Today, a story about drifting boats and cultural
mixing. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Some years ago I saw a fine
display of old maps in a Japanese museum. They were
beautiful, but something was wrong. The maps showed
only Japan! Aren't maps meant to show alien worlds?
In the 16th century, Western sailors came across
the world to find a Japan that did not want to be
stained by outsiders. In 1636 the Japanese tried to
halt foreign influence by quarantining themselves.
No more foreign ships in their ports! They also
barred their own ships from leaving Japan.
They went further. Their junks were to be designed
with open sterns and large rudders so they'd swamp
in high seas. They were meant to be unseaworthy far
Bert Webber tells how junks were damaged by wind
and waves -- how they drifted into eastbound
currents. As Europeans colonized our West Coast
they found junks with crews half-dead. Those junks
became the stuff of anecdote and legend. A tally of
drifting junks, made in 1875, documented 60 known
Typically, 6 out of 20 sailors might survive after
9 months adrift. First they ate their own cargo.
Then they collected rain water and fished. Finally,
some even ate their own dead.
For centuries survivors melted into the underbrush
along our Pacific Coast. They joined the native
population. Today the Indian word for milk is the
Japanese word tsche-tsche. The
Japanese word haiku, meaning speed,
has become the Indian word hyack.
Yaku, or evil genius, has become
yak, or devil.
When European and American ships began ranging the
Pacific, they tried to return stranded sailors to
Japan. The edict had said lost sailors were subject
to a death penalty, but the Japanese usually
accepted them politely and ignored the penalty.
They just wanted to get rid of foreign ships
One sailor, Manjiro, was picked up by a captain
from Fairhaven, Massachusetts. The captain trained
him to be a ship's officer. Manjiro returned to
Japan just before Admiral Perry and his warships
arrived to demand open trade.
Japan changed fast after that. Within 23 years
she'd built 150 modern ships -- steam packets,
full-rigged merchantmen, and more. Manjiro had an
important role in Japan's emergence.
In 1918, Manjiro's son presented a Samurai sword to
the people of Fairhaven. That sword stayed on
display in the Fairhaven Library right down through
the darkest days of WW-II.
And I read an odd moral in all this. I realize
we'll find a way to be one people despite kings and
shoguns, wars and edicts. We have a primary
instinct for mutual support and cultural sharing.
In the end, that instinct will not be denied.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds