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Manjiro: play looks at U.S.-Japan relations

by Shelly Awaya, staff writer


In the Dr. Richard T. Mamiya Theatre on the St. Louis School campus in Kaimuki, audience members got to see a good-natured play about how John Manjiro, a shipwrecked fisherman from Japan, was the first Japanese citizen to set foot on American soil and how he quickly became a celebrity when Japan transitioned from total isolation to a wide open country welcoming foreign trade, commerce, and the white man’s culture.


Performed entirely in Japanese with English subtitles, symbolism and fun were key elements in director Den Fujita’s John Manjiro – The Dawning of Modern Japan, which was presented in part by Gekidan Haisho and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i.

Shayna Coleon, the public relations director at JCCH, said the play ran in three states: Massachusetts, New York, and Hawai‘i, the last stop on the tour. “Gekidan Haisho decided to have the play in places that played a really big role in Manjiro’s travels,” Coleon said.

Fujita said in the program that he hoped the play conveyed how Japan modernized from opening its doors to American culture.

The stage doubled as the deck of Manjiro’s fishing boat and the underside of a bridge in an unidentified Japanese city. Cast members, with unique names like Thin Makeup and The Boss, narrated the story, blending history and humor as a group of outcasts tried to groom a Manjiro lookalike named Rickshaw Boy to impersonate Manjiro and claim a huge reward the Japanese government has offered to anyone who can bring them the man who knows the “American” ways.

The outcasts wonder why is the government searching for Manjiro? To kill him? To absorb his knowledge? They ponder this and their money-making scheme as the scenes bounce back and forth between the story of Manjiro’s ship-board journey to America and beneath the bridge where they dodge the Japanese spy hunting for anyone who opposes the “new” government.

Fujita’s play had lots of amusing touches, including large braided straw wigs to depict “blond Americans,” American whaling songs sung in a “It’s a Small World After All,” head-swaying tone, and interjecting zeyo, which roughly translates into English as “by gum,”into Manjiro’s dialect.

The performance’s climax comes when an older man, Wanderer, happens to be passing under the bridge and decides to tell the outcasts exactly who Manjiro really is. By this time, five posters with different images of Manjiro have circulated around the country. Only one faintly resembles Rickshaw Boy, but The Boss is determined to get the reward and fool the new government that has deeply divided Japan.

The story delves deeper into Manjiro’s experiences and accomplishments in the states, including his excelling in English, algebra, and shipbuilding, his role as first mate of a whaling ship, and his going to California during the Gold Rush. It comes full circle when Manjiro returns home to Japan.

Wanderer proposes that maybe Manjiro can’t be found because he wants to avoid everyone and is fed up with Japan because of all the chaos that accompanied the forming of the new government. The Boss and outcasts simply shrug it off, thinking Wanderer has no idea of what’s going on.

With that, Wanderer says goodbye and leaves the group under the bridge.

The spy winds up killing two outcasts in a stunning sword battle, leaving several women weeping as they watch the bodies get carried off.

Immediately thereafter, one of the outcasts runs to The Boss with yet another sketch of Manjiro.
The play closes with a hilarious “no way” ending, as each outcast looks dumbfounded at the sketch and the subtitle screen reads “Could it be?”

Before the lights dimmed, they showed the sketch to the audience with perplexed faces, and it was a composite drawing of Wanderer.

Fujita’s play reflected the ups and downs and struggles and victories of 150 years of relations between Japan and the United States and fashioned these into a seamless dramatic comedy.

The symbolic bridge used to recreate Manjiro’s travels ultimately depicts the coming together of two countries who, despite past differences, are today building a relationship that many hope will continue for another 150 years.


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