Making the cut (rubber and the forgotten art of rubber tapping)

6 06 2017

The cultivation of rubber, once the mainstay of the Malayan economy, has left a mark not just on our northern neignbours, Malaysia, but also here in Singapore. Clusters of aging rubber trees or even individual trees in Singapore’s less developed parts mark former rubber plantations, the largest of which are found on Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong. In the northwest, a pier turned sea pavilion, built to move rubber out of a long isolated area of Singapore in the 1920s, also recalls a business on which many fortunes were made (and lost) and in the west, two surviving dragon kilns speak of the pottery making trade fed by the demand for clay latex cups from the many plantations. There is also a little corner of a former rubber plantation in the northeast in which its past is commemorated by five old rubber trees found in a corner. The five are all that remain of hundreds that a Japanese monk had planted to acknowledge the donation of the plot by the plantation’s owners – to be used as a burial place for hundreds of karayuki-san who died penniless.

Latex being collected in a clay latex cup – many kilns were established across Singapore, including the two surviving dragon kilns at Jalan Bahar, to produce these cups.

One of the things I found fascinating as a child was the sight of rubber tappers moving from tree to tree that I would catch on the many drives to Malaysia. From comfort breaks taken in and around rubber estates – due to their isolation – I could see the results of the tappers’ actions. The cuts made on the trees’ bark were quite visible as were the cups of latex. What I was not able to see close up however was how the tapper actually made the cut; that is, until just a few days ago when I was able to catch a demonstration of the art. The live demo (see video below) was performed by a retired rubber tapper, Uncle Ah Ha, as part of an Outward Bound School (OBS) UBiNavigate 2017 trail organised for Pesta Ubin 2017.

An old rubber press in the OBS area of Pulau Ubin – in surprisingly good condition.

UBiNavigate also gave its participants the opportunity to explore the western part of Pulau Ubin. An area in which OBS operates, the area is normally off-limits to the general public. Once where Ong Seng Chew owned a rubber estate, this corner of the island is still filled with many reminders of that past such as an old rubber press lying in a bed of tree fall, broken bottles that once held the enzymes required for the rubber production process, and rubber trees that have long been abandoned.

Part of the UBiNavigate trail taking participants through the relatively unexplored western side of Ubin.

Several aspects of Ubin’s much storied past were also in evidence, some of which were related to the quarrying activities that provided much of the granite used to build modern Singapore. Besides the sight of a former quarry – just beyond the fence of OBS Camp 1, two concrete storage rooms could be seen, fitted with heavy steel doors. These storerooms were apparently used for the storage of dynamite that the nearby quarry used for blasting.

A dynamite store that used by a nearby quarry.

Several other interesting “discoveries” tell us of the the island’s previous inhabitants: a solitary tomb of a Madam Goh that is still tended to by her descendants, a disused well, a concrete communal stove, and the concrete base of a Chinese village-style dwelling. More on UBiNavigate, which was held on 3 June 2017, can be found at https://ubinavigate.wixsite.com/2017.

Latex dripping into a clay latex cup.

Remains of narrow necked enzyme bottles used in rubber processing.


Other rubbery posts:


More views around the western end of Pulau Ubin

An abandoned well.

Coconut shells were also utilised as latex cups.

The OBS Reservoir.

A beach on the southwestern shoreline of Ubin.

A solitary tomb of a Madam Goh.

Remains of an old communal stove.

A shrine built in 1979.

Another of the shrine.


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The last rubber tree

17 04 2014

It is in a part of Singapore struggling to hold on to times the modern world has discarded that we find a remnant of forgotten days – a tree, said to be the last of the rubber trees, which is one of what were many more on the huge Bukit Sembawang plantation that had once dominated the area.

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There is much mystery that surrounds the tree, which towers over a mosque, described as be the “last kampung mosque in Singapore” – itself a remnant of a forgotten world. The 60 to 70-year-old tree is believed to have resisted all attempts to have it cut down – it is said that those who have attempted to cut it down had been struck ill in a fashion similar to many other trees found across the island that are believed to be inhabited by spirits.

On this, another story from the area does come to mind. The story is one that takes us back to the days when the huge King George IV graving dock  was being constructed – one that also involved a rubber tree that needed to be cleared to level the ground to build the dock. Workers had feared chopping the tree down for similar reasons, resulting in a delay in the construction. That tree did eventually get removed and act that was thought to be responsible for the deaths of several people involved in its removal that were to follow. More on this story can be found in a previous post, Last Post Standing.

Like the mosque beside it – which operates on a Temporary Occupation License, the tree is on State land and does face an uncertain future. While the area close to the mosque has so far been spared from development, the redevelopment of the area does seem to be gaining momentum. Not far away, we already see an area that once belonged to those who lived off the sea, given to those who in modern Singapore, are can pay the price it costs now to afford the luxury of living by the sea. It does seem to only be a matter of time before the brave new world does arrive in the area. Until then, we do for now, have the story of the tree to listen to, as well as the wealth of stories of times past that will be lost when the new world does eventually arrive.





Voices from a forgotten past

18 12 2012

I was fortunate to have been able to catch Royston Tan’s sequel to Old Places, Old Romances, at its premiere on Saturday morning. Old Romances, described by the director as ‘45 personalised love letters to forgotten places’, is not just about personal romances in and with each of the 45 places featured, but about continuing a love affair that has been rekindled by the making of Old Places for a Singapore we might otherwise have forgotten about. The 45 places are all, on their own, fascinating. They are places that many must have deep in their hearts in one way or another. While some, in the two years it took to complete the documentary, have become like that lost love, painfully present in our distant memories; there are many that are there for us to discover a love we might have not known is there.

The serenity of the grounds of the Japanese Cemetery Park.

The serenity of the grounds of the Japanese Cemetery Park.

An iron fence around a grave.

An iron fence around a grave.

One place that is featured in which I took the opportunity to find a new love in is the Japanese Cemetery at Chuan Hoe Avenue. The cemetery, said to be the largest burial ground for Japanese outside of Japan (it has also become the resting place for an estimated 10,000 war dead), is a space that I have found to be extremely interesting as a link to a world that we largely have forgotten about. It is however the tales that the sleeping residents tell that thoroughly fascinates me. The 910 graves found on the grounds does each have an interesting story to tell, and among it you will find tales of many extraordinary lives as well as insights into the early Japanese community in Singapore.

The peaceful setting of the Japanese Cemetery Park's grounds.

The peaceful setting of the Japanese Cemetery Park’s grounds.

Headstones in the cemetery.

Headstones in the cemetery.

The cemetery now serves as a memorial park, having been closed to burials in 1973. It does have a long history and counts as one of the oldest cemeteries still in existence in Singapore, tracing its history to the end of the 1800s. Its owes its founding to three brothel owners, Futaki Takajiro, Shibuya Ginji and Nakagawa Kikuzo, who in 1891 sought the colony’s approval to convert up to 12 acres of land including some of their own (they owned rubber estates in the area too) into a cemetery for the burial of destitute Japanese prostitutes, the Karayuki-san. Burials in the grounds do however predate its official establishment, Shibuya and Futaki had reportedly moved the remains of 27 Japanese from a mass grave to the grounds in 1888. Also in 1981, a survey conducted found three gravestones which dated back to 1889.

A Hinomoto Gurdian Deity erected as a memorial to 41 civilians who died under internment at Jurong while awaiting repatriation after the Japanese surrender.

A Hinomoto Gurdian Deity erected as a memorial to 41 civilians who died under internment at Jurong while awaiting repatriation after the Japanese surrender.

Another view around the cemetery.

Another view around the cemetery.

The cemetery is interesting also in contrasting it to the largest cemetery in Japan at Mount Koya or Koyasan which I also had the opportunity to visit recently. While many of the 200,000 graves in Koyasan are those who had a high station in life, many of the graves in the cemetery in Singapore are of those with a humble social status – at least a third of the graves belong to Karayuki-san.

A memorial to the war dead said to be intended as a representation of the Syonan Chureito that was erected during the occupation at Bukit Batok.

A memorial to the war dead said to be intended as a representation of the Syonan Chureito that was erected during the occupation at Bukit Batok.

A grave in the cemetery.

