On March 11, 2011, the nation of Japan was shaken by a 9.1 magnitude earthquake. Centered 231 miles northeast of Tokyo, the quake — the largest ever recorded in Japan — caused a tsunami with 30-foot waves that devastated the Sendai region and damaged several nuclear reactors in the area. Ten years later, a 31-foot fiberglass boat washed ashore near the town of Long Beach. The boat “was suspected of having been washed away from Japanese shores during the tsunami and had been adrift since that time,” emailed Russ Lewis after a beach cleanup along Leadbetter Point.
“There was some Japanese lettering in two locations,” Lewis continued. “John Chapman, a marine scientist, came up from the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, to sample the attached marine species that generally consisted of pelagic gooseneck barnacles, a small number of pink barnacles, and pelagic oysters. The boat was demolished and then hauled to a local landfill.”
Said Chapman, “It is clearly a Japanese Tsunami Marine Debris (JTMD) boat. There were dead oysters on it and we also found dead plus live Megabalanus rosa, a strictly Asian barnacle. There was no scrape or wear that would indicate it was beached and then washed back into the ocean after the initial event. There also were no signs that it had an outboard on it when it was swept away and all the drain ports were open, so it came off the land. It wasn’t tied to a float or dock. Finally, there were no identifying plates or marks. I bet it was abandoned in a Japanese boatyard. All signs that it had been drifting for almost exactly 10 years when it landed at Long Beach. Very likely, it orbited North Pacific Gyres multiple times.”
James T. (Jim) Carlton, director emeritus of the Williams College-Mystic Seaport Maritime Studies Program and founding editor of Biological Invasions, emailed to say, “We have registered about 170 derelict vessels that we believe are likely linked to the March 2011 tsunami — these have been found at sea or have landed in North America (Alaska to California) and in the Hawaiian Islands (out to Midway).”
6,000 years ago…
In 2009, in our book “Flotsametrics and the Floating World,” coauthor Eric Scigliano and I wrote of derelict vessels which drifted from Japan across the North Pacific Ocean. Forty years earlier (1965), Betty Meggers, eminent anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, published an inspiring account in Scientific American of Japanese derelicts which 6,000 years ago drifted from Japan across the North Pacific Ocean to Ecuador, South America. The impetus to this migration was one of the great cataclysms of humankind’s time on earth.
Few spots on earth are as prone to natural catastrophe as Japan, an island nation floating at the intersection of three tectonic plates: Pacific, Eurasian, and Philippine. The slow but violent collision of these plates produces spectacular earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. In 4350 BC, the Akahoya eruption of the kikai volcano ejected three times more material than the most powerful recorded volcanic eruption (Mt. Tambora, Indonesia, in 1815). Kikai, a flyspeck island off southern Kyushu, exploded with a force that dwarfs more famous volcanoes that have since erupted around the world. The standard scale of volcano force, the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI), runs from 1 to 8; kikai weighed in at VEI 7, just below the mega-eruptions that cause ice ages and mass extinctions. It ejected 24 cubic miles of dirt, rock, and dust into the air — about nine times as much as Krakatoa in 1883, 24 times as much as Mount St. Helens in 1980, and 40 times as much as the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Massive tsunamis triggered by the Akahoya eruption obliterated coastal towns. The volcanic spew was enough to blanket up to 18 million square miles of land and sea. Dust and ash several meters thick smothered the fertile soil, rendering southern Japan uninhabitable for two centuries. Unable to raise crops, the indigenous Jomon people set out for other shores. And that was where a second mighty natural phenomenon came into play.
The Kuroshio (“black current,” named after its dark color as it appears on the horizon as seen from the shore) is the Pacific Ocean’s answer to the Atlantic Gulf Stream. More than 2,200 years ago, the Chinese called the Kuroshio by the prescient name Wei-Lu, the current to “a world in the east from which no man has ever returned.”
Surging north from Taiwan, bulging with warm tropic water, it arcs past Japan and southeast Alaska and down the Northwest coast. At the same time, cool, powerful offshore winds, the equivalent of Atlantic America’s icy blasts, race down from Siberia to the southeast, pushing boats and other flotsam out into the Kuroshio. Islanders fleeing the volcano’s effects, in what Betty Meggers called the Jomon Exodus, were driven into the Kuroshio. So were fishermen blocked from returning home by the sea-blanketing pumice. And the black current bore them toward America — surely not the first and far from the last unwitting emissaries to make that journey.
The names applied to drifting ships along the Pacific and the Atlantic hint at deeper cultural differences. Europeans call them “derelicts,” vessels abandoned when their crews take to the longboats. But Asians view them differently. The Japanese use the word hyōryū for a marine mishap in which a vessel, the hyōryū-sen, loses control and drifts without command. Traditionally its crew and passengers — hyōryū-nin, or “drifting people” — would stay aboard, awaiting their fate. In half of known hyōryū, at least some hyōryū-nin survived to reach land. And some of those dramatically affected the societies they beached upon. Around 1260 AD, a junk drifted nearly to North America until the California Current caught it and sent it into the westbound trade winds, which deposited it near Wailuku, Maui. Six centuries later, the oral history of the event had passed down to King David Kalakaua, Hawaii’s last reigning monarch. Five passengers on the junk survived, including two women. They married well on the islands; one wed the powerful chief Wakalana, beginning extensive family lines on Maui and Oahu.
That was just the first accidental Japanese mission to Hawaii. By 1650, according to John Stokes, curator of Honolulu’s Bishop Museum, four more vessels had drifted there. Their crews also married into the nobility and, Stokes concluded, injected many new influences into Hawaiian society: “Hawaiian native culture, while basically Polynesian, included many features not found elsewhere in Polynesia.”
