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The Presentation of a Samurai Sword



Published by
The Millicent Library, Fairhaven, Mass.
First Edition 1918  Second Edition 1926


On the Fourth of July, nineteen hundred and eighteen, Viscount Ishii, Japanese Ambassador to the United States, presented to the town of Fairhaven, a Samurai sword, a precious memento of the fourteenth century, the gift of Dr. Toichiro Nakahama of Tokio in commemoration of the rescue of his father, Manjiro Nakahama, by Captain William H. Whitfield of Fairhaven.

Not only was the presentation of this sword an event of signal honor to Fairhaven, but of international significance as well, for the occasion served as a medium for the emphasis of friendly relations between the two countries, Japan and the United States.

To preserve in convenient printed form, a permanent record of the celebration incident to the presentation of the sword this pamphlet is issued. It is appropriate that The Millicent Library, the custodian of the sword, should undertake its publication.


In the log book of the whaling vessel “John Howland,” Captain William H. Whitfield, master, sailing from New Bedford for the Japan Sea in 1839, appear the following entries.

Sunday, June 27, 1841.
This day light wind from S. E. Isle in sight at 1 P.M. Sent in two boats to see if there was any turtle, found 5 poor distressed people on the isle, took them off, could not understand anything from them more than that they was hungry.  Made the latitude of the isle 30 deg. 31 m. N.

Monday, June 28.
This day light winds from S. E. the island in sight. To the Westward, stood to the S. W. at 1 P.M. landed and brought off what few clothes the five men left.

Such is the simple prosaic record which marks the first incident in a romantic story, destined to influence international relations between our country and Japan on at least two occasions.

The five men thus rescued were Japanese fishermen, who had been blown out to sea in a storm and had found refuge on the rocky “isle” where for nearly six months they had led a precarious existence subsisting on sea birds and turtle eggs.

At the end of the whaling season in October, 1841, Captain Whitfield landed four of the Japanese at Honolulu, but one, a boy of fourteen or fifteen, who had acted as a sort of cabin boy to the captain, had become so much attached to Captain Whitfield that he begged to be allowed to complete the voyage and come to America.  The youth had picked up the English language and spoke with considerable facility and his good nature and willingness to work and to learn had endeared him to the Captain and his crew.  His Japanese name was, however, much too formidable for the sailors and Manjiro Nakahama was Anglicized to plain John Mung.

On his arrival home in Fairhaven, Captain Whitfield, who was a widower at the time, made arrangements for the Japanese boy to stay with his relatives and attend school.  Later when Captain Whitfield married a second time and established a home on Sconticut Neck, Nakahama became a member of his household.  It is significant that he was never regarded as a servant but rather as a foster son to Captain Whitfield who encouraged him to attend the private schools of the town and treated him as one of his own family.   It was the custom for Fairhaven boys of that time to learn a trade, usually some trade connected with the whaling industry and in addition to his school work, Nakahama mastered the trade of cooper.  During his residence in Fairhaven, the characteristics which impressed themselves on the memories of such of his schoolmates as are now living were his industry and the ease with which he mastered his studies, especially mathematics, his peculiar interest in the study of navigation, and an all consuming desire to return to Japan to see his mother once more.  At that time the ports of Japan were closed and the law of the land decreed a penalty of death to natives who left the islands and returned.

In 1847 he made a voyage to the Pacific as cooper on the New Bedford bark “Franklin.”  In 1849, attracted by the discovery of gold in California, he tried his fortune at the mines with moderate success.  During these years his mind was constantly set on returning to Japan, and after four months in the gold fields he went to Honolulu where he found three of his former companions of the shipwreck, one having died.  They were as anxious to return as he and with the friendly assistance of the American consul, Mr. Allen, and the chaplain of the Seamen’s Bethel at Honolulu, the Rev. Samuel C. Damon, the party were outfitted with a whale boat and provisions and a merchant ship sailing for China agreed to put them off near the Loo Choo [Ryuku] islands off Japan.  The plan was carried out and for ten years the Whitfield family had no word of the Japanese boy.  Then in 1860 came a letter describing his fortunes in picturesque language, which is reproduced here.

Sandwich Island, May 2, 1860.

Captain William H. Whitfield.

My Honored friend—I am very happy to say that i had an opportunity to say to you a few lines.  I am still living and hope you were the same blessing.  i wish to meet you in this world once more.  How happy we would be. Give my best respect to Mrs. and Miss Amelia Whitfield, i long to see them.  Capt. you must not send your boys to the whaling business; you must send them to Japan. I will take care of him or them if you will.  Let me know before send and I will make the arrangement for it.

