Yamamoto Otokichi

Yamamoto Otokichi (b. 1817, Onoura, Japan–d. 18 January 1867, Singapore), also known as John Matthew Ottoson or Lin Ah Tao, is recognised as the first Japanese resident in Singapore. Otokichi and his family were fully based in Singapore by 1862, and remained there until his death in 1867. Otokichi was instrumental in opening relations between Japan and the West during the late Edo period (1603–1867). Among his many accomplishments, he helped to translate portions of the bible into Japanese.1

Journey to America and England
Around the age of 14, Otokichi worked as an apprentice sailor on board the cargo ship Honjumaru.2 In late 1832,3 while on a routine trip, the ship was caught in a storm. Drifting in the Pacific Ocean for 14 months, the crew members presumably 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.4 He is believed to be the first Japanese to have landed in North America and his journey back to Japan has become a familiar story amongst Japanese Americans.5

The Makah, a Native American tribe, captured the men after they landed.6 John McLoughlin, a British fur trader and head of the Hudson Bay Company in Fort Vancouver, saw the men as an opportunity to engage in trade with Japan. At the time, Edo-period Japan maintained sakoku, a closed-door policy towards the outside world. McLoughlin thus sought to rescue Otokichi, Iwakichi and Kyukichi; after several attempts, he brought the castaways to Fort Vancouver in May 1834. The Japanese men journeyed on the brig Eagle first to London to solicit support in opening relations with Japan.7 This stopover in June 1835 made Otokichi and his friends the first Japanese to disembark in England.8

Journey to East Asia
In December 1835, Otokichi, Iwakichi and Kyukichi were brought to Macau, where they met the famed missionary Karl Friedrich August Gützlaff.9 The latter took this opportunity to learn Japanese from them. Otokichi and his fellow survivors are often credited with assisting Gützlaff with the translation of the gospel and letters of John. This earliest portion of the Protestant bible to be translated into Japanese was first published in Singapore in 1837. In 1838, however, the printing of this version was stopped because the American Bible Society was not satisfied with the standard of its translation.10

In Macau, Otokichi’s group more than doubled when four other shipwrecked sailors from Kyushu, Japan, joined them on their return trip home. Gützlaff and Charles William King, an American trader, took them on board the cargo ship Morrison in an attempt to repatriate them. Unfortunately, because Japan had a strong policy against foreign influence at the time and the government had imposed strict orders to drive out any unauthorised foreign ships, their arrival in Japan in 1837 was met with gunfire and they were forced to turn back.11

Rejected by his own country, Otokichi turned to the West soon after, taking the name John Matthew Ottoson and converting to Christianity.12 He worked for Dent, Beale & Company in the 1840s in Shanghai, China, soon after the end of the Opium Wars and gained a working proficiency in Chinese.13 He continued working for British agents thereafter, translating for trade and helping to repatriate Japanese castaways like himself. Nonetheless, Otokichi did anchor off Japan on several occasions. One recorded visit was in 1849 at Uraga Port while working under the Chinese pseudonym Lin Ah Tao as a translator for the British. Another was in May that same year when he was working as a translator for the HMS Mariner, which was then conducting a topographical survey of the Edo Bay.14 A more significant occasion was when he journeyed on the HMS Winchester with Admiral James Stirling and assisted him in forging the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty of 14 October 1854.15 This treaty opened Nagasaki for trade between Britain and Japan.16 For his contribution, Otokichi was rewarded with a small fortune and British citizenship.17 He did not take up a Japanese offer for him to return to his homeland.18

Residence in Singapore
Otokichi’s first wife was a Scottish woman whom he had met in Macau. Following the death of his first wife, it is believed that he remarried Louisa Brown, a Singapore-born Eurasian of German and Malay descent. Otokichi had met Brown in Shanghai, where they were both working at Dent, Beale & Company.19 In 1849, Otokichi purchased a burial plot for Gützlaff’s first wife, Mary, in Singapore. This marked the earliest known period that Otokichi visited Singapore, presumably on a business trip.20 It is commonly suggested that Otokichi became fully resident in Singapore with his whole family in 1862.21 That year, he buried his four-year-old daughter, Emily Louisa Ottoson, at Fort Canning Cemetery.22 It was also in 1862 that the famed moderniser of Japan, Yukichi Fukuzawa, met with Otokichi in Singapore en route to Europe on a diplomatic mission.23

Otokichi lived on Queen Street when he first came to Singapore before purchasing a large house on Orchard Road. The site of his house was then a large nutmeg and clove plantation.24 Records show that he was likely a trader in agricultural products in the 1860s.25 In December 1864, Otokichi became a naturalised British citizen in Singapore.26 Soon after, the family went on an extended trip of several months to Europe, returning in March 1865.27 Otokichi spent his last days at Arthur Seat, a sanatorium in Siglap owned by Robert Little, before he died of tuberculosis on 18 January 1867.28 Being a Presbyterian, Otokichi was buried at the Bukit Timah Christian cemetery, but his remains were later moved to the Choa Chu Kang Christian Cemetery.29 In 2004, his remains were exhumed and cremated, and his ashes placed in a charnel at the Japanese Cemetery off Yio Chu Kang Road.30 Representatives of his hometown Onoura, now part of the seaside town of Mihama, came to Singapore in February 2005 to bring a portion of his remains home and to commemorate his unusual adventures.31 Otokichi’s life has been celebrated in plays and books in America and Japan.32