A grave in the cemetery.

The Japanese cemetery today occupies a 3 ha. (about a 7 acre) site. No longer set amongst rubber trees (a reminder of that is perhaps a cluster of rubber trees found in the grounds), it today finds itself in the middle of a residential neigbourhood. Stepping into the grounds, an air of serenity greets you. The well-kept cemetery is quietly beautiful and takes one far from the hustle of the urban world that is now at its doorstep. Much of what we see of the very well-kept grounds today is the result of effort undertaken in 1987 by the Japanese Association (which has maintained the cemetery since 1969) to beautify the cemetery in commemoration of its (the association’s) 30th Anniversary (post-war) using donations from the community as well as with assistance from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The serenely beautiful grounds of the cemetery draws many in search of a quiet place to read or to study.

The serenely beautiful grounds of the cemetery draws many in search of a quiet place to read or to study.

While the cemetery has a substantial number of graves of those of humble social status, there also also many graves of those of high social standing that can be found.

While the cemetery has a substantial number of graves of those of humble social status, there also also many graves of those of high social standing that can be found.

The largest structure we see in the grounds, is that of the beautifully constructed Prayer Hall or Worship Hall, built in 1986 on the site of two previous Saiyuji temple buildings. The Saiyuji was a Soto sect temple which traces its history to the arrival of its founding monk, Shakushu Baisen of Hyogo in 1892. The first building which was constructed in 1912 and was pulled down in 1960. It was replaced by a second building in which the altars of two disused temples in the city had found a home in. It is the second building that the secular Prayer Hall was built to replace.

The largest structure is a Prayer Hall built in 1986 which replaced a Saiyuji Temple.

The largest structure is a Prayer Hall built in 1986 which replaced a Saiyuji Temple.

Another view around the cemetery.

Another view around the cemetery.

The small cluster of rubber trees are the remnants perhaps of the 1000 trees the monk Baisen is said to have planted. That was done to honour the act of philanthropy of the cemetery’s founders, as well as to provide an income for the temple. The cluster can be found in the cemetery’s south-west corner. The corner is also where a set of three memorial stones erected by Japanese Prisoners of War in memory of those who lost their lives during the Pacific War can be found. Behind the memorial, a single concrete gravestone stands, marking the spot where the ashes of the 10,000 war dead, recovered from the Syonan Chureito in Bukit Batok, lie buried. The largest of the rubber trees is one of two heritage trees found on the grounds. The other is a non-fruiting lychee tree found at the side of the Prayer Hall (next to the caretaker’s quarters).

The three memorial stones erected by erected by Japanese Prisoners of War in memory of those who lost their lives during the Pacific War.

The three memorial stones erected by erected by Japanese Prisoners of War in memory of those who lost their lives during the Pacific War.

The concrete marker where the remains of the 10,000 war dead are buried.

The concrete marker under which the remains of the 10,000 war dead are buried.

The cluster of rubber trees - the largest has been designated a heritage tree.

The cluster of rubber trees – the largest has been designated a heritage tree.

The heritage lychee tree.

The heritage lychee tree.

It is in the gravestones of the voiceless that perhaps have the loudest voices. It is thought that a large proportion of the 494 graves of the identifiable graves which do not bear a date are those of the Karayuki-san. There probably were a lot more – a 1947 survey did show that there were 1270 graves and many of the graves of the Karayuki-san had simple wooden grave-markers (before they were replaced with stone) which could have decayed with age.

A substantial number of the graves with small headstones are thought to be those of the Karayuki-san, many of whom died penniless.

A substantial number of the graves with small headstones are thought to be those of the Karayuki-san, many of whom died penniless.

That a substantial number of the graves belonged to the Karayuki-san, provides an insight into the first Japanese nationals to arrive in Singapore – their first recorded arrival in 1877 coinciding with a period of development which began in the 1870s that provided opportunities which attracted many male immigrants to Singapore. The brothels that the Karayuki-san worked in were centered mainly in what is today the Bugis area (Bugis Junction), first on Malay Street, before spreading to Malabar, Hylam and Bugis Streets with as many as 109 brothels recorded in 1905 employing some 633 Karayuki-san. It was in the area that the early Japanese community was also to establish themselves – Middle Road was referred to by the community as ‘Chuo Dori‘ or ‘Central Street’.

