Stranded: Edo Era Castaways in the Russian Empire

Stranded: Edo Era Castaways in the Russian Empire

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Aleutian islands volcano
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In the Edo era, when setting foot on foreign soil was punishable by death, 16 castaways risked it all in an epic tale that brought two empires together.

The crew had been lost at sea for seven months.

Daikokuya Kodayu, captain of the trading vessel Shinsho-maru, stared out at the unchanging sea. He could feel the hunger gnawing at his stomach; the consistent thirst in his throat. Such feelings of deprivation were now well known among his crew. Their initial store of water had run low five months earlier, and they now had to survive on collected rainwater.

It seemed a lifetime ago that they had left harbor in Shiroko Bay, their ship laden down with rice for sale in the capital, Edo. Now those stores, never meant for their own use, were near exhaustion. His crew — fourteen sailors and one unlucky farmer, onboard to witness a sale that would now never come to be — stood about, languid and weak. There had been one more, but the man had perished two months earlier, brought low by sickness.

The air was chilly but not as bad as it had been. Of all the times to be lost at sea, they’d chosen winter. The previous months had been horrid, the temperatures regularly dropping below freezing. Snow falling slowly on the endless waves was now a common sight. Indeed, Kodayu could tell from the cold that they were somewhere in the northern ocean, far from the only land they’d ever known: Japan.

Suddenly, his eyes alighted on what seemed like a mere speck on the horizon. As the ship drifted closer, Kodayu’s heart leaped in his chest. It was land. He and his men hurried about, preparing to attempt landfall.

The captain, however, could have had no idea that their long adventure was only beginning. Before he would see home again, he would travel thousands of kilometers, speak with a foreign empress, master a new language, and have his name immortalized in Russo-Japanese history.

Table of Contents


The Edo Era: Age of Isolation

Daikokuya Kodayu (left). (Picture: Wikipedia)

Daikokuya Kodayu (大黒屋光太夫) was born into a family of wealthy merchants in 1751, a century and a half into the rule of the Tokugawa Shoguns. His parents were natives of Ise Province (modern Mie Prefecture). The family business was shipping. Kodayu grew up in this maritime culture, taking on apprenticeships in Ise and the shogunal capital Edo from a young age. By 1780, at the age of 29, Kodayu was given captainship of an ocean-going vessel and began plying the waters between his native Ise and Edo.

The idea of a seafaring trade ship may conjure up images of impressively large, multi-masted barques. However, the wooden vessels of the Edo-era were a different beast entirely. This was the age of self-imposed isolation, an overall policy often referred to as sakoku (鎖国, closed-off country). In the late 1630s, the still-young Tokugawa shogunate strictly restricted foreign trade and diplomatic relations, and banned all Japanese from leaving the country. Foreign trade existed only in four locations: Nagasaki, where private trade firms from the Netherlands, China, and Southeast Asia did business; Tsushima, where the Sō clan managed trade with the Kingdom of Korea; the southerly Ryukuyu Kingdom (modern Okinawa), essentially colonized by the Shimazu clan; and northerly Ezo (modern Hokkaido), where the Matsumae clan was allowed to conduct trade with the indigenous Ainu.

In the Warring States period (1467-1615), before the Tokugawa took hold of all Japan, many individual feudal domains (藩, han) managed to accumulate great wealth and strength via trade with foreign countries. Once in power, the Tokugawa refused to allow such threats to their centralized control. The building of truly seaworthy vessels was thus banned. Those ships which did ply the sea, like Kodayu’s Shinsho-maru, were little more than glorified riverboats, destined to stay close to shore. Indeed, the punishment for setting foot on foreign soil was death.

The Storm

Kodayu had set sail in January of 1783. The Shinsho-maru was laid down with rice out of Wakayama Domain, bound for the Edo markets. Onboard where 15 of the usual crew, including Kodayu’s friend Isokichi. The Wakayama rice wholesalers had also insisted on sending one of their own farmers to observe that the rice was dealt with properly.

