The Captive

How Ranald MacDonald ignited English studies in Japan

Ranald MacDonald, July 5, 1891

In 1848, Shogun Ieyoshi, the 12th supreme warlord in the Tokugawa dynasty, ruled Japan. The people were saddled with harsh austerity laws and Japan was still a deeply feudal state, closed to the world. U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry’s fleet wouldn’t arrive to demand port and trade concessions for another five years.

Nevertheless, 1848 is when North American explorer Ranald MacDonald chose to be dropped off by a whaler at Rishiri Island off Ezo, today’s Hokkaido. MacDonald was fuelled by an intense curiosity about Japan. “My plan was to present myself as a castaway and to rely on their humanity,” he wrote. “My purpose was to learn of them; and, if occasion should offer, to instruct them of us.”

Calling MacDonald North American is one way to skirt questions about his na­tio­nality. He was born in 1824 in present-day Astoria, Oregon, on territory that was then controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Oregon Country itself was shared by Britain and the United States; further complicating affairs was the fact that MacDonald’s father was a Hudson’s Bay official and his mother was a Chinook princess.

Samurai Students

Posing as a shipwrecked sailor, MacDonald was found by indigenous Ainu, brought to the local authorities, interrogated and then carted off to Soya, then Matsumae, and finally Nagasaki, at the time the only Japanese port open to external trade.

He was concealed from the public at all times. He wasn’t one of the Dutch traders allowed at Dejima, and the local mandarins didn’t know what to do with him. They confined him to a room at Daihian, a Buddhist temple, for 10 months.

The enterprising MacDonald made the best of it. At the time, there were no English teachers or fluent speakers in Japan — and foreign ships had begun circling the archi­pelago like ravenous sharks. MacDonald offered his captors language instruction, and 14 samurai took English lessons from him.

MacDonald had become one of the first English teachers in Japan, but he had also carefully studied the local language and culture and took the knowledge overseas. At the end of April 1849, he was put aboard the U.S. warship Preble — which had come to Nagasaki to pick up U.S. sailors who had deserted a whaler — and sent home.

After returning home, MacDonald sub­mit­ted a report about Japan to Congress that praised the Japanese for their orderly, cultivated so­ciety. That helped pave the way for Perry’s mission. Japan’s chief interpreter for the his­toric nego­tiations with the United States was Einosuke Moriyama, MacDonald’s star pupil.

MacDonald was fuelled by an intense curiosity about Japan.

A Man from Many Places

MacDonald traveled extensively in Europe, Asia and Australia. After his journeys he first went to “Canada East” (present-day Québec), but then spent many years in what is now British Columbia, running a packing business and a ferry service on the Fraser River.

He participated in expeditions to Vancouver Island and the Cariboo, an inland region of British Columbia, and retired to a log cabin near present-day Colville, Washington.

MacDonald died in 1894, and was buried in eastern Washington State near the Canadian border; there are memorials to him in Astoria, Nagasaki and on Rishiri.

While MacDonald made conflicting statements about his natio­nality over his lifetime, historians in both the United States and Canada have laid claims to him.

“Ranald could have claimed to be a U.S. citizen, a Canadian, or a British citizen,” says Frederik L. Schodt, author of Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan.

“I believe he told his interrogators in Japan that he was from Oregon which, in his parlance, meant everything from the Columbia River north to British Columbia, and included the state of Washington and part of Idaho, I suspect. To say that he was a Canadian is somewhat true, but a bit disingenuous, because of course when he was born modern Canada did not exist and when it did first come into being it was British.”

Whatever his nationality, however, by being the first native English teacher of Japanese interpreters, MacDonald planted a seed of internationalization in Japan that grew into a core pillar of its modernization.

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