Malay Street at the turn of the 20th century. The street hosted the first brothels with Karayuki-san.

Malay Street at the turn of the 20th century. The street hosted the first brothels in which Karayuki-san worked.

The entire area including Hylam Street soon became a red-light area.

The entire area including Hylam Street soon became a red-light area.

Besides the many graves of the voiceless, there are several (some are memorials rather than graves) which belong to notable personalities. One is the grave of Count Hisaichi Terauchi, a Field Marshal who was the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army which swept across South-East Asia. Count Terauchi died in Johor as a Prisoner of War in 1946 and his ashes were sent back to his family in Japan. It is thought however that some of his remains and his insignia is however buried in the cemetery.

The grave of Count Hisaichi Terauchi, a Field Marshal who was the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army.

The grave of Count Hisaichi Terauchi, a Field Marshal who was the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army.

 

One grave that does have a fascinating story to tell is that of a certain John Matthew Ottoson. Described as an adventurer, Ottoson is does seem to have been almost a legendary life of adventure. Better known by his native name Otokichi, his adventures started at the age of fourteen in 1832 when he found himself cast adrift off the coast of Japan on a storm damaged ship, the Hojunmaru, on which he was a deckhand. He survived, but not before a fourteen month ordeal which took him across the Pacific to the shores of what is today Washington State. He and two other survivors found washed ashore and soon found themselves in the care of the native Makah tribe.

The Prayer Hall built in 1986.

The Prayer Hall.

The next chapter in his adventures took him first to London, then to Macau, and on to Shanghai. It was in Macau that he is thought to have had a hand in the first translation of the Bible into Japanese. He became a British subject in the process, returning to Japan twice as a translator in the service of the British. His second return in late 1854 is significant in that it led to the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Amity between the United Kingdom and Japan. He married a Malay woman later in life and eventually found himself residing in Singapore where he was a trader in local farm products from 1862 until his death in 1867 at the age of 49. In 2004, Otokochi’s remains which had been relocated from the original burial site were found to be at Choa Chu Kang. The remains were exhumed and cremated. Some of his ashes were brought to Japan with a portion is kept in the charnel next to the Prayer Hall at the Japanese Cemetery Park. More about the life of Otokichi can be found in a 2004 Japan Times article at the text of which has been reproduced at the bottom of this post (click here).

A charnel containing the remains of the first Japanese resident of Singapore Otokichi alias John M. Ottoson.

A charnel containing the remains of the first Japanese resident of Singapore Otokichi alias John M. Ottoson.

Among the other graves and memorial stones of the notable is one that is a memorial to novelist Futabatei Shimei (二葉亭 四迷) in the south-eastern corner of the grounds close to Count Terauchi’s grave. Futabatei Shimei’s work published in 1887, Ukigumo (Floating Clouds) is regarded as Japan’s first modern novel and he was returning from Russia as a special correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper at the time of his untimely death in 1909. The memorial has apparently been a venerated spot, particularly with visiting Japanese newsmen. Next to the memorial, the unique gravestone belonging to the grave of Kantaro Ueyama can be found. Kantaro Ueyama, who perished in a plane crash at Sembawang in 1942, was the first son of inventor of the mosquito coil, Eiichiro Ueyama.

The memorial to novelist Futabatei Shimei.

The memorial to novelist Futabatei Shimei.

The unique lantern like gravestone of Kantaro Ueyama who died in a plane crash at Sembawang in 1942.

The unique lantern like gravestone of Katano Ueyama who died in a plane crash at Sembawang in 1942.

