoson,” as he would be called for the remainder of his life.

The Opium Wars during 1839-42 between China and Britain brought Otokichi into the forefront of the action in mainland China where he served as an interpreter in negotiations since he had also learned spoken Chinese while living in Macao.

Settling Down

Ottokichi was relieved of his war duties in 1842 and returned to Macao to work for the Dent Company and to continue his English studies.

It was in Macao that Otokichi met his first wife, a Scottish woman who was orphaned as a young girl and worked for Williams at the Mission Press. We know very little of what happened to his wife, whether they divorced or she died; however, Otokichi remarried to a woman of British and Indian heritage relatively soon thereafter in Shanghai at Dent & Beale Company, where she worked.

Otokichi was then transferred from Canton to their new operations in Shanghai, where they would have two girls and one boy. One daughter “Emily Louisa Ottoson” died in her infancy at four years of age. Little is known of his other daughter. His son was named “John William Ottoson.”



Forcing Japan’s Ports Open

The maverick Commodore Matthew C. Perry became commander of the United States naval fleets in the China seas and was considered an expansionist in his day. In 1852, he persuaded President Fillmore that unless America moves first, the British, who had already taken control of Hong Kong and Singapore, would soon control all trade in the area. Perry recommended that the United States take "active measures to secure ports of refuge" in Japan. President Fillmore agreed with Perry. In 1853, he ordered the Commodore to open negotiations with the Shogunate of Japan.

Under President Fillmore’s orders, Commodore Perry set sail from Virginia with his famed four “Black Ship” Squadron in 1853 with the intent of forcing the Japanese ports to open. Perry docked briefly in Singapore, Macao, and Shanghai, where Otokichi was on assignment as an interpreter for Her Majesty’s Royal British Navy.

Many years earlier, Commodore Perry had read in the journals of Commander Wilkes of the U.S. Flagship “Vincenne” of his encounter with three shipwrecked Japanese that had been enslaved in the Oregon Territory and that had brought porcelain of the finest quality with them representing the first purchase of Japanese goods by America. Perry, himself, wrote of his intrigue with the porcelain and the three who inspired him to open trade with Japan. Those first Japanese in America that he was referring to were - Iwakichi, Kyukichi and Otokichi.

Upon docking in Shanghai, Commodore Perry heard that one of these three, Otokichi, was working for Dent & Beale Company. He sent his Lieutenant to negotiate and try to bring Otokichi on their mission. Otokichi, already disappointed with the country that had shunned him, declined. None of the seven Japanese castaways, neither the three from the Honjunmaru nor the 4 from Kyuushu, ever wanted to return to Japan, out of fear of persecution. Instead, Otokichi’s student, friend and Godfather, the Reverend Williams who had learned Japanese from Otokichi accompanied the Black Ships to Edo.

While Perry was in Edo Bay, Otokichi accompanied Admiral Stirling's fleet of the British Royal Navy throughout the seas of Asia, in search of Russian ships, since England joined the Crimean War (1854-1856) between the Russians and the Turks. England joined the war on the side of the Turks because Russia was seeking to control the Dardanelles and thus threatening England's Mediterranean sea routes.

While in search of Russian ships, Admiral Stirling’s fleet came to Nagasaki harbor in 1854 to see if any Russian war ships might be hiding there. Although, Otokichi vowed never to return to Japan, he had no choice and served as the interpreter. During their short visit, Otokichi demonstrated quick thinking and single-handedly negotiated the historic signing of the Peace and Amity Treaty to open trade at the Nagasaki port between Japan, France and Britain. This was Otokichi’s first opportunity to stay in his native land, as he was invited by the Japanese to stay, but still he could not forgive the Japanese government for turning its back on him nineteen years before. The pain he felt had festered during this time and according to observers he vehemently passed on this opportunity to stay.

After opening the port at Nagasaki, John Matthew Ottoson, was offered British citizenship, which he accepted and was rewarded handsomely for his instrumental role in opening the port in Nagasaki. This too paid well and he rented a magnificent bungalow on what is now “Orchard Road.”

With a complication resulting from hypertension, Otokichi laid bedridden in a coma at “Siglap 5 miles, Arthur’s Seat” a sanitarium located on a Singaporean coconut plantation. In January of 1867, Otokichi died, ending a life of adventure without ever returning home.


This compilation of Otokichi is recorded by Tei A. Gordon, based on over 86 years combined research and in accordance with the story as told by Mr. Yuzo Igarashi.

Mr. Igarashi’s book (Japanese version) is being published by Shinchosha.



Otokichi highlights & accomplishments at a glance

・ First Japanese in America (Preceded John Manjiro by 10 yrs and Joseph Heco by 30 yrs)
・ First Japanese in Canada
・ Payload of Setoyaki represented first trade between U.S. and Japan
・ Inspiration for Commodore Perry (opened trade with Japan)
・ Probable inspiration for Ranald MacDonald (first American in Japan), from Astoria Oregon 1840s
・ First Japanese to gain British Citizenship
・ First trilingual in Japanese, English and Chinese
・ First Japanese in Royal British Navy
・ First Japanese Christian (Protestant Episcopalian)
・ Translated Bible of John into Japanese
・ Opened Nagasaki Port on behalf of the British Crown in 1854

It is the hopes of the authors that the individuality and sense of adventure shown by Otokichi - in the face of incredible challenges - will inspire a generation of Japanese to take their destiny into their own hands.