Nakahama Manjirō (1827-1898), also known as John Manjirō, was the first Japanese person to visit the United States of America.
In 1841 the 14-year-old Manjirō was fishing in the open ocean with four others when their boat wrecked on the uninhabited island of Torishima, about 350 miles south of mainland Japan. They were picked up by the American whaler John Howland (Captain William H. Whitfield in command) and taken to Honolulu, Hawaii, but Manjirō, now nicknamed "John," wanted to visit the US, so he stayed with the ship back to its home port in Massachusetts.
Captain Whitfield entrusted Manjirō to a man named James Akin, who enrolled Manjirō in the Oxford School in the town of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. At the Oxford School Manjirō studied English and navigation for a year and then apprenticed to a cooper before signing up as a whaler with Whitfield's help and sailing for the South Seas aboard the whaler Franklin.
In 1849, Manjirō used his earnings as a whaler to book passage to California in order to participate in California Gold Rush. Mining enough gold to earn the then princely sum of $600, he made his way back to Honolulu where he reunited with one of his old fishing buddies. Purchasing a small bark, they successfully navigated across the Pacific to Okinawa, Japan, where they were arrested by officials of the Tokugawa Shogunate for breaking the ban in place at that time on Japanese leaving Japan.
The Shogunate quickly realized, however, that Manjirō's knowledge of English and the outside world was invaluable. Although he was placed under house arrest and thoroughly interrogated for several months, he was eventually released and elevated to samurai rank, thereafter serving as a trusted adviser to the Shogunate. In 1853, he served as a translator during negotiations with Commodore Matthew C. Perry during the US Opening of Japan, and later served as a translator on the first Japanese embassy to the United States, in 1860. In later years, he would translate several books on Western ships and shipbuilding, and help oversee the construction of the Imperial Japanese Navy, before ultimately finishing his career as a professor of military science at Tokyo Imperial University.
Today, Captain Whitfield's old home in Fairhaven, Massachusetts has been renovated as a museum about Manjirō's life and his contribution to US-Japan relations.