Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 830:
DRIFTING JUNKS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 830.

Today, a story about drifting boats and cultural mixing. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Some years ago I saw a fine display of old maps in a Japanese museum. They were beautiful, but something was wrong. The maps showed only Japan! Aren't maps meant to show alien worlds?

In the 16th century, Western sailors came across the world to find a Japan that did not want to be stained by outsiders. In 1636 the Japanese tried to halt foreign influence by quarantining themselves. No more foreign ships in their ports! They also barred their own ships from leaving Japan.

They went further. Their junks were to be designed with open sterns and large rudders so they'd swamp in high seas. They were meant to be unseaworthy far from shore.

Bert Webber tells how junks were damaged by wind and waves -- how they drifted into eastbound currents. As Europeans colonized our West Coast they found junks with crews half-dead. Those junks became the stuff of anecdote and legend. A tally of drifting junks, made in 1875, documented 60 known cases.

Typically, 6 out of 20 sailors might survive after 9 months adrift. First they ate their own cargo. Then they collected rain water and fished. Finally, some even ate their own dead.

For centuries survivors melted into the underbrush along our Pacific Coast. They joined the native population. Today the Indian word for milk is the Japanese word tsche-tsche. The Japanese word haiku, meaning speed, has become the Indian word hyack. Yaku, or evil genius, has become yak, or devil.

When European and American ships began ranging the Pacific, they tried to return stranded sailors to Japan. The edict had said lost sailors were subject to a death penalty, but the Japanese usually accepted them politely and ignored the penalty. They just wanted to get rid of foreign ships without incident.

One sailor, Manjiro, was picked up by a captain from Fairhaven, Massachusetts. The captain trained him to be a ship's officer. Manjiro returned to Japan just before Admiral Perry and his warships arrived to demand open trade.

Japan changed fast after that. Within 23 years she'd built 150 modern ships -- steam packets, full-rigged merchantmen, and more. Manjiro had an important role in Japan's emergence.

In 1918, Manjiro's son presented a Samurai sword to the people of Fairhaven. That sword stayed on display in the Fairhaven Library right down through the darkest days of WW-II.

And I read an odd moral in all this. I realize we'll find a way to be one people despite kings and shoguns, wars and edicts. We have a primary instinct for mutual support and cultural sharing. In the end, that instinct will not be denied.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Webber, B., Wrecked Japanese Junks Adrift in the North Pacific Ocean. Fairfield, WN: Ye Galleon Press, 1984.

Davis, H., Record of Japanese Vessels Driven Upon the North-West Coast of America and Its Outlying Islands. Worcester, MA: Printed by Charles Hamilton, Palladium Office, 1872.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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