By Contributing writer Nicole O’Connell
On Saturday October 5th, the 17th Manjiro Festival was held in nearby Fairhaven. The Manjiro Festival celebrates the ties between the United States and Japan, centering on a friendship that began over 175 years ago between a Japanese boy named Manjiro and an American whaling captain named William Whitfield.
Manjiro was only 14 years old in 1841 when his fishing boat was shipwrecked off the coast of Japan in a storm, leaving him and his crewmates stranded on an uninhabited island. After months of waiting, Manjiro and the others were eventually rescued by the crew of the John Howland, of which Whitfield was captain. Even though the Japanese fishermen were reprieved from the deserted island, they could not return home because of Japan’s isolationist policies at the time.
After welcoming the shipwrecked fishermen, the John Howland spent a few more months sailing the Pacific until it reached Hawaii and docked there for a while. Manjiro’s crewmates decided to stay in Hawaii, but Manjiro went home with Whitfield to New Bedford and Fairhaven.
Manjiro and Whitfield arrived in Fairhaven in 1843. Here, Manjiro attended the Old Stone School and the Bartlett School, where he learned navigation. Manjiro and the Whitfields also attended the Unitarian Church which is now the Northeast Maritime Institute. A monument to Manjiro and Whitfield stands outside of the institute.
After living for a while in Fairhaven, going on more whaling voyages, and even participating in the California Gold Rush, Manjiro was eventually able to return to Japan in 1851. His adventures of the past ten years attracted suspicion by the Japanese government, and Manjiro was interrogated for some time, but in the end he was reunited with his family. Manjiro gained distinction in Japan, being appointed the rank of a samurai as well as playing a role in the opening up of Japan’s borders in 1853.
Because of his time in Fairhaven with the Whitfields, Manjiro is known as the first Japanese person to live in America. Both Fairhaven and Manjiro’s home village of Tosashimizu entered into a sister city agreement back in 1987, keeping the connection and friendship alive. These two locations take turns each year hosting the Manjiro Festival.
Fairhaven’s turn at celebrating Manjiro’s story was filled with informative, insightful, and exciting activities. In the Town Hall, musical performances were held. The taiko drumming shows shook the room, and thrilled the crowds, many returning later in the day for a repeat performance. Tea ceremonies were also held in the Town Hall.
Outside, vendors stretched along Center Street and Walnut Street. Though chillier than preceding days, the weather was pleasant, and many attendees filled the streets, browsing through the stalls, and trying yakisoba, sushi, or other cuisines offered. Martial arts presentations were held throughout the day, attracting the attention of many. Attendees were also encouraged to try their hand at origami.
The Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society is instrumental in the success of the festival. During the opening ceremony, Gerald P. Rooney, the President and CEO of the society, said, “If Captain Whitfield and Manjiro could look down on the gathering of so many citizens from both countries they would, indeed, be happy and proud that their chance meeting…resulted in such a close bond between our two communities.”
Also present at the festival was Robert Whitfield, a fifth generation descendant of Captain Whitfield, and visitors from Japan, including the vice mayor of Tosashimizu.
Setsuo Ohmori, the Consul General of Japan in Boston, said, “I hope, through participating in the Manjiro Festival, all of us will reaffirm the history of friendship between Japan and the United States and deepen mutual understanding.”
While most of the American visitors to this year’s festival will probably not be attending next year’s in Tosashimizu, the day will be remembered as a continuation and a strengthening of a bond forged so long ago.