First wife: Name unknown, believed to be of Scottish descent.
Second wife: Louisa Brown (later Louisa Belder).
Children: Emily Louisa, John William, Ida and Julia.33


Bonny Tan

1. Leong Foke Men, The Career of Otokichi (Singapore: Japanese Association of Singapore, 2012), 11, 16–17. (Call no. RSING q959.5703092 LEO-[HIS]); Shingapōru Nihonjinkai, Prewar Japanese Community in Singapore: Picture and Rrecord = Senzen Shingapōru no Nihonjin Shakai: Shashin to Kiroku (Singapore: Japanese Association, 2004), 14–19. (Call no. RSING 305.895605957 PRE); “Who was Otokichi?” Otokichi.com, accessed 6 August 2016.
2. Leong, Career of Otokichi, 5.
3. The date of Otokichi’s departure from the Japanese city of Toba differs among sources. It ranges from October to December 1832, while some sources also place it at either 11 or 12 November. See Akira Doi, “Pioneers of Japanese Bible Ttranslation: The Application of the Dynamic Equivalent Method in Japan,” (master’s thesis, Massey University, New Zealand, 2007), 145; Tei A. Gordon, “True Life Adventures of Otokichi (1817–1867),” accessed 5 August 2016; Katherine Plummer, The Shogun’s Reluctant Ambassadors: Japanese Sea Drifters in the North Pacific (Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1991), 102. (Not available in NLB holdings)
4. Gordon, “True Life Adventures of Otokichi”; Stephen W. Kohl, “Strangers in a Strange Land: Japanese Castaways and the Opening of Japan,” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 73, no. 1 (January 1982): 21. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
5. Plummer, Shogun’s Reluctant Ambassadors, 235–37.
6. Gordon, “True Life Adventures of Otokichi.”
7. Jim Mockford, “The Open Gate of Fort Vancouver: Japan-American Relations in Early Pacific Northwest History,” Clark Country History 32 (1991), 96, 99.
8. Plummer, Shogun’s Reluctant Ambassadors, 107.
9. Plummer, Shogun’s Reluctant Ambassadors, 108.
10. Doi, “Pioneers of Japanese Bible Translation,” 145–50.
11. Kohl, “Strangers in a Strange Land,” 22; Plummer, Shogun’s Reluctant Ambassadors, 111–15.
12. Gordon, “True Life Adventures of Otokichi.”
13. Leong, Career of Otokichi, 7–8; W. G. Beasley, Great Britain and the Opening of Japan 1834–1858 (Kent: Japan Library, 1996), 116. (Call no. R 952 BEA)
14. Beasley, Great Britain and the Opening of Japan, 76.
15. Plummer, Shogun’s Reluctant Ambassadors, 117.
16. Beasley, Great Britain and the Opening of Japan, 205–06.
17. Jim Goater, “Otokichii – Part 2,” Avenues, accessed 7 August 2016.
18. Kohl, “Strangers in a Strange Land,” 27.
19. Gordon, “True Life Adventures of Otokichi”; Leong, Career of Otokichi, 9; Leong, Later Career of Otokichi (Singapore: Japanese Association of Singapore, 2012), 3. (Call no. RSING q959.5703092 LEO-[HIS])
20. 音吉を取り巻く人々 [People Surrounding Otokichi], accessed 7 August 2016.
21. Straits Calendar and Directory (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 1863), 86. (From BookSG; microfilm NL2363)
22. Leong, Later Career of Otokichi, 3–4; Shingapōru Nihonjinkai, Prewar Japanese Community in Singapore, 15; Alan Harfield, Early Cemeteries in Singapore (London: British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia, 1988), 25, 197. (Call no. RSING 929.5095957 HAR)
23. Shingapōru Nihonjinkai, Prewar Japanese Community in Singapore, 19.
24. Leong, Later Career of Otokichi, 7.
25. S. Kamiya, “Lost and Found,” The Japan Times, 29 August 2004. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
26. Shingapōru Nihonjinkai, Prewar Japanese Community in Singapore, 19; Otokichi.com, “Who was Otokichi?”
27. Leong, Later Career of Otokichi, 54; “The Singapore Free Press,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 23 March 1865, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Leong, Later Career of Otokichi, 11.
29. Shingapōru Nihonjinkai, Prewar Japanese Community in Singapore, 14–15.
30. James F. Goater, “The Otokichi Saga – A Postscript,” Avenues, 3 April 2008; Leong, Later Career of Otokichi, 18.
31. Kwan Weng Kin, “Japanese Sailor Going Home After 173 Years,” Straits Times, 17 February 2005, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Cassandra Tate, “Japanese Theatre Troupe Presents Tale of Otokichi in Bellevue on October 1, 1997,” HistoryLink, accessed 7 August 2016; Debbie Dosanko, “Kairei: Book, Film and Stage Production,” The World of Miura Ayako (blog), 11 June 2009.
33. Leong, Later Career of Otokichi, 12.

Further resource
Bonny Tan, “Singapore’s First Japanese Resident: Yamamoto Otokichi,” BiblioAsia (Jul–Sep 2016)

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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.

Otokichi, Yamamoto, 1817-1867