The Samurai, the Descendants and San Francisco Bay

In October [2005] I had the pleasure of meeting some of the descendants of more than ninety Japanese men who sailed to San Francisco in 1860 aboard the Tokugawa warship Kanrin Maru, on the first overseas voyage in the history of the Tokugawa Bakufu. All of the officers of the Kanrin were samurai in the service of the shogun, including the commander, Kimura Yoshitaké, who bore the illustrious title Settsu-no-Kami (Protector of the Province of Settsu), and the captain, Katsu Rintaro, better known as Katsu Kaishu, founder of the Japanese navy. Most of the sailors (who were not samurai) were natives of small islands off the coast of Shikoku (the smallest of the four main Japanese islands), whose ancestors had been mariners for generations. Also aboard the Kanrin were eleven sailors of the U.S. Navy, including Lieutenant John M. Brooke. Brooke was the captain of the U.S. Navy schooner Fennimore Cooper, which had been destroyed in a storm off the coast of Kanagawa in the summer of 1859. Brooke and his crew required return passage to the United States – a most fortunate occurrence for Captain Katsu and company. The Japanese officers and crew lacked the experience in the open sea required for a safe crossing in the extremely stormy conditions encountered on the voyage. According to Brooke’s journal, without the aid of the Americans, the Kanrin probably would have been lost at sea. Akamatsu Daizaburo, navigating midshipman, gave the following account: “When we heard that…Brooke… would accompany us on the Kanrin Maru, the Japanese Navy officers did not agree. Since we Japanese were confident that we could make the voyage on our own, we wouldn’t refuse them as passengers on board, but we did not want them to supervise us. They therefore came aboard as passengers. However, once at sea, the Japanese sailors weakened in the face of the violent wind and rain, and the tremendous waves. Eventually they began saying that… they wanted to return to Japan. It seemed like there would be an uproar such as Columbus had experienced when he discovered America. But the American sailors on board were of great help at that time.”

Many of the descendants of the men of the Kanrin Maru belong to the Society of Kanrin Maru Crew Descendants. Twenty-four of them visited the United States this year to pay their respects to John Brooke’s grandson, George M. Brooke, Jr., professor emeritus of history at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, and to retrace their ancestors’ footsteps in the San Francisco Bay Area. Among the Japanese descendants were great-granddaughters and great-great-granddaughters of Kimura, and a great-granddaughter of Katsu. At San Francisco they visited the Japanese cemetery at Colma, just south of the city, carrying incense to pray at the graves of three sailors of the Kanrin who died of illness here. They toured the site of the former U.S. Navy Shipyard at Mare Island in the city of Vallejo, about 30 miles north of San Francisco, where the Kanrin was caulked, painted and repaired gratis the U.S. government. The commanding officer at Mare Island, R. B. Cunningham, refused to accept payment from the Japanese. After his return to Japan, Kimura sent a letter to Commander Cunningham, expressing his government’s appreciation for the repair. (A copy of the letter is in a museum in Yokohama, but the whereabouts of the original is unknown. The descendants wanted very much to observe the original. Earlier this year I unsuccessfully attempted to the locate it at the National Archives in San Bruno.)

The descendants spent their final evening in San Francisco on a cruise of the Bay. Their chartered vessel followed the route of the Kanrin Maru upon her arrival to San Francisco – from the Pacific Ocean through the Golden Gate, and on to an industrial pier at the Embarcadero, which in 1860 was the location of the Vallejo Street Wharf, near which the Japanese warship dropped anchor.

Some of the descendants are in their seventies or eighties, certainly not old enough to have met their ancestors. Some, however, grew up hearing stories about them, including Mrs. Sumiko Gomi, Katsu Kaishu’s great-granddaughter. Mrs. Gomi is a refined lady of the older generation, who came of age before the war. I was struck by her physical resemblance to Kaishu. And I admired her inner strength, which I thought she also must have inherited from her illustrious great-grandfather, as I stood with her on the deck, looking out at the bay, a cold wind blowing in from the Pacific, the vessel shifting this way and that, and Mrs. Gomi parrying my several suggestions that we retreat to the safe warmth below deck. She seemed to be captured by the moment, and the thought of her mother’s grandfather standing on the deck of his warship near this very spot, almost a century and a half ago. We remained on deck for an hour or two, during which time Mrs. Gomi recalled the following anecdote involving Katsu Kaishu shortly after his ship entered the Bay:

The Kanrin Maru reached San Francisco on March 17, after a thirty-seven-day passage. Before the Japanese dropped anchor, they were saluted with cannon fire from land. One of the officers, Sasakura Kiritaro, was eager to return the salute. Capt. Katsu at first objected, claiming that the tiny ship might not be able to withstand the shock. But certainly Kaishu had an alternative motive in objecting. He knew his ship inside and out, having trained extensively aboard the Kanrin at the Bakufu’s Naval Academy in Nagasaki. It seems far more likely that his true intent was to instill an element of circumspection in his overly zealous officer. “Rather than attempting to return the salute and failing,” Kaishu said, “it would be better to let the matter alone.” But Sasakura was determined. “I can do it,” he told the captain. “I’ll show you.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Kaishu retorted. “There’s no way you can do it. But if you try and succeed, you can have my head.” Permission granted, Sasakura immediately ordered some of the sailors to clean the guns and prepare the gunpowder. He returned the salute superbly, as Kaishu probably expected, using an hourglass to time the interval between each shot. Then Sasakura got his feathers all fluffed up and strutted right up to his captain. “Your head belongs to me,” he announced. “But I think you’d better keep it where it is for a while. I’m sure you’ll be needing it during the rest of our voyage.” According to the famous educator Fukuzawa Yukichi, who sailed on the Kanrin as an attendant to Kimura, Sasakura’s remark drew laughter from the entire company. For my part, I was moved by the hint of emotion in Mrs. Gomi’s voice as she recalled the story about her great-grandfather – and it is a moment I shall never forget.


Copyright©2006 by Romulus Hillsborough
All rights reserved.
This article was originally published in Nichibei Times, New Year 2006 issue.