Otokichi - Japans first great wanderer

Otokichi - Japans first great wanderer

Added In: Articles › History

Jim Goater

Around 1600 (when Will Adams, the first Englishman to visit Japan, set foot in the country), Japan was very much a maritime nation. Japanese, both as industrious traders and fearsome pirates, regularly plied the South China Sea. Their trading posts and settlements (Nihon-machi) were located as far south as the Chao Phraya river (present day Thailand), the Philippines and Cambodia, while samurai mercenaries were at work in places as distant as Java. Additional reminders of Japan’s maritime power are Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s two vast armadas sent across the Sea of Japan to invade the Korean peninsula. First in 1592 and then again in 1596, armies of up to 130,000 were transported by sea, a massive maritime logistical exercise.

But in 1603, with the country more or less at peace after a century of unrest and instability, the Edo period began, and with it the gradual closing of the country by the Tokugawa Shoguns. The process was initially slow, with first the Jesuits being expelled (perhaps for being too successful in their proselytizing), followed by the outposts of various trading nations, although the ill-fated English trading conclave was voluntarily shut down due to persistent failures. By 1637 the country was effectively sealed off with both entry and exit forbidden upon pain of death – for both locals and foreigners alike. A single Dutch ship was allowed into the Nagasaki harbour once a year, and the occasional Chinese trading mission was allowed into northern ports, but to all intents and purposes Japan was a closed nation.

One of the many means used to enforce this measure was a total prohibition on the building of any vessel capable of sailing far from coastal waters. This meant that only small ships could be built, which of necessity had to stay close to land in order for the crews to navigate correctly. Ancient arts such as navigating by the stars were gradually lost, not to mention the technology for constructing large ocean-going vessels. But Japan, at peace at last, was a country capable of accumulating considerable wealth, and the nature of the landscape entailed extremely arduous journeys along narrow and dangerous thoroughfares. As late as the early 19th century, the overland journey between the Shogunate capital of Edo and the old Imperial capital of Kyoto was 53 days – as the famous woodblock print series by Hiroshige admirably attests. It was increasingly more practical to use coastal shipping to transport the huge quantities of rice and other commodities (not to mention pottery, stone and lumber) from places like Osaka and Mikawa (present-day east Aichi prefecture) to the magnificent city of Edo – which, by the mid-1700s housed up to a million people. And herein arose the paradox; how to safely transport all these goods and people across Japan’s frequently treacherous coastal waters in small, lightly constructed craft with crews who were unable to navigate effectively unless they were within sight of land! The number of ships and crew “lost at sea” was considerable. This article concerns one such lost mariner whose life story should be much better known.

The kind of sailing ships prevalent throughout the Edo period were fairly hopeless at coping with the invariable storms, maritime accidents, and other less foreseen circumstances encountered regularly during voyages off the Japanese archipelago, as they were originally developed for travel within the Inland Sea (Setonaikai), between Honshu and Shikoku. Erratic currents and unpredictable winds easily overturned these frail craft or blew them far out into the ocean. The accompanying impression (author’s rendition of a reproduction in the Japan Times, from 2004) gives some idea of what these trading vessels, known as sengokubune, looked like circa 1750-1850. About 15m in length and weighing around 150 tons, these single mast craft had a shallow draft, no keel, and a single large hand operated rudder. It was little wonder that these little ships and their crews of between 10 and 14 mariners were lost so frequently. To enable more cargo to be loaded, the ships did not even have fixed decks, and were thus easily swamped by even mild storms, while the lack of any kind of keel (to enable the ships to tie up alongside even the shallowest wharf) made the possibility of capsizing that much greater.

Naturally, the thriving castle town of Nagoya had its own port known as Miya, situated in the environs of Atsuta Shrine. In addition to cargo this was also a ferry point for travelers on the Tokaido between Edo and Kyoto. The Tokaido between Miya and Kuwana, in Mie Prefecture, was the only section of the route requiring a ferry, to avoid the marshy delta lands west of Nagoya. Amazingly, during the Edo period, the waters of Ise Bay washed right up to the main shrine gate (torii) as can be seen in two of Hiroshige’s three woodblock prints of Miya, station number 42 on the road.

The Chita Peninsular, stretching south from Nagoya, was a rich agricultural region with abundant fisheries, and also the location for the town of Tokoname, a pottery centre dating back centuries. Numerous fishing villages dotted the west coast of the peninsula, facing Ise Bay. To this day, the flourishing port of Toyohama further south remains a bustling harbour, famous for its annual “Red Fish festival”.

Onoura township
Between these two ports lie the towns of Utsumi and Onoura, both ideal holiday spots during the sticky heat of the Japanese summer. The smaller of the two, Onoura, is cut in half by the main coastal road and while the narrow strip between the beach and the highway has become a messy collection of cheap buildings and car parks, the other side of the road remains a compact settlement with a street plan which harks back to its Edo period origins. Surprisingly, considering its current beach resort appearance, Onoura was a notable port during Edo times, sending cargoes of rice and other commodities to the Shogunate capital. No trace of any port exists today, of course, as the vast concrete “beach” occupies the entire waterfront, but a stroll through the alleyways and lanes on the other side of the road still evokes a sense of history.

As a frequent visitor to this coast during the summer months, in search of sun, fun, subjects for my paintings and liquid refreshment (not necessarily in that order), I had bicycled through Onoura on countless occasions without knowing the remarkable story of one of its Edo period inhabitants. It was only after I noticed early this summer that smart wooden signs had been erected at both north and south entrances to the township, referring to Onoura as “Otokichis’ hometown” (Otokichi-no-Sato), that I felt the need to discover more.

Otokichi, Seaman
For a young boy growing up in a place like Onoura during the late Edo period, career choices were limited – fishing, rice-farming, and sailing were the main jobs on offer. Since such occupations were largely determined along family lines, Otokichi most likely knew from a young age that he was headed for the sea as a crew member of a sengokubune.

Born in the year 1817, Otokichi was already a seaman by his 14th birthday aboard the cargo ship Hojunmaru. It was this vessel that left Onoura towards the end of 1832, bound for Edo with a cargo of rice and local pottery. As the ship headed out into Ise Bay, none of the fourteen crew could possibly have had any idea of the saga about to envelope them.

The relatively sheltered waters of the bay soon gave way to the choppier conditions of the Enshu Sea, south of Atsumi Peninsula and on to present-day Shizuoka Prefecture. It was somewhere along this stretch of coast that the Hojunmaru was overtaken by a Pacific typhoon of great severity. All the disadvantages of the sengokubune soon became apparent as the ship began to take on water and list alarmingly. The rudder broke off, making steering impossible, and the frantic crew members decided to chop down the mast and stabilize the cargo in an effort to ride out the worst of the storm. The strategy was successful; after the storm had subsided the Hojunmaru was still afloat – though rudderless, without sail and at the mercy of the ocean currents. Having drifted far out of sight of land, the crew members knew their cause was hopeless, although their knowledge of water desalination as well as the abundant supplies of rice on board ensured that they could stay alive for a considerable period. As weeks turned into months, and no word came back to Onoura about the fate of the Hojunmaru, grieving friends and relatives decided to erect a memorial tomb in the main temple, Ryosanji, assuming that all were lost. But this was not the case, as we shall see from part two of this surprising tale, in the next Avenues issue.

To read Part 2 of the story click here.

To read Part 3 of the story click here.

Otokichi - Japans first great wanderer
16th Century Trading Vessel
Otokichi - Japans first great wanderer
Present day Onoura
Otokichi - Japans first great wanderer
Present day Onoura village
Otokichi - Japans first great wanderer
Onoura backyard