Japanese influence likewise spread in mainland North America. Archaeological digs occasionally unearth traces: iron (which native Americans did not smelt) discovered in a village buried by an ancient mudslide near Lake Ozette on the Olympic Peninsula; arrowheads hewn from Asian pottery discovered on Oregon’s coast; and possibly the 5,000-year-old Japanese pottery shards in Ecuador. Just as Betty Meggers found unique artifacts, viruses, and DNA markers in Ecuador subjects, the anthropologist Nancy Yaws Davis found tell-tales of the Japanese in the Zuni of northern New Mexico, distinct from all the other Pueblo peoples. Davis concluded that Japanese landed in California in the 14th century and trekked inland to help found the present-day Zuni Nation.
University of Washington anthropologist George Quimby estimated some 187 junks drifted from Japan to the Americas between CE 500 and 1750, a number remarkably similar to the 170 vessels that washed ashore after the great Japanese tsunami of 2011.
Shogun closes Japan
The number of drifts increased dramatically after 1603 — thanks, ironically, to the efforts of a xenophobic regime to keep foreign influences out of Japan and the Japanese in. In that year, the Tokugawa shogun, who had united the nation after years of civil war, closed Japan to the outside world except for restricted trade through the port of Nagasaki. Western ships and castaways were to be repelled. Missionaries and other foreigners who entered were to be killed — as were Japanese who left and tried to return. To ensure that Japanese mariners remained in coastal waters, the shoguns dictated that their boats have large rudders designed to snap in high seas. Vessels blown offshore were helpless; to avoid capsizing, crews would cut down their main masts and then drift, rudderless and unrigged, across the ocean.
Politics conspired with geography, weather, and ocean currents to set this slow-motion, accidental armada adrift. Over the centuries the shoguns’ center of power settled in Edo (now Tokyo). They demanded annual tributes of rice and other crops, ceramics, and sundry goods. Japan’s mountainous terrain made land transport impossible; each fall and winter, after the harvest, tribute-laden vessels sailed from Osaka and the other cities of the populous south up the outer coast to Edo. They had to cross the exposed deep-water reach called Enshu-nada, the infamous Bay of Bad Water, often when storms blew down from Siberia — the same weather pattern that rakes Labrador and Greenland and that drove kayaks across the Atlantic. Of 90 drifting vessels documented by the Japanese expert Arakawa Hidetoshi, storms blew 68% out into the kuroshio during the four months from October to January.
Looking for long-ago castaways
To see where the hyōryū-nin drifted, the girls of the Natural Science Club in Choshi, Japan, threw 750 bottles into the kuroshio in October of 1984 and ’85. By 1998, beachombers had recovered 49: seven along North America, nine in the Hawaiian Islands, 13 in the Philippines, and 16 in the vicinity of Japan — percentages remarkably like those of the known hyōryū. A few drifted back onto the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka, just north of Japan. (Kamchatkans had adopted the slang term dembei for bobbing castaways, after a Japanese fisherman named Dembei whose junk drifted there in 1697, the first known contact between Japanese and Russians.)
Shortly after the publication of Flotsametrics, Betty Meggers and I began a long friendship at a series of meetings at Sitka known as Pathways across the Pacific, hosted by Nancy Yaw Davis. Nancy asked if I would co-convene a small group of scientists to explore Betty’s idea that some Japanese survived transpacific drift journeys. Betty had become convinced by comparing pottery shards in Japan and Ecuador that some had landed at Valdivia, Ecuador. From the work of Charles Wolcott Brooks, I had learned of Japanese who had survived epic voyages to Alaska and Washington state. As to the effect of survivors on indigenous peoples, I became obsessed with Ranald MacDonald, who I thought proved pivotal in fostering the reopening of Japan to Commodore Matthew Perry in 1848.
In the spring of 1834, three shipwrecked Japanese sailors were brought to Fort Vancouver. MacDonald’s father was Archibald MacDonald, a Scottish fur trader for Hudson’s Bay Company, and his mother was koale’xoa (“Raven” or “Princess Sunday”), a Chinook, daughter of Comcomly, a leader of the “Lower Chinook” people who lived near the present-day city of Ilwaco. MacDonald had become inspired by a Japanese drifter and decided to strand himself in Japan. In his autobiography, MacDonald explained it: “My plan was to present myself as a castaway … and to rely on their humanity. My purpose was to learn of them; and, if occasion should offer, to instruct them of us.” While jailed for the brilliant attempt, he taught his jailers English, which helped enable Perry’s successful negotiations to reopen Japan.
Over the years, I visited several locations where Brooks showed derelicts had come ashore. At Sitka, several Japanese survived and were sequestered there. At Cape Flattery, I spent time at the Makah Reservation near where three Japanese survivors landed. At Fort Vancouver and the town of Astoria at the Columbia River mouth, I visited monuments dedicated to Ranald MacDonald. I became convinced that Japanese sea drifters influenced the course of human history around the Pacific.
Over the centuries, hundreds of derelicts have orbited the great gyres in the North Atlantic and Pacific oceans. I saw in them the music of the gyres with harmonics or orbital periods: 6, 3, 1.5, and 0.75 years. The present derelict is but a note in the great orchestral fugue being played out as climate rapidly changes under man’s industrial onslaught. My prayer is that people will feel the gyres’ orchestral music in time for humanity to save itself. I often find myself praying in the wee hours the words said as Jesus was crucified (from Luke 23:34): “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”