Japanese theater troupe presents Tale of Otokichi in Bellevue on October 1, 1997.

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 7/08/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9075

On October 1, 1997, a theater troupe from Nagoya, Japan, and members of the Makah Nation of Neah Bay present The Tale of Otokichi, a musical based loosely on the life of one of three young Japanese sailors who were shipwrecked on the Olympic Peninsula in 1834. The sailors, the first Japanese known to have reached what is now Washington state, drifted across the Pacific Ocean for more than 14 months before their crippled ship ran aground near Cape Flattery. They were found by a group of Makah seal hunters. The two-hour musical is performed at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue as part of a week-long celebration of the connections between Japan and the Pacific Coast.

Multi-Cultural Drama

Otokichi was the youngest of the three sailors and the only one whose life can be traced from birth to death. He was 14 when he signed on as an apprentice on the Hojunmaru, a single-masted cargo ship based in Onoura (now a part of Mihama-cho), on the southeast coast of Japan. The crew of 14 also included Iwakichi, 28, and Kyukichi, 15. All were from the village of Onoura. Their ship left its home port in October 1832 with a cargo of rice and porcelain, bound for Edo (Tokyo). Sometime in early November, it was hit by a storm, disabled, and caught up in the powerful ocean currents that sweep from Japan to North America. When it finally washed ashore in January 1834, only the "three kichis" (so-called because of their names) were still alive.

The first people they encountered were Makah Indians, out hunting for seal along the coast. Following practices that were customary among coastal tribes at the time, the Makah took the strangers as slaves. For the producers of The Tale of Otokichi, this presented a delicate problem. The performance was part of a goodwill mission to promote cultural exchanges and tourism development. It would hardly do to depict the historical realities of the initial contact between the Japanese and the Makah. Instead, the show opened with a scene depicting the three starving sailors being saved by the Indians.

The Indians were portrayed by seven young members of the Makah tribe, who appeared on stage in traditional costumes and spoke their native language while rescuing the hapless seamen. "The fact that modern tribal members of the Makah Nation participated in the Bellevue production of the Tale of Otokichi was testimony to the adroit diplomacy of [Mihama] Mayor Koichi Saito and local coordinator Ken Nakano, a Japanese American active in the Friends of MacDonald Society," commented historian Frederik L. Schodt, who attended the performance. "The Japanese constantly stressed that the three ‘kichis’ had been ‘rescued’ by the Makah, while aware that most of the records also indicate the castaways were enslaved after being rescued" (Schodt, 63).

Fact and Fiction

The story of Otokichi has become well known in Japan, due in part to promotional efforts by Mayor Saito and others. These are the basic outlines: After a few months with the Indians, Otokichi and his two companions were ransomed by agents for the Hudson’s Bay Company and brought to Fort Vancouver, the company’s regional headquarters. They stayed at the fort for several months and then were sent to London, by way of Hawaii, and eventually to Macao, China. Efforts to repatriate them failed because of feudal Japan’s self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world, and they ended up living out their lives as exiles.

When the three sailors arrived in Macao, in December 1835, they were put into the care of Karl Gutzlaff, a German missionary who was working as an interpreter for the British. Gutzlaff enlisted their help in translating parts of the Bible into Japanese. Otokichi quickly mastered English and proved to be adept at translation. He and Gutzlaff were listed as co-authors when the work, consisting of the Gospel of Saint John and related texts, was published in 1836.

The other sailors vanished from the historical record in the late 1830s, but Otokichi’s life is fairly well documented. Prevented from returning to his homeland, he settled in Shanghai, working as a translator for British businessmen and naval officials. He married a British woman, converted to Christianity, and adopted the name "John Matthew Ottosan." His first marriage ended, in either death or divorce, and he subsequently married a Malay woman. He briefly visited Japan in 1854, while serving as an interpreter on the British naval mission that established the first treaty between the two nations. He and his family (by then including several children) moved to his wife’s native Singapore in 1862. He died there five years later, at age 49.

The Bellevue production of The Tale of Otokichi: A Musical Play and Friendship Gift from the Town of Mihama, Aichi, Japan was based on much factual material but took one notable fictional detour. A British actor appeared on stage in the role of Ranald MacDonald, and spoke about being inspired to go to Japan after meeting the "three kichis" at Fort Vancouver. MacDonald (1824-1894), the son of a Scottish employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company and a Chinook mother, voluntarily marooned himself in Japan in 1848, when the country was officially closed to foreigners. He heard stories about the sailors as a child, but he and his father left Fort Vancouver months before they arrived.

The musical had its premier in Mihama in 1993. In addition to Bellevue, it has been produced in Singapore, London, and Honolulu -- all significant points along the trajectory of Otokichi’s life. The Bellevue cast included professional actors from Nagoya, in the leading roles; citizens from Mihama, cast as the sailors’ fellow townspeople; local children, taking the part of children at Fort Vancouver, and young members of the Makah Nation, portraying their ancestors. Like the other productions, it was presented with the help of corporate underwriters; admission was free. It was a hit with its audience. "Long and melodramatic, the performance ended with scarcely a dry eye in the place" (Schodt, 61).

Sources: "Musical at Meydenbauer Center Kicks Off Japan Week Festivities," The Seattle Times, October 1, 1997, p. B-3; Imbert Matthee, "Makah, Japanese Mark Historic Link," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 1, 1997, p. B-1; "Theater Drama 'Global Drifter Otokichi' performed in Hawaii," Japan American Society of Hawaii website accessed May 2009 (http://www.jashawaii.org/pastevents2008.asp); Frederik L. Schodt, Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan (Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 2003); "The Real-Life Story of Otokichi," Town of Mihama website accessed May 2009  (www.town.mihama.aichi.jp/kikaku/english/6/1/index.html); James F. Goater, "Otokichi -- Japan’s First Great Wanderer," Part 1, Avenues magazine, September 2007 (http://www.centraljapan.jp/history_details.php?id=11); Part 2, Avenues magazine, December 2007 (http://www.centraljapan.jp/history_details.php?id=7); and "The Otokichi Saga -- a Postscript," Avenues Magazine, April 2008, Avenues website accessed June 2009 (http://www.centraljapan.jp/history_details.php?id=1); Setsuko Kamiya, "Otokichi: A Life Lost and Found," Japan Times, August 29, 2004, Japan Times website accessed June 2009 (http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20040829x1.html).

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