Yamamoto Otokichi (a.k.a. John Matthew Ottoson, J. M. Otterson, Lin Ah Tao) (b. 1817, Onoura, Japan – d. 17 January 1867, Singapore) is recognised as the first Japanese to have resided in Singapore. He lived in Singapore from the late 1840s until his death in 1867. He was instrumental in opening relations between Japan and the West in the late Edo Period (1603-1867). Among his many accomplishments, he helped to translate portions of the Bible into Japanese.
Journey to America & England
At the age of about 14, Otokichi was already an apprentice sailor on board the cargo ship Honjumaru. On 12 November 1832, while on a routine trip, the ship was caught in a storm. Drifting in the Pacific Ocean for 14 months, the crew members lived off the ship's supply of rice and drank desalinated water. Of the original 14 crewmen, only Otokichi and two others, Iwakichi and Kyukichi, survived. They made landfall in December 1833 at Cape Alava in Oregon, North America. Although Tanaka Shosuke is believed to be the first Japanese to have visited America in 1610, Otokichi and his companions become the first Japanese to reach America during the late Edo Period.
The Makah, a Native American tribe, captured the men after they landed. In 1834, John McLoughlin, British fur trader and head of the Hudson Bay Company in Fort Vancouver, came to their rescue. He saw the return of the men to their native land as an opportunity to start trade with Japan. During the Edo Period, Japan had maintained sakoku, a closed-door policy toward the outside world. McLoughlin and the Japanese men journeyed on the brig Eagle first to London to solicit business support. This stopover in 1835 made Otokichi and his friends the first nineteenth-century Japanese to arrive in England.
Journey to East Asia
In December 1835, Otokichi's journey brought him to Macao, where he met the famed missionary Karl Friedrich August Gutzlaff. Gutzlaff took this opportunity to learn Japanese, and Otokichi is often credited with assisting him with the translation of the Gospel of John. Evidence of Otokichi’s influence in this translation includes the use of terms found in the Owari dialect and the fact that the text is written entirely in katakana. This first portion of the Bible to be translated into Japanese was first published in Singapore in 1837. However, it only entered Japan in 1859, after Gutzlaff's death.
In Macao, Otokichi's group was more than doubled when four other shipwrecked sailors from Kyushu joined them on their return trip home. However, their arrival in Japan in 1836 was met with gunfire: their country, under the Tokugawa Shogunate, retained a strong animosity toward foreigners.
Rejected by his own country, Otokichi turned to the West soon after, taking the name John Matthew Ottoson and converting to Christianity. Proficient in the Chinese language, he was employed by the British as an interpreter during the Opium Wars of 1839 to 1842. He continued working for British agents thereafter, helping to repatriate Japanese castaways like himself and travelling extensively throughout East Asia as well as to Singapore. Although he did not land in Japan, he did anchor off Japan while working as a translator with the British.
Under the Chinese pseudonym Lin Ah Tao, Otokichi landed at Uraga Port in 1849. He was working as a translator for the HMS Mariner, which was conducting a topographical survey. More significantly, he assisted Admiral James Stirling in forging the Peace and Amity treaty on 14 October 1854. This treaty opened Nagasaki for trade between Britain, France and Japan. In return for this momentous deed, he was rewarded with a small fortune and British citizenship. Eventually, this led him to settle in Singapore in 1862. He did not take up a Japanese offer for him to return to his homeland.
Residence in Singapore
Otokichi’s first wife was a Scottish woman whom he had met in Macao, where she was working at the Mission Press. Subsequently he married Louisa Belder, a Singaporean Eurasian of German and Malay descent. He had met Belder in Shanghai, where they had both worked at Dent & Beale Company. In 1849, Otokichi purchased a burial plot for Gutzlaff's first wife in Singapore.
Otokichi was known to have kept two residences, one off Killiney Road and another at Siglap. At the latter house, which he had rented from Robert Little, he died of tuberculosis on 17 January 1867. He was buried at the Bukit Timah Christian cemetery but was later moved to the Japanese Cemetery off Yio Chu Kang Road. Members of his hometown Onoura, now encompassed by the boundaries of the seaside town of Mihama, came to Singapore in February 2005 to bring his remains home and to commemorate his unusual adventures. His life is celebrated in plays and books in America as well as Japan.
Wife: Louisa Belder
Children: John William Ottoson, Emily Louisa Ottoson (who died at age four) and two other daughters of whom little is known.
Gordon, T. A. (2008). True life adventures of Otokichi. Retrieved December 22, 2007, from http://www.jmottoson.com/Otokichi-Story.htm
Kamiya, S. (2004, August 29). Otokichi: a life lost and found. The Japan Times Online. Retrieved December 22, 2007, from http://search.japantimes.co.jp/member/member.html?fl20040829x1.htm
Kamiya, S. (2004, August 29). Shipwreck key to first Gospel in Japanese. The Japan Times Online. Retrieved December 22, 2007, from http://search.japantimes.co.jp/member/fl20040829x2.htm
Kwan, W. K. (2005, February 17). Japanese sailor going home after 173 years. The Straits Times. Retrieved on March 8, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Leong, F. M. (2005). The career of Otokichi. Singapore: Heritage Committee, Japanese Association of Singapore.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5703092 LEO -[HIS])
Otokichi Yamamoto. (2006). In T. Koh, T. Auger, J. Yap, & W. C. Ng (Eds), Singapore: The encyclopedia (p. 399). Singapore: Editions Didier Millet.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN)
Prewar Japanese community in Singapore: Picture and record. (1998). Singapore: Japanese Association.
(Call no.: RSING 305.895605957 PRE)
The information in this article is valid as at 2008 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.