Along the northern boundary of the grounds is the memorial plaza where there is a cluster of memorial stones placed to commemorate several well known figures. One is that of another somewhat legendary figure, a Terengganu born Japanese bandit popularly known as Harimau (Malay for Tiger), Harimau Malaya (Tiger of Malaya), Raja Harimau (King Tiger). Immortalised by the 1943 Japanese film Marai No Tora (マライの虎) or ‘Tiger of Malaya’, he was apparently notorious along the East Coast of Malaya and Southern Thailand where he led a band of some 3,000 Malay bandits and portrayed as a Robin Hood like character. Harimau, whose family had run a barber shop in Terengganu’s motivation in leading the bandits was to seek revenge for a sister Shizuko who was murdered by a Chinese mob angered by the Manchurian Incident. He later served as an agent for a Japanese Imperial Army intelligence unit and succumbed to Malaria at Tan Tock Seng Hospital in Singapore at the age of 32 on 17 March 1942. His remains are thought to have been buried in a Muslim cemetery near the hospital.

The memorial to Harimau Tani Yutaka.

The memorial to Harimau Tani Yutaka.

Besides the grave-markers that have vanished with time and the Saiyuji over which the Prayer Hall has been built, there would have also been a two chamber crematorium in the grounds of the cemetery that was also used for non-Japanese cremations and a Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, of which there are no more traces of. The crematorium which began as a wood-fired one is possibly the first crematorium to be built in Singapore having come up in the first decade of the 1900s. For a period of time following the end of the war, the crematorium was leased to the Singapore Casket Company.

The crematorium at the Japanese Cemetery seen prior to the war (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

The crematorium at the Japanese Cemetery seen prior to the war (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

Despite not being fond of hanging around cemeteries, I did spend 3 hours or so at this one. The cemetery is one that I will certainly visit again for the little piece of calm in the storm that has swept across modern Singapore it offers and to perhaps seek more tales that the gravestones hold. The Japanese Cemetery Park (日本人墓地公園 or Nihonjin Bochi Koen) is located at 22 Chuan Hoe Avenue and is about a 300 metre walk in from the junction of Chuan Hoe Avenue with Yio Chu Kang Road. The park is open to visitors from 8 am to 7 pm daily.

Stone slabs with the names of army officers killed during the war.

Stone slabs with the names of army officers killed during the war.

Dressed jizo statues at the entrance to the cemetery.

Dressed jizo statues at the entrance to the cemetery.

The park is popular with Japanese visitors to Singapore.

The park is popular with Japanese visitors to Singapore.


Otokichi: a life lost and found
By SETSUKO KAMIYA, The Japan Times, Aug 29, 2004

The Onoura area of Mihama, on the rural west coast of the Chita Peninsula in Aichi Prefecture, is a peaceful spot whose beaches in summer attract both locals and trippers from nearby Nagoya.

Onoura is, however, still blessed with an atmosphere of serenity that must have been even more marked 172 years ago. Then, in December 1832, a 14-year-old boy named Otokichi was among the crew of a cargo ship there that set sail for Edo, present-day Tokyo.

Little did Otokichi know that he would never return to his home, though he would visit and live in countries all over the world at a time when Japanese were barred from leaving their homeland, and Japan itself was closed to almost all foreigners. Little did he know either that he was to help with the first translation of the Bible into Japanese — at a time when Christianity was banned; or that he would serve as a bridge between languages and cultures when, in 1854, Japan signed a watershed international treaty with the United Kingdom.

But the remarkable, dramatic and colorful life of Otokichi has long lain almost unperceived in the shadows of conventional history.

That day in December 1832, the Hojunmaru was loaded with local rice and pottery as its 14 crew cast off from the quay. At first it was plain sailing out of Ise Bay, but as the ship entered the Sea of Enshu off present-day Aichi and Shizuoka prefectures, a storm blew up and swept it off course and far out into the Pacific. With no contact for months, the crew’s families eventually gave them up for dead.

However, as their grieving relatives erected a memorial tomb in the graveyard of the village’s Ryosanji Temple, the Hojunmaru, by now dismasted and rudderless, was being carried on the Black Current out into the middle of the vast ocean — with all its crew alive.

Knowing how to desalinate seawater, and with their cargo of rice, the crew was able to eat and drink. But with no vitamins in their diet, scurvy soon set in and began to claim lives. Miraculously, though, after an astonishing 14 months adrift in the open ocean, three crew members were still alive when the battered hulk of the Hojunmaru made landfall at Cape Alava, in present-day Washington state in the United States. Those three survivors were Iwakichi, 29, Kyukichi, 16, and Otokichi, then 15.