At first, the journey progressed normally. The boat departed Ise, moving slowly northeast, always within view of dry land. Then, as they rounded the coast near Suruga Province (modern Shizuoka), the weather began, perceptibly, to change.

Low atmospheric pressure was building from the east. Rough winds battered the ship, blowing it off course. Kodayu’s crew jumped to action, fighting with the rudder in an attempt to steer back towards land. Men stumbled about the deck as the waves picked up, rocking the ship like some crazed baby cradle. Suddenly, the rudder snapped; they were now entirely at the mercy of the elements. The rough seas pounded the small boat, nearly causing it to capsize. All the crew could do was pray to the ship’s funadama (船霊), the Shinsho-maru‘s maritime guardian spirit. Night came on, and still the ship rolled and pitched.

Almost miraculously, the next morning still dawned. But hardly anyone on the ship had managed to sleep. The waves still looked like small mountains; the ship still lurched back and forth constantly. Finally, after what must have seemed an eternity, the wind calmed somewhat. As the dazed crew looked about the slowly-calming ocean, they could see nothing but water in all directions. The crew must have assumed they had been dealt a death sentence. The boatmen of the Edo era had no compasses, nor did they know how to read the stars. There was no way to know in which direction Japan lay. Not that it mattered: rudderless, they were lost at sea.

Drawn Further and Further North

The Shinsho-maru drifted aimlessly. Drawn by the Kuroshio current, the boat moved deeper in the North Pacific, thousands of miles away from Japan. The days stretched to weeks; then, months. Little differentiated the days except for the increasing cold and the occasional storm.

Within two months of this monotony, their water ran low. Three months later, the first man died. As the others watched him waste away, they must have seen their own fast-approaching mortality staring back at them.

It was eight months in when Kodayu finally spotted that island floating in the distance. The fifteen still alive must have rejoiced with whatever energy remained to them; the rest was used carefully forcing the rudderless ship ashore. The men clambered out onto the dark sand of the island’s beaches, their legs shaky, so used to the constant swell of the sea. The land that greeted them was rocky, its boulders the dark color seen so often on volcanic islands. Green lichens, mosses, and low grasses grew abundantly, taking on a surprisingly verdant aspect when compared with the darkness of the overcast skies.

Kodayu ordered his men to bring their stores on shore; they had no idea how long they would be stranded in this strange, isolated place. Soon, though, they would find that they were not in fact alone. Kodayu was about to come face-to-face with the first non-Japanese he had ever met in his life.

Amchitka Island

Kodayu and his men had in fact landed on the island of Amchitka. This is a small, hard spit of land that lies towards the western edge of the Aleutian Island chain that stretches between the North American landmass and Kamchatka. Like all the islands of the chain, Amchitka is bounded by the Pacific to the south and the Bering Sea to the north.

Since time immemorial, these lands were home to the indigenous Aleut peoples. Those on Amchitka were close cousins to those found throughout the neighboring islands and shared a related culture and language with the Inuits farther east on the North American mainland. The Aleut lived in semisubterranean wooden houses dug into the soil, and subsisted on the bounty of the seas and the flora and fauna of their small piece of land. Today, thanks to the actions of those countries who colonized the island, no Aleuts remain on Amchitka.

The castaways were soon approached by these unknown people, who may have seemed similar to tales they had heard of the Ainu. Although likely happy to see other humans for the first time in months, this must have been a shock; none of Kodayu’s crew had ever heard any language spoken besides Japanese. Kodayu, however, had a noticeable streak of intellectual curiosity and was likely excited to meet these new people. The Aleut took the castaways in, feeding them and attempting to nurse those ill back to health.

However, the Aleut were not the only other people on Amchitka. Russian explorers had discovered the islands in the 1740s, reporting back that the Aleutians were populated by numerous fauna bearing that all-important commodity: fur. Soon, Russians traders, hunters, and missionaries were making landfall throughout the islands. Their relationship with the locals was often fraught, as they tended to mistreat the Aleuts, forcing them to gather pelts. The situation came to be very similar to that on Ezo (modern Hokkaido) and Sakhalin, where Japanese settlers virtually enslaved the indigenous peoples, destroying their local economies by forcing the over-poaching of furred animals.

