by Yumi Ryujin
Kawagoe Goodwill Ambassador for Tourism

§ No.25

UCHIIKE Mushaemon, a samurai from the Kawagoe Domain at the end of the Edo Period, who got on board a black ship from America

Welcome to Kawagoe! Kawagoe is an old town whose history can be traced back to the Old Stone Age. I would like to tell you a story about the Kawagoe of olden times. This story is about UCHIIKE Mushaemon, a samurai from the Kawagoe Domain at the end of the Edo Period, who got on board a black ship from America and communicated with the crew using gestures. This is number twenty-five in the series of stories about Kawagoe.
Black Ships and John Mung
All the children in Japan learn about the visit of Commodore Perry (1794-1858) in the black ships from their history textbooks. "Black ships" is a general term for the ships from America and European countries which appeared in the seas along the Japanese coastline from 16th century to early to mid-19th century. They were called "black ships" because the hulls were painted black. It was 1853 when Commodore Perry, Commander of the East Indies Squadron, arrived in Uraga on the Miura Peninsula with four ships and sought to open up trade relations with Japan by submitting an official document from the President of the United States. At the time, John Mung (NAKAHAMA, 1827-98) played an important role by providing the Tokugawa Shogunate with information about America. John Mung was the child of a fisherman from Tosa (now Kohchi Prefecture in Shikoku). One day while fishing he ran into difficulties and his boat was set adrift at sea. He was rescued by an American whaling ship. He spent ten years in America. During that time he became fluent in English. He had returned to Japan by the time Perry arrived.
The "Sentohroku" Document
Even before John Mung played his role in 1853, foreign ships had visited the seas along the Japanese coastline, very often seeking to trade. Recorded history relates information about an American ship, the Morrison, that arrived in 1837 and a whaling ship that came in 1845. In 1846, Commodore Biddle, another Commander of the East Indies Squadron, appeared off Uraga with two ships, the Columbus and the Vincennes, seeking to open up trade with Japan. This was seven years before Commodore Perry arrived. In those days, the Kawagoe Domain controlled some territory in Sagami (now in Kanagawa Prefecture), so the samurai from the domain were positioned on the coastline to defend it. UCHIIKE Mushaemon, a samurai, climbed up the anchor chain of the Vincennes and hoisted his master's banner at the bow to show that he was the first to arrive. The Kawagoe City Central Library has a handwritten copy of the document written by Mushaemon called "Sentohroku," in which he described his experiences defending Edo Bay.
Cover page of "Sentohroku" In Kawagoe City Central Library's possession By courtesy of Kawagoe City Central Library
Cover page of "Sentohroku"
In Kawagoe City Central Library's possession
By courtesy of Kawagoe City Central Library
"Black Ships! Black Ships!"
It was 8 am on May 27, 1846. One of the samurai, Yasugoro, face drained of color, was running about shouting "Black ships! Black ships!" Carrying spears, the Kawagoe samurai moved rapidly out to the coast at the end of the Miura Peninsula, jumped into boats and rowed out to the two black ships. There were twelve men, including Mushaemon. Mushaemon jumped onto the chain of one ship and climbed to the deck. He rushed to the bow and put up the banner to signify that he was the first to arrive.
Cover page of "Sentohroku" In Kawagoe City Central Library's possession By courtesy of Kawagoe City Central Museum
The Columbus from America
In Kawagoe City Museum's possession
By courtesy of Kawagoe City Museum
Conversing with Foreigners
Soon many foreign sailors appeared, shouting and making gestures as if they were saying, "Lower it, lower it." Mushaemon described what happened in this way, ""They said, "hah, hah, bah, bah," so I had no idea at all what they were saying.""Then Mushaemon conveyed through gestures that, "As I got on deck first, I am showing this sign." And the sailors understood and helped him put up the flag. So he made signs to show that he was saying, "Thank you very much for your support." Then Mushaemon was taken to a higher deck. There he met a man who seemed to be the boss. The man joined his hands together and then raised his right hand. Mushaemon thought, "Probably this is their greeting," and replied with the Japanese greeting. Then, the foreign boss showed him a paper covered with unusual letters. Of course, Mushaemon did not understand them, so he shook his head to signify that he didn't know that they meant. Fortunately, there were three people from Nanking on the ship. Using a tool corresponding to a present day pencil, they started to communicate with Mushaemon in writing. Through the writing and gestures, Mushaemon learned that there were only five Americans on board and that the remainder of the men, who numbered as many as one hundred and fifty, was black. This surprised him.
Arm Wrestling
The foreigners treated Mushaemon and the other samurai to water, sweets and alcohol, always tasting them for poison before offering them. A foreigner challenged him to arm wrestling, so Mushaemon agreed and did it "as if his life depended on it." When evening came the crew requested that the samurai leave the ship. Mushaemon insisted that he and FUJII Shimpachiro stay overnight. However, the foreign boss refused and the Shogunate's representative ordered the samurai members not to aggravate matters. So they left the ship.
Since the details of this first communication between Japanese and American are not known to the current Japanese people, the information provided by the "Sentohroku" document is very valuable. It shows clearly how Japan approached trying to open itself up to the world: it tells the real story.
Please visit Kawagoe again! We welcome you!
©Yumi Ryujin   All rights reserved.

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