Forum to explore forgotten Japanese pioneer

November 15, 2017
Manjiro headshot
Dr. Adam Stanley
Dr. Amanda Tucker

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – Japan’s revolutionary transformation into a global power along a Westernized, industrial path, beginning in the 1860s with the Meiji Restoration, has been well documented. What has largely been forgotten about that process, however, is the vital role played by a remarkable Japanese named Manjirō.

Born into a poor family in a small, isolated village, Manjirō was shipwrecked on an uninhabited Pacific island in 1841 for several months before being rescued by an American whaling ship. He subsequently became the first Japanese to live in the United States, and after a daring return to Japan in 1850, his knowledge of the West proved crucial in Japan’s response to Western encroachment in the mid- to late-19th century. 

To explore how Manjirō became such an important yet forgotten figure in both Japan’s adoption of Western ways and technologies and its relationship to the United States, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s College of Liberal Arts and Education will present a faculty forum, “Manjirō and the Transformation of Japan.” The forum will be held Thursday, Dec. 7 in Room 136 Doudna Hall from 5-6:30 p.m.

At the forum, Dr. Adam Stanley, professor of history at UW-Platteville, will use the incredible true story of Manjirō’s experiences to illuminate the monumental changes that swept Japan in the 19th century.

“Manjirō, once a poor, would-be fisherman with no prospects of anything else in a rigidly hierarchical society wherein upward mobility was a virtual impossibility, upon his return to Japan became a teacher, translator and diplomatic envoy whose efforts were emblematic of Japan’s program of industrialization and Westernization that soon transformed the nation into a global political and economic powerhouse,” said Stanley.

The forum will draw from research that Stanley has been conducting during the past year on Manjirō’s life, as well as the experiences of other Japanese sailors shipwrecked during the first half of the 19th century.

Stanley said that a story such as Manjirō’s can be a great resource in the classroom to illustrate a variety of issues. “Because his tale is so compelling, it can be a memorable and relatable topic of study that allows students to learn about subjects such as Japanese foreign policy prior to the ‘opening’ of Japan, the typical life of a Japanese commoner, daily life in the 19th-century United States, American political and economic policies in the 19th century and the ‘opening’ of Japan and its evolution into an industrialized, Westernized nation by the dawn of the 20th century,” Stanley said.

“Manjirō’s life story is captivating just on its own terms, but the wider lessons to be drawn from what he stood for are extremely important as well,” added Stanley. “This forum is being held on the 76th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Although Manjirō lived long before that event, during his lifetime he strove to ensure peaceful relations between Japan and the United States. In a cruel irony, the very program of modernization he championed for Japan, and viewed as essential to Japan’s harmonious integration into the wider global community, culminated decades later in the Pearl Harbor attack and the subsequent vicious, all-out war between the two nations.”

Following Stanley’s discussion, Dr. Amanda Tucker, associate professor of English at UW-Platteville, will discuss the writing of Helen Waddell, which offers another important – but forgotten – perspective on the opening up of Japan during the Meiji period. Waddell grew up in Japan, where her father served as a missionary, and her stories about her childhood experiences demonstrate the promise and peril of cultural syncretism during this tumultuous time in Japan’s history. 

The forum is free and open to university students, faculty, staff and community members. Refreshments will be served.

The LAE Faculty Forum Series, a program instituted in the fall of 2004, is sponsored by UW-Platteville’s College of LAE. The purpose of the forum is to allow faculty to present information in their research areas. Presenters tailor their presentations to a general audience.

Written by: Laurie A. Hamer, University Relations Specialist, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191,


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