In Friend Ships, the whimsical animation of soft puppets, brings to life the historical tale of Manjiro.
In 1841 an American whaling ship came across five shipwrecked, Japanese fishermen. A bright and curious, fourteen year-old boy named Manjiro was among them. The doors of Japan had been tightly closed, by the Tokugawa Shogunate from 1633 to 1868. In order to rescue the fishermen, Captain William Whitfield had no choice but to take them back to America.
The friendship between Japan and the U.S. was being forged on the decks of the whaling ship, the John Howland. Young Manjiro was like a sponge, soaking up English, navigation, and whaling. Captain Whitfield invited Manjiro to return home with him, to Fairhaven, Massachusetts.
The news of gold fever reached Fairhaven, and Manjiro saw this opportunity, to earn passage home to his mother. Japan’s doors were still closed tight and as soon as the boat landed on Japanese soil, Manjiro was interrogated as a spy. But soon after, the Tokugawa Shogunate caught wind of bilingual, bicultural Manjiro.
As an important translator during negotiations with Commodore Perry, Manjiro was given the rank of samurai. Then in 1860, he sailed back to America. Manjiro’s knowledge of two languages and cultures, gave him an important role in the first ambassadorial mission to the U.S., which marked the beginning of U.S.- Japan diplomatic relations.