Golden Gate Castaway: Joseph Heco and San Francisco, 1851-1859

Article excerpt

Late in October 1850, the Japanese junk Eirikimaru, after delivering its cargo to Edo (Tokyo), departed for its return trip to Hiogo (now part of Kobe). On the evening of the fourth day, rain began to fall, engulfing the ship in a gale. There was a brief respite, and then winds began anew, ripping the sails from the mast.

The youngest member of the crew was a fourteen-year old boy named Hikozo, subsequently called Joseph Heco. Hikozo and his sixteen fellow crew members would not set foot on land for more than three months. That land would be in San Francisco, and before these men and boys found their way back to Japan several years later, their lives would become intertwined with significant events in both their native country and the United States. Hikozo, especially, would make connections in San Francisco that would enable him to meet leading American intellectuals and politicians (including at least two presidents), become the first naturalized Japanese-American citizen, convert to Roman Catholicism, and establish business contacts that would endure throughout his life. He would later write two sometimes-contradictory accounts of his adventures. The first, written in Japanese and published in 1863, was undertaken in part, he said, because he was tired of continually being asked to relate his experiences. The second memoir of his adventures, which is far longer, appeared in English in 1893. Although Heco's writings are full of exaggerations, omissions, inaccuracies, and inconsistencies, they provide a very strong basis for telling his remarkable story.


At the time of Hikozo's shipwreck in the mid-nineteenth century, Japan had been closed to outsiders for more than two centuries. An imperial decree of 1638 stipulated that any Japanese who left the country could not return upon pain of death. Such was also the penalty for learning a foreign language, following foreign customs, or converting to Christianity. (1) Watchtowers and cannons guarded the shoreline, preventing news and information about the outside world from penetrating Japanese society. The ruling Tokugawa shogunate imposed Japan's isolation in the seventeenth century as protection against outside influences that it feared would disrupt the delicate political balance established among the feudal warlords. The isolation was not total, however; there were occasional breaches in the wall of silence. Even supporters of the exclusion policy granted limited exceptions to the Dutch and the Chinese. The former were allowed to send one trading ship each year to Nagasaki, where they were confined to a man-made island (Deshima) in the harbor. Similarly, the Chinese were allowed annual trading privileges to the same port. Through the Dutch and the Chinese, Japanese officials managed to acquire a certain understanding of western technology, geography, and politics.

Still, isolation dominated, and to promote it in i639, the Japanese government ordered that all junks be built with open sterns and large square rudders, ensuring their suitability only for coastal trading. If swept out to sea by storm, an event that happened all too often in the treacherous seas off Japan, the sails and rudders might be ripped away, causing the junks to drift helplessly. Over the years, there must have been many hundreds of vessels lost and unrecorded by this terrifying fate. This misfortune was so common that the Japanese language had a word to describe its victims: hyoryu, meaning a person adrift on the sea. Once caught in the warm Japanese current, these sturdy junks could drift for months until they finally washed ashore, were rescued by passing ships, or simply disappeared. The currents carried them as far as Alaska, the West Coast of North America, and to the Hawaiian Islands. (2)

Depending on what the junks carried in their cargoes, these drifters could survive for months on rice, by fishing, by capturing rainwater, and by distilling seawater. …