Off Beat: Japanese delegation in town to recognize castaways

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter



Fourteen Japanese sailors left port in October 1832; the ship’s three surviving crew members reached Fort Vancouver in July 1834.

It was a much quicker trip — and safer — for a Japanese delegation that arrived in Vancouver a few days ago. The modern travelers didn’t have to deal with a disastrous storm, scurvy, a shipwreck on the Washington Coast and several weeks of captivity.

The April 24 visitors were here to observe the 180th anniversary of that 1834 landing. It was the first time travelers from Japan are known to have arrived in Washington.

The 75-person delegation represented Mihama, the hometown of a 14-year-old sailor named Otokichi, as well as the surrounding area in Japan.

Their itinerary included stops at two sites linked to the sailors’ saga. One spot was the Makah Indian Reservation on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula; Makah hunters came across the castaways — Otokichi, Iwakichi and Kyukichi — after their storm-crippled cargo ship wrecked near what now is called Cape Flattery.

Word that the Makah were holding three foreign castaways captive reached the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Vancouver. John McLoughlin, who ran the regional operation, sent a ship to ransom the sailors and bring them to Fort Vancouver.

The Japanese delegation got to tour the current version of Fort Vancouver, now a National Park Service site, and see the monument to the three castaways. It’s at the fort’s Visitors Center, just southwest of the intersection of Evergreen Boulevard and East Reserve Street.

Clark College hosted a theatrical performance based on the life of Otokichi. Of the three castaways, he’s the one whose life was the most documented, said Jim Mockford, a local author and historian who was part of the observance.

The delegation from Japan was allowed to do something the castaways could never do, by the way: book a round-trip. Two centuries ago, Japan was an isolated nation; its citizens were not allowed to leave. Those who did leave — even accidently, like the sailors swept off course — were considered tainted by foreign influences and were not allowed to come back.

Otokichi, Iwakichi and Kyukichi never did return home.

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.