At first, the lucky trio were looked after by villagers of the Makah tribes, but soon after they were passed into the care of John McLaughlin, the British leader of a group of Hudson’s Bay Company fur traders. McLaughlin at once sought commercial advantage from the Japanese castaways, as a means of his company establishing links with the Tokugawa Shogunate. As a result, he arranged for the three to be put aboard a ship called the Eagle, which reached London in 1835 — almost certainly making the Onoura sailors the first Japanese to visit the English capital, according to Hikomitsu Kawai, the author of “Nihonjin Hyoryuki (Chronicle of Japanese Castaways)”(Shakai Shisousha, 1967).

However, the men didn’t have much chance to see the hub of the British Empire, as for 10 days they were confined to the ship on the River Thames, before being allowed one final day to see the sights. Then, contrary to McLaughlin’s expectations, the British government declined the opportunity to use the men as keys to unlocking trade with Japan, and they were dispatched instead to Macao on board the General Palmer, with a view to them returning home from there.

After reaching Macao later that year, Otokichi, Kyukichi and Iwakichi were put into the care of Karl Gutzlaff, a German missionary who also served as a Chinese translator for the British government. Gutzlaff, who apparently wanted to engage in missionary work in Japan, enthusiastically learned the language from Otokichi and the others, soon even managing to make a translation of the Gospel According to John, which is believed to be the earliest extant biblical work in Japanese.

Meanwhile, in Macao the three were joined by four other Japanese sailors whose ship from present-day Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu had also been storm-damaged and drifting until it reached Luzon Island in the Philippines. Together, the seven waited there for a chance to return home.

That chance came in the shape of one Charles W. King, an American merchant who, like McLaughlin before him, reckoned that the humanitarian act of repatriating them might pay off through opening trade links with a country whose official sakoku (closed-door) policy surely made the prospect of such links potentially profitable. So, in July 1837, the seven Japanese were put aboard an American merchant ship called the Morrison, which sailed to Uraga at the mouth of Edo Bay.

Cannon-fire targeted the Morrison as it approached the Miura Peninsula in present-day Kanagawa Prefecture. This barrage was in line with an 1825-42 shogunal order that all lords across the country were to fire at any approaching Western ships, apart from Dutch ones. As a result, the Morrison sailed down to Kagoshima in Kyushu — only to be fired on there as well.

Under the circumstances, according to accounts by Westerners aboard the Morrison recounted in the award-winning nonfiction book by Toru Haruna, “Nippon Otokichi Hyoryuki (Chronicle of Otokichi)” (Shobunsha, 1979), there was little for it but to return to Macao. Fearing punishment if they set foot again in their homeland, the Japanese seemed to have no alternative but to accept life in exile.

* * * From the scant records that exist, it seems the seven then set about making their own livings in Macao. Although a few of them are known to have served as translators for the British trade legation and British missionaries, only Otokichi’s life is well recorded.

Even so, Otokichi’s progress from Macao in 1837 to him working for the British trading company Dent & Co. in Shanghai in 1843 is only sketchily traced by history. Though it seems likely that he spent time as a crewman on an American ship, he is mainly known in this period for supporting the repatriation of Japanese castaways from Macao and Shanghai by urging them to try returning home on Chinese ships. That was because, along with Holland, China was the only country with which the shogunate authorized trade links.

At some point, Otokichi married an Englishwoman, though where this occurred is not known. However, after losing her through illness, he married a Malay woman and they had a son and three daughters. Meanwhile, he became a naturalized British subject, taking the name John Matthew Ottoson.

The erstwhile Japanese sailor is known to have returned to Japan twice. On the first occasion, he was a translator on board the H.M.S. Mariner, which entered Uraga Port to conduct a topographical survey in 1849. Then, though, he had to disguise himself as a Chinese man, telling Japanese officials that he had learned their language from his father, who often went to Nagasaki on business.

The second time he returned, as Ottoson, was in September 1854, with a British fleet under Adm. James Stirling. This docked at Nagasaki to conduct negotiations that led to the signing there on Oct. 14 of the Treaty of Peace and Amity between the United Kingdom and Japan. That time, Otokichi met and was seen by many Japanese, including Fukuzawa Yukichi, the founder of Keio University. Indeed, shogunal officials apparently offered to repatriate him, though he opted instead to return to his family in Shanghai.

