Saturday, March 22, 2014

L.A.M. on the First Japanese Resident of Singapore and His Amazing 173 Year Journey Home

Japanese James Bond

The first Japanese to have resided in Singapore is Yamamoto Otokichi (pictured above) and his story of how he left Japan and ended up in early Singapore is one that entails being lost at sea, circumnavigating the globe, being captured by natives, international espionage and romance. In other words, he is a cross between a Japanese James Bond and Marco Polo.

Born in Onoura, Japan in 1817. Otokichi lived in a period when Japan was one of the most reclusive nations on the planet. The Japan then was one that had closed the country's borders for 180 years. Non-Japanese citizens found on Japanese soil were subject to capital punishment and Japanese citizens were not allowed to leave Japan. This made Japan a nation of intrigue and mystery to the outside world.

However, some Japanese citizens did manage to (although unintentionally) leave Japan. Although the construction of long-range ships was illegal, smaller ships were permitted for transportation of goods and people around the perimeters of Japan. In the aftermath of a terrifying storm in 1832, one of these vessels carrying a crew of 14 found itself adrift in the Pacific Ocean. To make matters worst, the vessel, the Hojunmaru was not a seafaring vessel. It was a cargo ship without a rudder or a mast. This meant that the ship did not have any means to steer itself and was at the complete mercy of the sea.

After 14 months and surviving on a makeshift desalination facility and the rice that the vessel was carrying, the crew of 14 highly experienced sailors was down to three. 29 year old Iwakichi, 16 year old Kyukichi and the protagonist of this story, 15 year old Otokichi.

In Dec 1833, the three sailors finally hit a shoreline. Not knowing where they were, they went ashore and were captured by Native Americans from the Makah group. It turned out that they had sailed the entire Pacific Ocean in a 15m cargo ship and landed on the shores of Cape Alava in Oregon, North America, making them the first Japanese to reach America during the late Edo Period.

Although enslaved by the Makah, this development turned out to be a blessing as they received care in the hands of the the Makah and were fed just in time to save them from scurvy. The Makah were curious of these strange foreign men and this curiosity led to drawings and stories being passed around from one Native community to another and eventually to a 1.93m tall, prematurely white haired and fierce-looking, Dr. John McLoughlin.

Dr. John McLoughlin

19th Century Liam Neeson

19th Century Liam Neeson Dr. John McLoughlin was a British fur trader and head of the Hudson Bay Company in Fort Vancouver. He investigated the description of the castaways and suspected they were Chinese (good try!). He sent out renowned Tom McKay by canoe to bargain for their release. However, due to weather and terrain conditions, he failed. Later, McLoughlin sent an American captain, William Henry McNeill to stop in at Cape Flattery to recover the castaways and also to "reward the Indians for their trouble."

The Makah were adverse to releasing their slaves and McNeill succeeded in rescuing the Japanese only after holding one of the Indian Chiefs as a hostage. Afterwards, he bought from the Indians a large quantity of crockery-ware saved from the Hojunmaru which was subsequently sold at a shop at Fort Vancouver. The three men were brought to Fort Vancouver where a local church assistant taught the three men English and noted that they were "remarkably studious" and showed "very rapid improvement." (typical Asians).

Sometime between learning of the three castaways and the rescue, McLoughlin realized that they were Japanese and saw the return of the men to their native land as an opportunity to start trade with Japan. He put them on board a Hudson's Bay Company ship on a seven month long journey via Hawaii and Antarctica to London, making them the first Japanese in Britain in the 19th century. Surprisingly, the British were not only disinterested in either of the Japanese men but even billed John McLoughlin the costs of dealing with them.

In Dec 1835, Otokichi's journey brought him to the Portuguese owned port of Macau were he met famed missionary Karl Friedrich August Gutzlaff. Gutzlaff took the opportunity to learn Japanese and Otokichi helped him to translate the bible into Japanese. The first portion of which was published in Singapore in 1837. However, it only entered Japan in 1859, after Gutzlaff's death.

Finally in early July 1837, an American tradesman named Charles King, gathered the 3 men, along with 4 other Japanese who were shipwrecked in the Philippines and sailed for Japan. However, when their ship, the Morrison approached Edo Bay, there were fired upon with a volley of canonballs. Their country, under the Tokugawa Shogunate retained strong animosity towards foreigners. 

Rejected by his own country, Otokichi turned to the West, taking on the name John Matthew Ottoson and converting to Christianity. He also became proficient in the Chinese language and worked with British agents as an interpreter during the Opium Wars of 1839-1842. Thereafter, he continued working for British agents helping to repatriate Japanese castaways like himself and traveling extensively throughout East Asia. He was briefly married to a Scottish woman he met in Macau while she was working at the Mission Press but the relationship soon ended either by death or divorce. 

Later on, in Shanghai, he would meet his wife, Louisa Belder, a Singaporean Eurasian of German and Malay descent at Dent & Beale Company, where they worked. 

He later served as part of the British fleet commanded by Admiral James Stirling and traveled to Nagasaki where he was instrumental in assisting the Admiral in forging the Peace and Amity treaty on 14 Oct 1854 which opened Nagasaki for trade between Britain, France and Japan. In return for his actions, he was rewarded with a small fortune and British citizenship. He was offered a chance to stay in his home country but chose to return to his family in Shanghai and then retired in Singapore in 1862 with his wife and 4 children.

In Singapore, he was known to have kept two residences, one off Killiney Road and another at Siglap. He also purchased a burial plot for Gutzlaff's first wife in Singapore.

He died of tuberculosis on 17 January 1867, just shy of his 50th birthday and was buried at the Bukit Timah Christian Cemetary and was later moved to the Japanese Cemetery in Yio Chu Kang. In 2005, he finally completed his journey home when members of his hometown, Onoura brought his remains home to commemorate his unusual adventure.



Brook, M. (2013) Otokichi's Long Trip Home, [Online]
Available: [8 August 2013]

Tan, B. (2008) Yamamoto Otokichi, [Online]
Available: [5 March 2008]

Anderson, N.M. (2013) Fur Trade Family History, [Online]
Available:  [14 April 2013]