In Alaska: Four Hard Years Amongst the Aleutians

Aleutian Islands, outlined in red.png
A map of the Aleutians in relation to Russia, Alaska, and Japan (far left, mostly offscreen). (Picture: Wikipedia; By Unschool – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

In 1783, a group of hardy Russian traders was living on Amchitka. When they heard of the shipwrecked crew, they quickly made their way to see them. To the Japanese, these burly men must have been even more striking than the Aleutians. Bearded, wearing red clothes, they were like nothing Kodayu had ever seen. Indeed, little was known in Japan of Russia in these times, save that it was assumed to be a powerful, territorial greedy country “located near Holland.” The Russians, however, had reason to become excited upon realizing the origins of these unlucky seafarers; Japan had become well-known in Russia as a “land of gold and silver,” closed off but ripe for exploitation via trade. In resource-starved Siberia, trade with Japan was seen as a vastly superior alternative to treacherous overland missions from European Russia.

Thus, the Russians had good reason to keep Kodayu and his men alive. The empire was attempting to learn everything it could about isolated Japan; these men could be of great use. The castaways began settling into Amchitka life, watching the Aleuts sail their boats made of animal skin out into the freezing waters. Kodayu himself showed great interest in the Russians and began attempting to learn their language. Befriending these Europeans, he asked about passage back to Japan; however, the Russians insisted the castaways first be borne to the Russian mainland. Either way, no ships seaworthy enough to make the journey were to be found on the island.

The months crept by. Gradually, Kodayu was forced to bid farewell to one shipmate after another. Seven from his crew died on Amchitka, brought low by scurvy. He also observed the diminishing otter pelt hauls each month. The Aleut were becoming frustrated with Russian bullying, and were tired of the forced hunts. In 1874, they rose in revolt after particularly cruel treatment by the Russian leader, Nezimov. Before the situation was under control, four Russians had been killed.

Treacherous Passage to Kamchatka

Before they knew it, Kodayu and his crew had been living among the Aleutians for three years. One day, the message came in that a Russian ship was at last approaching. This seaworthy boat would, at last, be able to carry them away from the Bering Sea. The nine surviving castaways gazed out at the turbulent waters as the wooden vessel drew near. Alas, at the last moments, the waves smashed the ship against an outcropping of rock. Their hopes were dashed along with the vesssel.

The Russians were equally frustrated. Unsure of when another ship would arrive, they relented, deciding to help the Japanese build a small vessel to attempt to make the journey back home. The resulting boat was slipshod, barely fit for the open ocean. Still, the remaining castaways decided to risk death at sea for the chance to see home. In 1787, Kodayu bid farewell to Nezimov and the Aleuts, amongst who he had so long resided. The seven surviving Japanese boarded their crude watercraft and pushed off from Amchitka.

After a turbulent passage, the Japanese sailors made land — but not to Japan. They found themselves on the vast Russian Far East peninsula of Kamchatka. The frozen volcanic interior and forest-tundra of Kamchatka seemed even more desolate than Amchitka.

Soon, they were again taken in by Russian fur traders. The governor of Kamchatka placed the crew under his protection. But life here was still difficult. Three more of Kodayu’s compatriots perished from disease in Kamchatka. By 1789, only six of the original seventeen remained.

Gradual Russification, and Another Perilous Voyage

Kodayu and the five other survivors had now lived near Russians for six years. The captain himself had become quite fluent in the Russian tounge, and had come to feel comfortable around Russian customs. He took to wearing European style clothing and would spend time with a variety of non-Japanese in Kamchatka. One such was Barthélemy de Lesseps, an accomplished diplomat and adventurer. (Lesseps was also uncle to Ferdinand de Lesseps, who would go on to develop the Suez Canal.) Lesseps was quite impressed by his Japanese interlocutor, having the following to say of him:

He is possesed of great penetration, and apprehends with admirable readiness everything you desire to commuicate. He has much curiosity, and is an accurate observer… His repartees are in general sprightly and natural… He tells with utmost frankness what he thinks of everyone.

