Mossback's Northwest: When Japanese castaways wash up on local shores

Flotsam from Asia reaches Washington's beaches all the time. But sometimes other stuff comes ashore, like people.

For centuries, there is evidence that Japanese vessels have washed up on the WA coast.

Historians say that there is evidence that Pacific currents have long linked the Pacific Northwest coast with Asia. Tools have been found in pre-contact Indigenous village sites that indicate metal-like forged iron arrived here long before European explorers and traders. It is thought that these things were scavenged from shipwrecks.

There is also a long-recorded history of people from Asia landing, alive, on our shores.

It has been estimated that between the years 500 and 1750, as many as 187 junks drifted from Japan to the Americas. It is also thought, through artifacts and DNA research, that as long as 5,000 years ago, there was Japanese contact in North, Central and South America.

A common occurrence in more recent contacts is thought to be that Japanese coastal fishing or trading vessels would become lost or disabled at sea and, after many long months, were swept across the Pacific to our shores by the Japan Current. As far back as the 18th century, there were reports of Japanese vessels of that kind coming ashore in various places from Alaska to California.

Sometimes, they brought their crews.

A dramatic example happened in January of 1834, when reports from the Washington coast filtered out of a ship that had wrecked with three survivors, a man and two teenage boys. They were the only survivors of a crew of 14. After losing its mast in a storm and more than a year adrift at sea, the 200-ton junk came ashore near Cape Flattery on the very tip of the Olympic Peninsula, where it was scavenged by Native peoples.

The ship’s survivors were taken in by the Makah Tribe and treated well. When the staff at the British Hudson’s Bay Company headquarters at Fort Vancouver heard about it, they sent a rescue party. After some time on the Columbia River, the three castaways were sent to London with some of their vessel’s relics featuring what were called “Chinese characters.”

If there was some confusion at first about the survivors’ ethnicity, it might have been because the outside world had little contact with Japan at that point. The country was closed to Western outsiders. During their travels, the shipwrecked crew learned English.

They were eventually dropped off with a German missionary in the colony of Macao near Hong Kong. In 1837 their names were recorded as Iwakitchi, age 33; Kiukitchi, age 20; and Otokitchi, age 19. That year, American missionaries attempted to get them back to Japan on an unarmed vessel, the Morrison. It sailed into Tokyo Bay —the first American-flagged ship to do so. They were driven off when the Japanese Imperial forces fired upon them.

They tried landing elsewhere but were forbidden to stay or weren’t allowed to return to their homeland, as they were tainted by outside influence. Again, the ship was driven off by gunfire.

The castaways acted as translators at Macao. Otokitchi later worked for the British in Shanghai and Singapore, married twice and returned to visit Japan disguised as a Chinese man, as part of a British delegation. He changed his name to John Matthew Ottoson, converted to Christianity and is said to have become prosperous for his role in negotiating trade treaties. He died in 1867. The ultimate fate of the other castaways is not known, but none were able to return to Japan to live.

The globetrotting castaways were luckier than many, despite their foiled efforts to go home.

A more recent example of a Japanese wreck would get massive publicity in 1927 with the discovery of a derelict Japanese fishing vessel, the Ryo Yei Maru, found floating off the Washington coast on Halloween. The ghost ship was towed to Port Townsend. After a mechanical failure, it had traveled 4,000 miles in a year, propelled by storm winds.

Aboard was a ghastly scene: The crew was dead, all but two reduced to skeletons, with evidence of cannibalism as the last of the living had sought to survive. The discovery of the remains of a woman aboard — not listed on the manifest — added to the horror. The so-called “cannibal” or “death” ship was towed to Seattle. The remains of its 12 crew members and an unlisted passenger were returned to Japan, and the vessel was burned on a Puget Sound beach.

A relic of the tragedy remained in Seattle, however, in the collection of the Museum of History and Industry. It is a picture of the Ryo Yei Maru—which translates as “good and prosperous ship.” It is framed by one of the schooner’s original portholes.

The currents of the Pacific Rim have generated ancient cultural contact for centuries. Next time, after a winter storm, as you scour the beach for treasures, you might find evidence of a seagoing phenomenon whose historical influence has perhaps been underestimated, even while it has sometimes stunned mariners, Indigenous peoples and beachcombers with what can turn up.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.

Stephen Hegg

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is formerly a senior video producer at Crosscut and KCTS 9. He specialized in arts and culture.