Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Original Selkirk Settler offspring became first English teacher in Japan

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The word "Manitoba" brings a smile to Minoru Maeda. The bags of wheat with the province's name stamped prominently across the front were a fixture in his family's post-Second World War Nagasaki bakery.

"Manitoba wheat was considered the best for making bread," said Maeda, 79, between sips of beer in a restaurant in Nagasaki's Chinatown area.

Maeda's family was tasked with starting a bakery in Nagasaki, devastated by an atomic bomb in the dying days of the Second World War, and helping to feed a population struggling to recover from the ruin.

"We made bread for more than three or four thousand people," said Maeda, who was just 10 on Aug. 9, 1945, when the second atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city, killing over 70,000 people. Fortunately, Nagasaki's hilly terrain shielded large areas of the city from the bomb's effects, including Maeda and most of his family.

Maeda, who called Nagasaki home for most of his life and saw it recover from ruin and prosper again, dedicated himself to becoming an English teacher, figuring it would be the best way to improve his language ability and propel his dream of living abroad.

Maeda's international outlook came with growing up in Nagasaki, a port city with an almost exotic, cosmopolitan history compared with other parts of Japan. Maeda developed an affinity for a historical figure from Nagasaki's colourful past, one who also had a connection to Manitoba.

"When I was young, I knew that someone had started teaching English here in Nagasaki -- there was a small monument."

It wasn't until years later, however, when an article in the English version of the Yomiuri newspaper caught his attention, that Maeda really got to know the story of the first English teacher in Japan and his short but influential time spent in Nagasaki more than 160 years ago.

"It was then I really began to be interested in Ranald MacDonald," he said.


There weren't many options for formal education in the North American fur-trade frontier in the early 1800s.

That changed in 1835 when the Red River Academy, a boarding school for the offspring of Hudson's Bay Company officers, opened its doors in what is now Winnipeg. Almost immediately, the school attracted the attention of HBC men, who began sending their children, regardless of gender, from remote North American fur-trade posts to attend.

The curriculum included reading, writing, math and a healthy dose of the classics. Pemmican was served at lunch.

Archibald McDonald arrived with the original Selkirk settlers in 1813 at what would become the Red River Settlement. He later became a distinguished chief factor on the westernmost edge of Hudson's Bay Company territory and quickly made arrangements for his eldest Métis son to attend the academy.

When the next HBC express was scheduled to depart, 10-year-old Ranald MacDonald, whose mother was the daughter of a chief in a powerful Chinook tribe, had a spot reserved in the heavily loaded canoes. (Ranald spelled the family surname with a "Mac", although Archibald used "Mc.") The 4,800-kilometre journey went east up the Columbia River, over the Rocky Mountains through the Athabasca Pass, arriving just in time for school after the final trek through the Prairies.

It would be the beginning of an education that would set MacDonald apart from others who had washed up on Japan's shores at a time when foreigners were forbidden and it would afford him a humble place in history as the first English teacher in Japan.

"He was very different from the other foreign sailors," said Maeda, as he stood by the monument dedicated to MacDonald on a quiet Nagasaki street, not far from the spot where MacDonald was held for five months. "He was very intelligent -- knowledgeable about his own country and the world, and curious."

It was that curiosity and sense of adventure that led MacDonald into talking the captain of a whaling ship into giving him a small boat in lieu of payment and setting him adrift in the Sea of Japan within sight of Japanese land. His only baggage was a small chest of books with which he hoped to convince the Japanese people he was a man of learning -- and of peace. MacDonald eventually made land on Rishiri island, off the northwest corner of present-day Hokkaido. The heavily bearded people who greeted him were Ainu, the indigenous people of the region. The man with the shaved head and topknot was an official representative of the shogunate.

From there, MacDonald made the 1,600-kilometre journey under armed guard to southern Japan, his destination determined, his fate still unknown to him.

Nagasaki was where all foreigners ended up in feudal Japan. The port city on the southern island of Kyushu was the only point of contact with the outside world for more than two centuries.

The ruling shogunate had been fighting a running battle for almost a century for control of a substantial part of the Kyushu population that had been converted to Christianity by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries who first set foot on Japanese shores in the early 1500s.

An eventual ban of missionaries and Christianity followed, culminating in isolation laws called sakoku, or "closed country," and the expulsion of all foreigners in 1639. The only exception was the Dutch, who were allowed on the small island of Deshima in Nagasaki harbour. The Dutch, along with the Chinese and Koreans, were the only foreigners formally allowed to trade and have contact with Japan for the next 200-plus years. The laws were enforced mercilessly and tales of harsh punishment and gruesome death for any sailors who washed up on Japan's shores made the rounds of the seafaring world.

But things were changing in 1848. The country was being increasingly forced to deal with foreign governments eager to open up a country that had closed itself off from the rest of the world and add to their colonial coffers. Pressure was also coming from inside as people began to chafe against harsh military rule and were eager to modernize.

Once in Nagasaki, shogunate officials informed MacDonald it was illegal for any foreigner to set foot on Japanese soil and that he was to be incarcerated until he could be repatriated. But MacDonald endeared himself to his captors with his genial nature and love of books.

MacDonald's historical significance is tied to Moriyama Einosuke, the head of a small group of language interpreters in Nagasaki. At the time, they were saddled with awkward Dutch translations, the only European language with which they had any consistent contact. Einosuke, who had some knowledge of English, became MacDonald's daily companion, eventually putting him to work teaching 14 interpreters the basics of English-language conversation.

It was the same Moriyama Einosuke who played a major role in negotiations with the United States when Admiral Perry sailed four steamships into Yokohama Bay in 1854 and demanded Japan open itself to the world. Einosuke helped to preserve independence for Japan when much of Asia was being carved up by colonial powers, setting the country on the road to modernization.


After a day of walking the streets of Nagasaki, Maeda, who eventually lived abroad, earning his master's degree from the University of Oregon at age 53, reflected a little more on MacDonald's significance.

"I think Ranald MacDonald was successful because he had a philanthropic attitude to life and was devoid of any prejudice," said Maeda, a member of the Friends of MacDonald Society, which is dedicated to preserving MacDonald's memory. "That greatly eased his acceptance by the Japanese at the time."

MacDonald was eventually repatriated aboard a U.S ship with a group of American shipwrecked sailors, returning to his home along the Columbia River in what is now northern Washington state. He took detailed notes during his time in Nagasaki, including observations about Japanese manners, customs and military organization -- but never saw them published as a popular book as he desired. His story was not lost, however, as the Eastern Washington State Historical Society published his notes in 1923, keeping alive the story of the first English teacher in Japan and reserving a small place in the history books for Ranald MacDonald.


Winnipegger Colin Fraser lived in Japan from 2004 to 2009. He returns there yearly for work.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 D4


Updated on Saturday, May 17, 2014 at 5:51 PM CDT: Fixes grammatical error

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