Barthélemy de Lesseps, Travels in Kamchatka, London, 1790.

Finally, it was decided to send the Japanese inland to Irkutsk, a major Siberian outpost near deep Lake Baikal. A ship took them across the Sea of Okhotsk. Next, the long journey by sled across the barren taiga began. The journey was extremely rough going. Almost exactly a century later, Anton Chekov would write of the difficulty of the same poorly-maintained forest highway during his passage to Sakhalin Island.

At last, after eight months, Kodayu’s crew arrived at Irkutsk. Here, the members of a Japanese language school, established some forty years earlier using texts from earlier Japanese castaways, took great interest in them. Kodayu got along especially well with one Erik Laxman. A Finn by birth, Laxman was an accomplished natural scientist and explorer with an interest in Japan. He decided to take on the cause of the pitiable castaways.

An Ally Found, and Conversions

Historic barricaded town near Irkustk . (Picture: volkova natalia / Shutterstock)

Despite the passing of so many years, the six castaways still hoped to make their way home. Local Irkustk businessmen Grigory Shelikhov, however, had other plans for the Japanese. Hoping to employ them as merchant translators, he convinced the Irkusk Governor-General that the Japanese should be given Russian citizenship to prevent their repatriation. Laxman caught wind of the plot, and decided to act to the benefit of Kodayu and his men. He commited to takin Kodayu to the central government in St. Petersburg, where they would entreat Tsarina Catherine the Great to allow the weary sailors to return home.

Kodayu was overjoyed. Alas, two more of his men had grown deathly sick in the days preceding the planned departure to Petersburg. The captain had witnessed the heartless way in which non-Christian dead were treated by the Orthodox Russians. He urged his men to convert so that their bodies might receive proper burial.

When people die in Russia who have not received the teachings of the Church, they are not buried in holy soil, but are treated much like dead animals. For this reason, when Shinzo was very ill and thought he was certain to die, he was converted to the Russian faith. Then, to his surprise, he recovered, and he bitterly regretted not being able to return to Japan with me.

Daikokuya Kodayu, quoted in The Japanese Discovery of Europe, 1720-1830. Donald Keene, 1969.

Shinzo, now a rueful Christian, had survived. In January of 1791, Kodayu and his compatriots set off with Laxman to St. Petersburg. Their mission: to meet with the Empress of All Russia.

Edo Castaways in the Russian Capital

After another long, bitter journey, Kodayu arrived in the imperial Russian capital. Since leaving Amchitka, the men had traveled nearly 7000 kilometers. After the empty desolation of so much of their journey, the pomp and size of St. Petersburg must have been a shock indeed.

Laxman fell ill within three days of arrival. Kodayu focused on helping his friend regain his strength. The Finnish explorer was three months in convalescence. Meanwhile, the news of the arrival of Japanese castaways spread across the capital. Invitations and gifts poured in from all sorts of fashionable entities, hoping to see this “noble savage” in the flesh. Kodayu was only too happy to oblige. He still had some fine Japanese clothing with him, and would appear dressed in such, his hair set in a chonmage, in ballrooms and dining halls filled with European ladies and gentlemen. A great conversationalist and engaging personality, he was soon beloved by the high class of Petersburg.

A Friend to Catherine the Great

At long last, Laxman recuperated. Catherine the Great had heard of his desire to repatriate the Japanese, but her attention was elsewhere. With unrest in Europe and the threat of revolution at home, she was busy quashing resistance from the serfs and enacting modernizing efforts. The trading potential of isolated Japan and the plight of Eastern castaways was far from her first concern.

