Solo sailor Kojiro Shiraishi keeps the East-West connection alive
It takes a Tokyo minute for me to recite my entire repertoire of spoken Japanese. Yet last December, outside Shimoda, on the Izu peninsula on the Japanese island of Honshu, when I said to a marina owner, “Newport, Rhode Island” (my hometown) and “Around Alone” (the solo round-the-world sailing race that once started and finished in Newport), suddenly we were on the same wavelength. Newport, you see, became Shimoda’s sister city in 1958, and Shimoda was associated with an entry in the 2002-2003 Around Alone race. But there was more.
Thanks to my translators, friends Lauren and Seiji Sugita, I learned that Hidetoshi Itoh, the owner of Shimoda Boat Service Co., was a sponsor of Kojiro Shiraishi’s Around Alone (now called 5-Oceans) campaign with the 40-foot Class II entry, Spirit of Yukoh. A raspy-voiced smoker sporting a vest and cravat with his Docksiders, Itoh had traveled all over the world, including to Newport, to assist Shiraishi with repairs.
As he told the story, he vanished behind a curtain and returned with scrapbooks of photographs and stories about Around Alone sailors and the ports they’d visited. Itoh also showed me copies of two Newport newspapers. To see clippings about a topic and in publications so familiar, and to communicate about that subject so far from home without truly conversing, seemed strange and wondrous. Over bowls of steaming tea so strong it even tasted green, Itoh gave us a rundown of Shiraishi’s career and the Shimoda sailing scene. From Itoh, I learned that 2004 is a big year for Shimoda, marking the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Kanagawa, which ended Japan’s two-century isolation from the world and established U.S.-Japan trade relations.
The mention of U. S.-Japan relations was Lauren’s cue. This Rhode Island native, who loves all things Nippon, for years had volunteered for the Black Ships Festival in Newport and was eager to visit the port that symbolizes the admission of the kurofune, or the black-hulled ships, from America.
We bid Itoh farewell and hopped back in the car, in minutes arriving in Shimoda, where we visited historic sites and strolled Perry Road, named after a Newporter, U.S. Navy officer Matthew Perry. Shimoda’s a destination worthy of any sailor’s attention; Commodore (his honorary title) Perry negotiated the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854 with the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan’s feudal dictatorship established in 1603 with the city of Edo (now Tokyo) as its seat of government.
The agreement allowed American steamships to enter the ports of Hakodate, on the island of Hokkaido, to the north, and Shimoda, in the south, and seek assistance and supplies. The treaty also called for the protection of shipwrecked American seamen in either of those ports, which put into clearer perspective Shiraishi’s Around Alone qualifying voyage through the powerful Kuroshio current and across the Pacific.
Our pilgrimage also gave me a fresh sense of modern relations between Shimoda and Newport. After the two communities became sister cities, officials from each port began paying annual visits to each other to reinforce the friendly ties. In 1984, Newport began holding an annual Black Ships Festival.
For details of events marking the 150th anniversary of relations between Japan and the United States, visit the U.S./Japan 150 Years website (www.japanus150.org) or the website of the Japan-America Society (www.us-japan.org). For information about Newport’s 2004 Black Ships Festival, July 15-18, visit the festival website (www.blackshipsfestival.com). And for a profile of Kojiro Shiraishi, who so embodies the earnest friendship between Japan and the United States, and his Around Alone effort, go to the Around Alone website (www.aroundalone.com).