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stepping stones of maritime history


For the Japanese, the Kanrin Maru may just actually be the nation's most famous ship. It is one of the few ships mentioned by name in children's history books, while a lot of Japanese immediately know of its importance when the vessel is brought up in conversations. Read on to find out more about its symbolic significance.

Built for Japan

The Kanrin Maru (or Kanrin-maru) was a screw-driven schooner frigate built in 1856 in Kinderdijk, the Netherlands. It was originally named the Japan as it was specially constructed for the Japanese government. In 1857, the ship was brought to Japan where it was taken into the service of what would become Japan's first naval force in the European tradition, in the nation's attempt to catch up with the world's ruling naval powers.

Although officially in Japanese hands, Dutch naval personnel in Nagasaki used the Kanrin Maru to train one of the earliest batches of Japanese navy men. Day in day out, the Japanese navy men received their theoretical education at the Nagasaki Naval Training School. New theoretical skills could then be put into practice on board the Kanrin Maru, as well as on other training vessels. The Dutch Marine Detachment remained in Nagasaki until 1859.

Embassy to USA

The Kanrin Maru derives most of its current fame from its voyage to the US in 1860. For it famously followed in the wake of the first Japanese diplomatic mission to the US. Japanese men in command on board were Commander Settsunokami Kimura (1830-1901) and Captain Katsu Kaishu (1823-1899), although they could not have made it without the instructions of the American Captain Brooke and his crew who were on board to help. Nonetheless, it was the first real trial out on the open sea for a Japanese crew since the re-opening of Japan in 1853 was ushered in by the arrival of US Commodore Perry's steam warships in Edo Bay. And thus, only seven years later, after having been trained by Dutch naval personnel in Nagasaki, the Japanese managed to master the skills to command a steamship and sail it across the Pacific. The diplomatic mission to the US itself was an important ceremonial follow up, conducted to exchange instruments of ratification for the Treaty of Amity and Commerce that was first signed by Japan and the US in 1858.

Members of the Japaese Embassy

Members of the Japanese Embassy. The famous Fukuzawa Yukichi sits on the right.

Boshin war

Although the Kanrin Maru never really saw any battle, it took part in the Boshin war (1868-1869), during which shogunate forces fought the rising Imperial forces, which ultimately ended in the abolishment of the shogunate government and the reinstatement of Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) as the country's ruling power.

Shipwrecked in 1871

No longer serving any real military purpose, the Kanrin Maru was freed from its steam machinery and continued service in the new Imperial Navy as a transport ship. In its final years, it was used to transfer passengers to Hokkaido, the most northern of Japan's four main islands. The island of Hokkaido had for centuries mainly been populated by the Ainu, an indigenous people, but was to be 'colonized'.

In the night of September 19 and 20, 1871, the ship wrecked. Official records tell us a typhoon raged through the vicinity and pushed it onto the rocks of Cape Saraki, just off the local fishing town Izumisawa-village.

What's so interesting, is that oral history about the shipwreck incident has survived for all these years. Local fisherman Mr. Niida explained that his ancestor was the town doctor at the time that the Kanrin Maru wrecked on Cape Saraki. It was in the middle of the night when he was called over by the town mayor who had an unknown man crying for help on his doorsteps because the ship he was travelling on had just wrecked on the local Cape. Immediately the town mayor sounded the alarm, rallied all the townsmen from their beds and spurred the whole town into action to help the 400 passengers and 100 crew get off safely; an adequate response as not one of the 400 passengers were hurt. Afterwards, the villagers took all passengers into their homes, while some were taken in by the local Buddhist Temple, the Daisen-ji. In the following days, one passenger died of natural causes. His name and his relation to the Kanrin Maru can still be found in the necrology of the Buddhist temple. Today, the locals proudly recall that one female passenger even was pregnant and gave birth to a healthy child in the days after, so in fact 401 passengers were saved that day, the locals say.

The local people furthermore take pride in the role of the villagers in this historical event, which. as they explain, contributes greatly to their sense of place and personal attachment to the area.

Signs of a cover up?

Currently a lot of intrigue and mystery revolves around the wrecking incident. Mr. Goda, a retired journalist, conducted 7+ years of research on the Kanrin Maru. In his research, he found a private diary of a Hokkaido official who was a sober, diligent and hardworking man who never failed to note down in his diary the daily weather conditions, except for September 19 and 20, 1871. On those particular days, the diary remains silent. Are these signs of misinformation to cover up the shipwreck of the Kanrin Maru, he wondered? Digging further into the records, Mr. Goda found the names of two unknown foreigners, probably Americans, who were hired to command the vessel. One of the men, however, an American captain, apparently was a notorious drunk who was even more infamous because he carried a cat in his arms even while on the job. Although the information cannot be verified with great certainty, this does add to the intrigue of the shipwreck debacle.

It may just be so, Mr. Goda postulates, that, seeing as Hokkaido just had a newly installed governmental body responsible for organising the influx of new settlers to permanently inhabit the northern island, the government officials did not want to be embarrassed by the shipwreck of 400 passengers and the loss of government property. Not to mention the fact that these settlers were the former shogunate retainers from Sendai who were the factual enemies of the now ruling Meiji Emperor, whom had therefore ordered their banishment to Hokkaido. Whatever the case, we may just never know what really happened with the Kanrin Maru, but what we do know is that all passengers later found a new home in Sapporo, the current capital city of Hokkaido. Their descendants still live there today, though even they do not appear to know what actually happened.