In October of 1791, Laxman and Kodayu were finally able to meet with the empress. The imposing figure found herself surprisingly enamored of the Japanese captain. She enjoyed speaking with him and began to appreciate his desire to reach home. Over the course of six months, she requested him to join her multiple times, engaging Kodayu in conversation for hours. Finally, convinced that the castaways should be sent home, and of the trading potential in Japan, she ordered the Governor-General of Siberia to prepare a mission to repatriate the Japanese sailors.

Catherine, ever the wise politician, knew this was a fortuitous chance to finally open up trade with Japan. After all, what better way to win hearts and minds than with an act of kindly mercy? Yet, other missions to Japan had been rejected, and Catherine had no desire to be embarrassed by such a failure. Thus, she decided that rather than directly attach her name to the mission, she would have it be led by a lower-ranking official. Erik Laxman, the natural choice, was himself was too high-ranking; instead, his son Adam would be sent in his place.

On September 13th, 1792, Daikokuya Kodayu stood again on the shores of the Sea of Ohokst. With him were his two surviving compatriots, Isokichi and Koichi. The two had converted to Orthodox Christianity would have to stay behind. The castaways walked the gangplank up to the Ekartarina, named after the sovereign Kodayu now knew personally. The ship, laden with tribute for the Japanese government, set sail, and after nine long years, Kodayu bid farewell to Russia.

The Laxman Mission

In October of 1792, the denizens of the western Ezo port of Nemuro looked out to a sight never before seen: a massive European sail frigate making for their harbor.

Officials from the Matsumae clan, rulers of the Japanese settlement on Ezo, were at a loss as to how to react. Some stood onshore at Nemuro as Russian soldiers rowed from the Ekatarina. Letters, in both Russian and (poorly translated) Japanese, were handed over; the dual purposes of returning the castaways and starting trade were made known. The Matsumae were unsure of how to proceed. Their mission from Edo was to control trade with the Ainu “barbarians” and secure the northern borders. But they had no authority to create treaties with foreign powers. Missives were immediately dispatched to the Shogunal capital, requesting guidance. In the meantime, it was decided that the European guests would be treated hospitably.

The Russians, until days earlier near-mythical “Red Ainu” in the eyes of the Matsumae, were welcomed to come ashore. Laxman was even offered the use of the domain governor’s bath. When the Matsumae made it clear that no further progress could be made on trade until word came down from Edo, Laxman replied he would wait — all winter, if need be. This was agreed to be fair, and his men were granted permission to build European-style lodgings near the shores of Nemuro.

Kodayu and his two remaining compatriots were glad to finally see other Japanese. Laxman, however, forbade them to head home until trade business was concluded. The three castaways remained with the Russians through the winter.

Edo-era Diplomacy: A Tricky Thing Indeed

In Edo, the burden of diplomatic judgment regarding the Russians fell not to Shogun Tokugawa Ienari, but rather to his Council of Elders (老中, Rōjū). At the head of these most senior officials sat Matsudaira Sadanobu (松平定信). A grandson of a former shogun himself, Sadanobu was a member of a cadet branch of the Tokugawa house; at one point, he’d even been a likely choice for shogun. Instead, he’d wound up as daimyo (大名, feudal lord) of Shirakawa Domain in what is now Fukushima Prefecture. There, he’d famously saved the domain from financial ruination via a series of reforms. Now, as head of the Rōjū, Sadanobu was known as a frugal conservative. He was, as a rule, an isolationist who believed open trade with other nations would distract from the simple morals of agrarian society. To this aim, he’d even reversed his predecessor’s policies of developing the Japanese colony on Ezo.

Sadanobu’s fellows at the top of the Edo government felt differently. One proposed opening Ezo for Russian trade. One wished the castaways returned and the Russians quickly expelled. Yet another suggested the Russians be instructed to sail for Nagasaki to negotiate there. Sadanobu was instinctively against further trade but was impressed by the dignified way in which the Russians were said to be comporting themselves.

The Russians have come a great distance, many thousands of ri for the sake of Japanese shipwrecked sailors, if we refuse to open our door, tell them not to come in, but tell them to go elsewhere . . . could anyone think well of that? Would that be acceptable?