Now I will let you know how am i arrived to my Native Country.  You know that i have been to the Gold Mine; here stayed 4 month, average eight Dolls per day, beside expenses, from here i made my mind to get back and to see Dear Mother and also Shiped in one of the American Merchant men.  In this vessel i arrived to Sand which Island.  I found our friend Mr. Damon and through his kindness bought a whale boat and put her into a Merchantman.  This vessel was going to Shanghai in China.

It was January very cold that part of country; Time i went on shore south off Great Loo Choo it was gail with snow.  The Capt. of vessel he wish me to stay with him and to go to China, but i refused it, because i wanted to see Mother.  The boat is ready for me to get in, myself, Dennovo & Goyesman jump in to the boat, parted with ship at 4 P.M.  After ten hours hard pull we arrived lee of Island and anchored untill morning.  I went on shore amongst the Loo Choose, but i cannot understand their language, i have forgot all Japanese words.  I stay here six months, under care of King of Loo Choo, waiting for Japanese junk to come.

In the month of July get on board junk and went into the Harbour of Nagashirki Island, off Kie-u-see-u, waiting to get permition for 30 month before we get to our residence.  After all the things is properly regulated we were send to our residence.  It was great joy to Mother and all the relation.  I have stay with my Mother only 3 day and night the Emperor called me to Jedo.  Now i became one emperian officer.  At this time i am attached this vessel.

This war steamer were send by Emperor of Japan to the Compliment of the President of America.  We went to San Francisco, California, and now homeward bound, at the Sandwhich to touch Island to secure some coal and provition.I wish to send the letter from San Francisco but so many Japanese eyes i can’t.   i wrote this between passage from San Francisco to Island.  Excuse me many mistakes.   i can write better after our arrived Japan Jedo.

I wish for you to come to Japan, i will now lead my Dear Friend to my house, now the port opened to all the nations.  I found our friend Samuel C. Damon.  We was so happy each other I cannot write it all.  When get home, I will write better acct.  I will send to you sut of my clothe.  It is not new, but only for remember me.

I remain your friend,
John Mungero (May 25, 1860.)

Between the lines of his letter and from the testimony of his friend, Mr. Damon, who had a long talk with him at the time of this visit to Honolulu, it is apparent that the boy John Mung had become a man of importance his native country.

During the months of his detention at Nagasaki, Nakahama, as a Japanese who had been to America, naturally attracted a great deal of attention.  He was attended by eager crowds anxious to hear of his adventures, and he lost no opportunity to recount the virtues and the kindness of the Americans.  He was finally brought before the great Shogun at Tokio where he found favor with the emperor and was commissioned to teach English and navigation in the naval schools of Japan, and also translated Bowditch’s  “Navigator” into Japanese. The following paragraph from the account of Nakahama prepared by the Japanese Embassy testifies to the part he played when the famous Perry treaty between Japan and the United States was negotiated.

“On that great historic event when the Perry Mission from the United States landed at Uraga in 1853, Manjiro served as interpreter.  No more suitable person could have been found in all Japan.  Manjiro knew the American spirit and desires.  Any blunder on his part might have resulted in an international disaster.  As it was, the Perry mission was a great success.  In spite of the powerful conservatism of Japan’s ruling classes at that time, the country was opened to world-wide commerce.  The kindness shown by Captain Whitfield, by the good people of Fairhaven and New Bedford toward a lone young Japanese boy was truly fruitful.”

As the spirit of western progress gradually permeated Japan, Manjiro Nakahama naturally became a leader in its development, and his ability and experience made him a man whose advice was constantly sought.  He became connected with an institute for the study of modern steamship construction and later engaged in the promotion of the whaling industry in Japan.  He continued to teach English and navigation and was an officer on the first Japanese steamer to cross the Pacific to California.  It was during this voyage that he had his first opportunity to communicate with Captain Whitfield.

In 1870 he was one of a commission sent to Europe by the Japanese government to study military science during the Franco-Prussian war.  At this time Nakahama came to this country and was formally received at Washington.  He made use of the opportunity offered to revisit Fairhaven and spent one night with Captain Whitfield.

In his later days Nakahama was appointed a professor in the University of Tokio.  He married in Japan and had several children, the eldest of how is Dr. Toichiro Nakahama, a prominent physician of Tokio and a distinguished personage in the empire. He is the donor of the sword which commemorates the rescue of his father and the kindness shown him during his residence in Fairhaven.  Manjiro Nakahama died in 1898 at the age of seventy-one.

There is deep significance in the thought that the thread of sentiment connecting Manjiro Nakahama and Fairhaven has never been broken and that to the second generation, it remains strong and steadfast.  In the phrase of one of the speakers of the day, “We are here because a brave American was kind and a loyal Japanese remembered.