Surprising or Otherwise Interesting Primary Sources, Pt 1

Randall Stephens

My wife, our border collie, and I were up in Vermont over the weekend. (Visited the Enfield Shaker Village and will have a Religion in American History TV spot on that

While on the road we always buy loads of books at thrift stores, antique malls, library book sales, what have you. We went wild at the Quechee Gorge Village antique mall. (Ok, I use the word "wild" here in strictly nerd-bibliophile terms.) Earlier on the trip I picked up the gorgeous, large Hammond Atlas of World Religion. To that I added an autobiography of George Harrison, a Herbert Asbury book, Temple Grandin's classic on how animals think . . . .

I also got this amazing book, Abroad in America: Visitors to the New Nation, 1776-1914. It includes the musings of historians and others on famous, infamous, or unknown travelers to the states.

One chapter
in particular stuck out. (It serves as the first installment in a series, "Surprising or Otherwise Interesting Primary Sources," I hope our other contributors will add to.)

Nakahama Manjirō (John Manjori/John Mung), was an unlikely sojourner. A young, poor Japanese fisherman, he was lost at sea in 1841 and marooned on a deserted island. An American vessel picked up Manjirō and his shipmates and sailed east to Honolulu and then America.

Manjirō spent part of his teen years in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, under the care of Captain William H. Whitfield. Eating beans and stewed cod, presumably. Manjirō received an American education and was one of the few from his country to take in the outside world in this era.

He did not receive a hero's welcome back in Japan, where he returned in 1851. Officials viewed Manjirō with suspicion and interrogated him for months. "What were Americans like?" his examiners wanted to know. . . .

All that said, what follows is a very intriguing primary source: the transcription of Manjirō's remarks on religion. Manjirō was careful to distinguish American Protestants from Catholics, who were viewed with intense hostility in Japan. Lee Houchins, who summarizes Manjirō's experience in Abroad in America, notes that Manjirō "purposely left his personal copy of the Bible behind in Fairhaven, and none of the books or other objects which he brought back with him could be considered as religious."

Nakahama Manjirō, transcribed interview, 1851, in
Abroad in America, p. 100.

the kurishitan [Catholic] religion hardly exists in America. There are a few kurishitan temples with sacred images inside, so the kurishitan religion is not actually prohibited, but people don't become kurishitans because they are very practical and can't be bothered with something as strange as that. The ordinary structures are very large and have a clock tower two or three hundred shaku [one shaku being nearly one foot] high. There are no Buddha-like figures inside. I hear that they worship the one who made this world on each seventh day. This ceremony is called the shandei shabasu [Sunday service], and it is also conducted aboard ship. There are many seats inside the temple. All those attending the Shandei shabasu bring their [prayer] books. The one who presides stands on a high place holding his book. He asks them to open their books to certain places; then they all read together; then they listen to his explanation; and then they all leave together.

Their funeral ceremony is generally the same as ours. The corpse is put in a casket and buried in the ground. Sometimes something like Buddhist sutras are read by the priest, but this man is different from a Buddhist priest, since he has a wife and children. They erect tombstones and occasionally go there to weed [around the grave], but there is no ancestor worship in America, and no special mourning costumes.


rjc at: March 1, 2010 at 3:42 PM said...

Manjiro's story is certainly fascinating, and I think it deserves to become more familiar in American religious history (along with the stories of other Pacific folks like Henry Opukaha'ia). Thanks for making note of him here.

Manlius at: March 1, 2010 at 5:04 PM said...

His descriptions are charming.

Paul Harvey at: March 1, 2010 at 6:03 PM said...

Great, Randall. Let's definitely make this a series; I'll have a part II coming up later this week.

Piotr Napierała at: March 1, 2010 at 9:08 PM said...

I reccomend the English version of my blog (18th C. history):

Best Regards

Piotr Napierala

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