Features: History & Social Studies
Manjiro Nakahama, first immigrant of Japanese descent to the United States

Asian-Pacific Heritage Month

We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.

 — Herman Melville

Origins of Asian-Pacific Heritage Month

Asian-Pacific Heritage month was established in 1990 to mark the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to the United States on May 7, 1843, as well as the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The first Japanese national to set foot on American soil was a young fisherman named Manjiro who was to become influential in ending Japan’s centuries of isolation. Though Manjiro’s name and legendary life story is celebrated by the children in contemporary Japan, fame has eluded him this side of the Pacific where he remains a footnote in American maritime history. This month, EDSITEment honors Manjiro Nakanohama, also known as John Mung by telling his story and offering students an interactive map of his voyage around the Pacific.

Manjiro: America’s "First Ambassador" to Japan.

The year was 1841. Japan was an impenetrable stronghold, totally isolated and off limits to the West. Sailors and whaling ships inadvertently entering Japanese coastal waters were summarily turned away and threatened with violence if they did not leave. Herman Melville the American writer who sailed on a whaler at this time had his immortal character, Ishmael, speak these prophetic words:

If that double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale-ship alone to whom the credit will be due; for already she is on the threshold. (Moby Dick, Chapter 24)

As it turned out, fourteen-year-old Manjiro, by means of a whaling ship would cross that threshold to open the door!

On a routine fishing trip near their coastal Japanese village, Manjiro’s crew was cast adrift in a violent sudden storm. For a week they survived on icicles that clung to their frozen clothes before being washed up on a desert island three hundred miles away. There the crew subsisted on albatross until an American whaling ship out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, that had stopped at the island to take on sea turtles miraculously rescued them five months later.

Due to his native intelligence, young Manjiro caught the attention of William Whitfield, the captain of the ship. Captain Whitfield adopted him as a son and renamed him, John Mung. John Mung/Manjiro was invited to continue on the whaling voyage, eventually returning to America to be fostered to adulthood and educated in English and navigation in the Captain’s hometown of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Manjiro’s journey from the shores of Japan to continental America is the subject of our new interactive map featured here. See the Suggested Activity to adapt the map for classroom activity use with your students.

Manjiro’s remarkable arrival in America presaged a life of drama and courageous adventures. His life is documented in an online exhibit from the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Pacific Encounters: Yankee Whalers, Manjiro and the opening of Japan. After many further exploits on land and sea, Manjiro finally managed to get back to his beloved homeland a decade later. Although he was charged for leaving the country, Manjiro was redeemed and elevated to the status of samurai. He was also allowed to chose a surname. Manjiro took Nakahama, the name of his birthplace. He went on to serve as a translator/diplomatic consultant during the Commodore Perry standoff. (See the EDSITEment-reviewed resource: Black Ships and Samurai.) Continuing to act behind the scenes as a political emissary between Japan and the West, Nakahama Manjiro went on to become an esteemed professor of English and navigation.

Manjiro chronicled his own life in an autobiographical account, Hyoson Kiryaku, Drifting toward the Southeast: A Story of Five Castaways, told to the shogunate upon his return to Japan in 1852. Direct students to the materials at the Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society site, where they will find further biographical accounts of his life. Note that American presidents have made references to Manjiro.


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Meet Laura Jernegan

Laura JerneganStudents may walk in the footsteps of Manjiro during his tenure as a school boy in Fairhaven Massachusetts, visit The Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society and take a virtual tour of the sites where the immigrant Japanese boy lived as a teenager and came of age. Students may then enter Manjiro's world by way of NEH-funded Laura Jernegan: Girl on a Whaleship. This resource tells two stories, "The Story of Whaling," which describes what happened on a 19th century whaling voyage and "Laura's Story," the story of a young girl from Edgartown, Massachusetts who went with her family on a whaling voyage and kept a journal. The site also has several interactives that allow students to "Explore Laura's Journal," learn "About Whales," "Explore the Ship," and view whaling routes with the "Map of Whaling" feature.


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Japan’s Ukiyo-e

This month, students, teachers, and parents can begin their own foray into the cultures of Asia-Pacific, starting in Manjiro’s country. Many of your students may be fans of Japanese anime films and manga graphic novels. But before there were anime and manga there were ukiyo-e prints: it is thought at the manga style of storytelling has its roots in these woodblock prints. You and your students can investigate the ukiyo-e prints and what they tell us about Japan during the Tokugawa period in the EDSITEment lesson plan Life in the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Prints and the Rise of the Merchant Class in Edo Period Japan. You can learn more about the history and culture of Japan by visiting the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Asia for Educators. Access examples of ukiyo-e prints by visiting Nagoya Television’s online ukiyo-e museum, which is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource, Teaching (and Learning) About Japan.


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China’s Great Wall

Next, skip across the Sea of Japan and back in time to China’s Ming Dynasty where the construction of the Great Wall is moving ahead full steam! The Great Wall stretches more than 2,000 kilometers (over 1,000 miles) across China. You and your students can learn more about the history of the Great Wall, China’s Ming Dynasty, and about China’s relationship with its various northern neighbors by reading the EDSITEment lesson plan Following the Great Wall of China. You can also take advantage of some of the teaching resources on Chinese history and culture that are available from the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource AskAsia. For example, you might introduce your class to the Chinese language by reading AskAsia’s essay The Chinese Language: Myths and Facts, or learn about one of China’s great philosophers in the essay on Confucianism. The website also provides a wealth of visual material for your lessons on Asia in their photo gallery, which features photographs taken around Asia, such as this photograph of a young girl in Hong Kong in the 1870s.


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South East Asia — Angkor Wat

The Great Wall may be one of the largest construction projects ever undertaken, but if you fly south from Beijing to the nation of Cambodia you will have the chance to visit the largest religious building in the world: Angkor Wat. One of hundreds of temples built during the height of the Khmer Empire (between the 9th and 13th centuries) in the region that is today Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, Angkor Wat is an immense temple decorated with more than a mile of bas-relief sculptures. You can learn more about the monument and its history in the EDSITEment lesson plan Angkor What? Angkor Wat! Once you have finished your virtual visit to the temple you may want to take the opportunity to learn more about Angkorian art by visiting the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum’s collection includes a number of wonderful examples of Khmer art, such as this image of Avalokitesvara, the Buddhist bodhisattva (someone who forsakes reaching nirvana in order to help others) of mercy.


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The Buddha and Jataka Tales

Having now been introduced to one of the Buddhist bodhisattvas, you and your students may be curious to know a little bit more about the lives of the Buddha. PBS has produced a documentary, partially funded by NEH on The Buddha, which details his life and features experts from different disciplines reflecting on the meaning of the Buddha’s journey for us today. Explore Art, a recently reviewed website from Rubin Museum offers the opportunity to journey behind some works of Himalayan art which center on the Budda, revealing the stories, ideas and beliefs that inspired them, and then consider how peoples of other cultures have expressed ideas on similar issues through their own artistic traditions. In Southeast Asia many of the Theravada form of Buddhism’s teachings are explained through the relating of events in the many lives of the Buddha before he became the Buddha. And since he had 550 lives before becoming the Buddha there are a lot of lessons to learn from those stories, which are collectively called the Jataka Tales. EDSITEment offers lesson plans on the Jataka Tales for students of almost any grade level. Elementary school students will have a chance to get to know the tales along with some of Aesop’s fables in Morality "Tails" East and West: European Fables and Buddhist Jataka Tales. Middle school students can add to what they have already learned about Buddhism in the lesson plan The Jataka Takes: 550 Lessons of the Buddha. And finally, high school students can delve a little deeper into the Jatakas with the lesson Haven’t I Seen You Somewhere Before? Samsara and Karma in the Jataka Tales.


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East Meets West through Art

Finally, you and your students can consider how Asia changed the course of American art of the post-World War II era. "Outside the Frame," an article from the Humanities magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, reviews an art exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum of Art in New York City entitled "The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989." The exhibit and its accompanying website trace how Asian art, literature, and philosophy had a profound effect on the philosophy of art with its greatest impact being in the development of abstract painting, beat poetry and the "chance controlled" music of John Cage.


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Suggested Activity: Voyage with Manjiro

Asian-Pacific Heritage Month provides the perfect opportunity for students of all ages to celebrate the history, arts, and culture of the many cultures of Asia and of Asian Americans. This month EDSITEment’s featured story of Manjiro along with the selected EDSITEment resources, interactive map, and PDF worksheet Timeline of Manjiro’s life provide in-depth coverage of the Asian Pacific world that Manjiro sailed during his remarkable life travels. In this activity students will have the opportunity to learn a little bit more about that part of the world. Then, students, teachers, and parents may head out for a trip through Asia using EDSITEment-reviewed Internet resources such as Asian Society.


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Student Launchpads

Students may use the LaunchPad for K-5 or the LaunchPad for 6-12, to gather pieces of information about each of the countries and Pacific Islands they will visit during their virtual journey. Encourage classmates or siblings to take their own journeys and to compare what they have learned when they have "returned."


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Student Instructions

Students will use EDSITEment-reviewed web resource along with the Launchpad for K-5 and Launchpad for 6-12 to conduct research into the Asian-Pacific cultures and geography that Manjiro experienced during his whaling voyages and remarkable life travels in the mid-19th century: Japan, Honolulu, Guam, San Francisco etc. After students have taken the interactive voyage of Manjiro, have them write log entries at the various ports from Manjiro’s perspective describing the places where he stopped. Ask them to imagine what the place and its inhabitants may have looked like through the eyes of this young fisherman boy -- what kind of people he encountered, new sights he would have viewed upon his disembarking from the ship, new experiences he may have had during his time there.


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Featured Lessons


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Featured Websites


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Manjiro Nakahama, also known as John Mung, was the first immigrant of Japanese descent to the United States. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Follow the travels and life of Manjiro online with EDSITEment's interactive map.