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Manjiro Festival with Japanese Sister City Continues in Fairhaven, Massachusetts

Updated on October 15, 2015
Back of 'Happi Coats'
Back of 'Happi Coats'

The 15th Manjiro Festival Held in Early October

Nakahama Manjiro was just fishing for food one day and then years later he is being honored in sister cities in two very different counties. Every other year the town of Fairhaven hosts the Manjiro Festival. This year marks the 15th time the festival was held the first weekend in October. The festival celebrates the life accomplishments of Nakahama Manjiro. He was the first Japanese person to step on United States soil. He was also the first Japanese to be educated in America.

The Japanese Consulate of Boston proposed a formal sister city relationship between Tosashimuzo, Japan and New Bedford/Fairhaven, Massachusetts. On October 4, 1987, Japan’s Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko visited to town of Fairhaven and signed the sister city agreement. They are now the Emperor and Empress of Japan.

The exchange program included many students studying in Japan and in The United States. This year around fifty people from Japan attended the festival in Fairhaven. “Happi coats,” (pictured) are white, red and blue smocks that were seen on many helpful guests. That back of the top has an image of the trademark symbol of John Manjiro. Many other attendees crowed the Millicent Library, the Unitarian Church and the Town Hall to take in all the activities.

No fresh turtle meat
No fresh turtle meat

No Turtles, but Five Fishermen

How did we get to this point of celebration? His story starts in 1841 when he was just 14 years old. He was a poor, fatherless boy who helps support his family by fishing. He left the fishing village of Tosahimizu, Japan for what he thought was just another day on the water. A storm came up so quickly he and his friends didn’t have time to make it home. The winds swept them out to sea, where they drifted for days and days. They landed on an uninhabited volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean.

It was six months before the whale ship, John Howland, from Massachusetts would go ashore on the island to look for turtles. Turtles were a source of fresh meat during long voyages. A turtle could be stored below on ships. They could live up to a year without food or water. The crew of the John Howland was surprised to find five starved Japanese fishermen, but no turtles.

The language difference was a huge problem. The men were good fisherman and helped the whale men as they sailed to Hawaii. Nakahama’s name was too difficult to pronounce so he was called, “John Mung.” John Mung was a smart young man. He would repeat whatever anyone said and soon he was speaking English. He was a quick leaner, willing to try and learn all about whaling.

Learning on whaleships
Learning on whaleships

New Bedford/ Fairhaven a Busy Seaport

The John Howland stopped in Hawaii to get water, food and fresh fruits. The four older Japanese men wanted to stay on the island. They could not go back to Japan. The Japanese government would kill anyone who left the country and then tried to return home. Captain William Whitfield of the John Howland wanted to continue teaching John Mung. He invited him to return home with him.

The John Howland returned to the New Bedford/Fairhaven seaport in May, 1843. This was the biggest seaport in New England. John Mung was fascinated with all the activity. He moved to Fairhaven and lived with a neighbor of captain Whitfield. He decided to change his name to John Manjiro. He was tutored in English and soon able to keep up with students in American schoolhouse. He attended the Bartlett Academy, a maritime preparatory school and then completed a couple of high school subjects. He became the first Japanese to be educated in the United States.

Festival Booth
Festival Booth

Not a Good Welcome Home

While living in Fairhaven John accompanied the Whitfield family to many functions including church. The family originally attended the Congregational church but was told John would have to sit in the “Negro Pew.” Captain Whitfield said he was family. They left the church and went to the Unitarian church and welcomed as a family. To this day, the Unitarian church benefits from the first relationship.

John remained in the United States, sailing on many ships and learning American ways. In February 1851 he returned to Japan. Around his neck he wore a thin piece of cloth. The necktie was worn by Americans, but was not known to Japanese. John is credited with introducing the necktie to Japan.

John was put in prison and questioned for two and half years. The Japanese government suspected that John had been converted to Christianity. In October 1852, John saw his mother for the first time in many years. Three days later, the Japanese government needed his help and took him away. Relationships between the United States and Japan were changing and they needed someone who could speak both English and Japanese. He helped build a trust and firm bond between Japan and the United States.

Replaced Sword
Replaced Sword

Many 'First" for John Manjiro

In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States came to Japan to try to open trade agreements. The Japanese laws were over 200 years old. Many did not want to change them. John was asked to share his knowledge of Americans. He could hear what Americans were saying in English and pass it on to the superiors in Japanese. John helped to send a message that Americans were hoping to open friendly relations.

The Japanese government elevated John to a higher samurai rank and allowed him to take a family surname. This was not allowed to commoners. John was once a commoner. Many more awards were presented to John. In the town of Cape Ashizuri or Shikoku stands what is called the great statue of Manjiro Nakahama. A minor planet called,' 4841 Manjiro' is named after John. The list of his many ‘first’ include: The first Japanese to take a train, first to ride in a steamship, first Japanese Officer on an American Vessel and first Command on a trans-Pacific Voyage.

All of John’s past efforts made way for the commerce treaties and his first steps to becoming a goodwill ambassador. The ports of Japan were open for American ships because of John. On July 4, 1918, Viscount Kikujiro Ishii, the Japanese ambassador to Washington presented the town of Fairhaven with a samurai sword. The sword was a gift from Dr. Toichiro Nakahama, who was the eldest son of John Manjiro. The sword was to emphasis the friendly relations between Japan and the United States.

Unfortunately the original sword was stolen from the Millicent Library in 1977. This sword has never been recovered. Dr. Tadashi Kikuoka of Seton Hall gathered donations from several Japanese Companies and presented the Millicent Library and the Town of Fairhaven with another Samurai sword. This sword is located in the research room at the library along with other articles depicting the strong bond between the two cities.

'Quiet Room' at Festival
'Quiet Room' at Festival

From Whaling to Polictics

Captain William Whitfield retired from whaling and settled in Fairhaven. He became a selectman from 1871 to 1873. He was also a state representation in 1872 and 1873. His grave site in Riverside Cemetery is often visited by Japanese dignitaries who have included the Emperor of Japan. His grandson, Thomas Whitfield (1882-1944) holds the record from being the second longest serving selectman in Fairhaven history. The fifth and sixth generations of Whitfield’s are currently attending the festivals and are active in continuing the legacy.

The Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society, Inc. has a wealth of information including directions for the John Manjiro Trail. This trail includes eight sites, each with history of a friendship lasting many years.

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