Admiral Kimura and his personal diary

While conducting the interviews with the members of the Society of Kanrin Maru Crew Descendants, it became clear that the Kanrin Maru’s crew members from 1860 were a diligent, steadfast and talented group of men. A lot of them managed to climb to prestigious positions after their legendary voyage in 1860. Some of them indeed became politicians and headmasters of renowned schools, as aforementioned. The ancestor of Ms. Munakata, Kimura Settsu no Kami (1830–1901), also known as Admiral Kimura, is also such an example. When the second Marine Detachment arrived in 1857, Admiral Kimura was then just installed as the new Director of Navy, taking up the role of headmaster of the Nagasaki Naval Training School. He was furthermore positioned as a high-ranked metsuke (shogunal intelligence) or opperdwarskijker (head spy) as the Dutch called him (Huyssen van Kattendijke 1860, 76). Admiral Kimura would later become Minister of Navy among other high positions in society.

Admiral Kimura in 1860 (photo: courtesy of the Munakata-family).

Admiral Kimura’s original personal journal is kept in the custody of Keio University. It has been transcribed into Japanese, but much of the kanji (Chinese characters) are now obsolete.

Jitsujiro Ohkuma

Others of lower rank also managed to make a name for themselves. Take for instance Jitsujiro Ohkuma, the ancestor of Masuo Fujimoto, the president of the Society of Kanrin Maru Crew Descendants. Jitsujiro was both boatswain and ship’s carpenter on board the Kanrin Maru during the legendary crossing in 1860. Jitsujiro was also trained in Nagasaki, and in this capacity, it is certain that he was instrumental in building one of the earliest European-style ships built by Japanese hands, although there is not much more known about his personal experiences there. After taking part in the voyage to the US, Jitsujiro took what he learned to heart and established his own shipyard in Kobe which would long bear his family name. This shipyard still carries on in what is now named Kawasaki Heavy Industries at Kobe. In a way, the road set out for Jitsujiro Ohkuma all trails back to the Dutch teachers at the Nagasaki Naval Training School.

Masanoshin Kosugi

Another descendant of the Kanrin Maru crew, Yoshiharu Masai, whose ancestor was Masanoshin Kosugi, told researchers that Masanoshin was accepted to the Nagasaki Naval Training School all thanks to his older brother Naoyoshi. As the oldest son in the family, Naoyoshi was expected to take care of his family’s home. As the family could no longer financially support another son, Naoyoshi did what Japanese tradition asked of him. In such cases, a Japanese family would try to find another family prepared to adopt this younger son into the family. Having heard of the new Naval Training School installed at Nagasaki, Naoyoshi made sure that his younger brother Masanoshin was going to be accepted as a student. This turned out to be a decision both he and his younger brother would not regret. In his years in naval service, Masanoshin had established himself well after participating in the crossing of the Pacific, as he had managed to climb his way up to captain. He even came to serve on the Kaiyou-maru (1863–1868), a Japanese warship that was built in Dordrecht, the Netherlands, inextricably linking his family to the fruits of Dutch-Japanese maritime history. Part of the wreck of the Kaiyou-maru still lies in situ inside the port of Esashi, Hokkaido.

Masanoshin Kosugi (photo: courtesy of Mr. Masai).

Modern oral history

Each of the descendants interviewed were also asked what significance the Kanrin Maru has played in their personal lives. The stories these people conveyed all resonate a strong feeling of family honour, for most of them already knew about their ancestor’s achievements with the Kanrin Maru from their youth. With pride, the descendants told that, through numerous commemorative events, they were brought early into contact with a great variety of people who all were in some way connected to the Kanrin Maru’s legacy. Among them are Japanese, Dutchmen and families in the US. This goes to show that the cultural heritage of the Kanrin Maru perhaps no longer resonates so much in tangible aspects, but rather more so lives on in the intangible realm. It is a legacy kept alive through the efforts of communities and individuals that harbours to them perhaps even a greater importance than the commemoration of relations between Japan and the Netherlands.

memorial plaquette in San Francisco

Memorial plaque in San Francisco, signifying the importance of the ship for the relations of Japan and the United States of America.


This ship was initially name Japan (1856) and then renamed Kanrin Maru 咸臨丸 (after 1857). It was a corvette or small frigate. It was ordered in 1853 in the Netherlands at the F. Smit Shipwright in Kinderdijk, the Netherlands. The ship was delivered in September 1857 and the first screw driven ship of the Japanese navy.

  • Line: Tokugawa Shogunate Navy / Imperial Navy after 1869
  • Dimensions: 49.5 m x 7.2 m
  • Propulsion: screw-driven coal-fired steam engine, sails
  • Tonnage: 300
  • Armament: twelve 32-pound cannons

Allegedly, the Kanrin Maru in 1855.


The Kanrin Maru has always attracted a lot of interest from different heritage communities that have felt a connection to its history, resulting in different kinds of research related to the Kanrin Maru.

Over the years, searches for the wreck of one of Japan's most famous ships have unfortunately not led to any major breakthroughs. The latest search involved a marine geophysical survey and was conducted in 2019 in a collaboration of Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology (TUMSAT) and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE). The search was mainly funded by the marine geophysical research company the Windy Network and the Society of Kanrin Maru Crew Descendants.

Due to the difficulties involved in finding a shipwreck of which the location is not pinpointed yet (the 'needle in the haystack'), the RCE and TUMSAT focused on collecting the oral history and information on the significance of the intangible heritage revolving around the Kanrin Maru.


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