In the final years of his life, Otokichi aka Ottoson, moved from Shanghai to Singapore, his wife’s home country, where he died at the age of 49 in 1867 — the year feudalism ended in Japan.

For the people of Mihama, the story of the Hojunmaru and the local crew lost in 1832 appears to have sunk into oblivion — no doubt along with countless other seafaring tragedies. That was until 1960, when researchers from the Japan Bible Society turned up there on the trail of the three Japanese they believed may have been from a place called Onoura on the Chita Peninsula. The tomb dedicated to the crew of the Hojunmaru was the proof they had sought, and a monument honoring the three was duly erected the following year.

Since then, a few others have been instrumental in digging out what details of Otokichi’s life are now known, including Haruna and Ayako Miura, a Christian novelist who wrote about him in “Kairei (Ocean Ridge)” (Asahi Shimbunsha, 1981).

What really propelled the long-lost young sailor into a kind of limelight, though, was when Koichi Saito, the mayor of Mihama, decided about 10 years ago to seriously research Otokichi’s life.

“History is usually a tale of winners, but when I learned about Otokichi, I thought it wasn’t right that such an admirable person’s life should remain unrecognized,” said Saito, 65, who has now been in office at the head of the 25,000-strong community for 13 years.

Accordingly, Saito became the driving force behind an enthusiastic effort to gather information from all the people and places connected with Otokichi and the others, including Gutzlaff. In doing so, he said, the cooperation of Japanese groups and organizations around the world has been of vital importance to access local authorities and individuals.

To date, the project has led to several short trips abroad by Mihama citizens tracing the footsteps of Otokichi — to Washington State, London and Singapore. On their travels, all paid for out of their own pockets, these interested locals have engaged in warm and productive grassroots exchanges with many new friends and acquaintances. Closer to home, in 1993 the Nagoya-based Theatre Weekend produced “Nippon Otokichi Monogatari (The Otokichi Story),” a musical based on the life of Otokichi that has since been staged several times in Japan and to coincide with group tours overseas — with many Mihama citizens playing minor roles.

Among those who have particularly enjoyed this historical quest is Junji Yamamoto, 73, a descendant of Otokichi’s younger sister who is one of only two known living relatives of any of the Hojunmaru’s 14 crew still living in Mihama (the other is a descendant of the ship’s captain, Higuchi Juemon).

“I’m reminded that Otokichi is my ancestor when people ask me how I feel about him, but the truth is, I can’t really say, although I wish I had more time to find out more,” said a grinning Yamamoto, whose family has a Japanese-style inn in Noma, the neighboring district to Onoura. Nonetheless, Yamamoto is interested enough in his forebear to have joined seven of the eight tours there have been already, including one in June to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macao with 76 other locals.

In March, meanwhile, a Singaporean official who had become interested in Otokichi finally located his grave site — something that had been a mystery since 1993, when Saito’s efforts yielded the burial registry entry for John M. Ottoson in Singapore. However, the original grave turned out to have been relocated from its original site, on which a hospital now stands. Another recent finding through Singaporean links has been an official directory covering 1863 and 1866, which gives Otokichi’s address there and suggests he was a trader in local farm products.

“Bit by bit, we’re finding evidence to fill in more of the blanks in Otokichi’s life,” said Saito, happily adding that the town is now on the trail of his son, who seems to have come to Japan and been naturalized, and to have died in Taiwan.

Saito is looking forward to a group tour to Singapore. It’s no mere pleasure trip, though, as he has asked the government of the city-state for permission to relocate Otokichi’s grave from the precincts of the exhumed remains to a Japanese cemetery.

As well, he has asked for permission to take some of his remains — or at least some soil from the grave — back home to be interred in the Yamamoto family grave and the memorial tomb to Hojunmaru’s crew at the Ryosanji Temple in Onoura.

“We are going to take the first flight out of the new airport to Singapore in February to bring him home,” Saito said, his voice full of feeling for someone many around Mihama are truly coming to regard as a long-lost son.









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