A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2015 Apr 17, 10:13 -0700
It's near impossible to find information about John Manjiro's Bowditch. I suspect it was the end of an era (see below) rather than the beginning. While Ger Tysk was in Japan last summer she took a few photos of a text on display in a small museum. The text was labeled as a volume from Manjiro's translation of Bowditch. Alas, it's just a table of common logarithms, which at first sems like it could be anything and not necessarily from Bowditch (see my post on the 38Talk message boards). But a close examination reveals that it's a detailed match for the layout specifically found in Bowditch. That, to me, is solid evidence that this really was a careful transcription of Bowditch. Unfortunately, I have not yet seen any copies of the explanatory chapters, the actual body of the book. Transcribing mathematical tables would have been relatively easy, albeit laborious. Of course, for me personally, I would love to see how the chapter on lunars survived the translation process. Or did they even bother?
When John Manjiro (as he is still most commonly known in Japan) returned to Japan, after a brief period of suspicion and interrogation he was made a samurai and allowed to take a last name. He then became "Nakahama Manjiro", and he immediately would have had access to a huge staff of scholars and aides. I speculate that he suggested the importance of translating Bowditch, but I suspect his role was more of a "project leader" who understood nautical terminology, and of course he had several years of actual experience navigating aboard a whaleship. As a person with minimal education (and illiterate in Japanese), he could not possibly have completed a translation by himself. But Japan had scholars with a professsional understanding of western mathematics in this era, and I think it's likely that they did the real work. There's no evidence that I have found that their "Japanese Bowditch", apparently published in 20 hand-writen volumes, had any lasting influence. By the time it was released (and that means only a handful of these hand-written sets), Japan was under-going its westernizing revolution, and tens of thousands of books flowed into the country. Manjiro's Bowditch seems to have been an old-fashioned work, an artistic work of verbatim translation and probably obsolete, in practical terms, by the time it was complete. No doubt the process was very important to Japan's scientific and technical culture. Supposedly, many Japanese words were invented in order to produce the translation, and that may have been its primary contribution, but again I'm only speculating here.
The Bowditch translation was a minor landmark in John Manjiro's later life in Japan. He immediately became invaluable to the country as an expert on the USA and indeed as someone who was very much inspired by American life. He was personally involved in the develpment of Japan's international maritime culture. He has become a "folk hero" of modern Japan, and there is even a "Big Broadway Show" about his adventures. Seriously, it's a family fun fest that is currently playing opposite "The Lion King" in Tokyo's theater distict! See images below. And here's an entertaining video publicizing the show.