As the editor of Ask, I get to learn about some amazing and unusual people and writing “The Amazing Adventures of Manjiro” for our July Shipwreck issue of Ask was no exception. This is the true story of a young castaway rescued by an American whaler who became the first Japanese person to visit the U.S. back in 1841. What an adventurous life he led! We only had room to tell a little of his story in our four-page comic. Among the episodes we had to leave out was the full story of his first attempt to return to Japan. Not only did Manjiro get all the way to Japan only to find no one willing to take him ashore, but the captain of the ship went mad and had to be locked up by the crew, then dropped off at an asylum at Manila.
There are many excellent books about Manjiro if you want to read more of his story. Margi Preus’s novelization, The Heart of a Samurai, won a Newbery honor in 2011. For a more factual account full of maps and photos, I highly recommend Shipwrecked! by Rhoda Blumberg. And if you want the real skinny, you can read Manjiro’s own account of his adventures, Drifting toward the Southeast, transcribed from his court testimony before the Shogun.
In the nonfiction world, even cartoons involve a lot of research. And it’s always the most unexpected questions that prove the most tricky. For this piece, we originally thought it might be funny to have Manjiro’s family showing him his own gravestone—the traditional sailor’s “empty grave” set up when they assumed he was lost at sea. But what would it have looked like? My quest took me (via email) to Junji Kitadai, a Japanese historian who was one of the translators of Drifting toward the Southeast. In the end the cartoonist decided there wasn’t room in the panel for the empty grave, but Manjiro continues to make friends across the Pacific.
Read the comic I wrote about Manjiro below and for more stories about shipwrecks, pirates, arts, and sciences of all types, be sure to subscribe to Ask.
Art by Peter Wartman