Matsudaira Sadanobu, from his journal A Record of Dealing with the Russians.

Lessons from… Cambodia?

A major issue lay in the way in which Edo-era Japan delt with foreign relations.

As a rule, foreign embassies besides those of Korea and Ryukyu were rejected. One of the rationales for this was the sticky issue of suzerainty. In the Sino-centric world of East and Southeast Asia, what one called a sovereign was of utmost importance. Most of Japan’s nearby countries called their leaders “kings,” which implied subservience to the Chinese emperor. As such, dealing directly with any country that would mislabel either the Shogun or the Japanese emperor in diplomatic letters was seen to damage the status of Japan’s rulers. The Koreans managed to get around this by calling the Shogun “great lord” (大君, taikun, the origin of the English word tycoon). Those countries who could not properly use or understand such important language could not be dealt with.

This was also the reason Chinese trade was not carried out in any state-to-state sense. Rather, Chinese merchants were allowed to make direct trades in Nagasaki, provided they received permission. The potential shame of dealing with the Qing government, who considered their emperor to be above all, was thus avoided. The Dutch were a similar case, as all trade was done with the VOC (the Dutch East India Company) rather than with the Dutch government itself.

Unlike the Dutch, however, the Russians were attempting to create state-to-state relations as they would with a fellow, Westphalian-style European power. And worse, they were doing so in broken Japanese; each letter written only in kana phonetic characters, often misspelled, and using completely inappropriate levels of politeness.

However, this did bring to mind a previous case known to Sadanobu. In 1729, the Cambodian king had attempted to create diplomatic ties in much the same way. The Cambodians, too, were not properly versed in Sino-centric diplomacy, nor could they write in Chinese or Japanese. Edo had rejected their diplomatic overtures but had granted specific Cambodia ships permission to trade in Nagasaki. Could not the same be offered to the Russians?

Success and Failure

The island of Hokkaido (Ezo). ( Picture: まちゃー / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

While the elders in Edo continued debating, they sent instruction that Laxman be conveyed overland to the southern Ezo colonial capital in Matsumae City. This agitated Laxman, who refused to leave his ship behind. He was finally allowed to sail to southern Hakodate with a Japanese escort. From there he rode to Mastumae for negotiations.

Matsudaira Sadanobu finally decided that the Russians should indeed be treated like the Cambodians. He sent two shogunal representatives to Ezo to inform Laxman that he would be granted passage to Nagasaki, where he might be granted non-diplomatic trading rights. On no condition, however, were the Russians to be allowed to sail for the capital in Edo.

However, Laxman’s translator, the Irkutsk-trained Tugolakov, was unable to properly communicate the finer details of Edo’s intent. Additionally, he erroneously stated that Matsumae officials implied the Dutch were attempting to block Russian attempts at a treaty. Laxman became frustrated and decided against proceeding to Nagasaki. He still wished to return Kodayu and the others to Edo. But when he was told he could either leave them in Matsumae or take them back to Russia, he relented. He decided his mission had essentially been completed. Ironically, if he had simply gone to Nagasaki, Russia may well have been granted trading permissions — something that would not occur historically until some 60 years later following US Commodore Matthew Perry’s opening of Japan.

For Daikokuya Kodayu, the entire situation was quite bittersweet. With deliberations stalled for so long, the third remaining of his crew, Koichi, had perished from scurvy. Now only he and Isokichi remained of the original seventeen. They bid farewell to Adam Laxman, thanking him for his kindness. As the Russian ship sailed away, so did the world Kodayu had known for nearly a decade. He would never see another European again.

Daikokuya Kodayu, Edo, and Russia

The Laxman Mission may not have been an unqualified success, but it did have major effects. Russians, long thought of as mysterious “Red Ainu,” had suddenly become a real entity to the Japanese. Woodblock prints portrayed Laxman and his crew as normal human beings rather than ogres and the Russians’ courtesy in returning Japanese castaways gained the country great respect. Interest in Russia within Japan grew, as did positive associations with the previously murky concept of that empire.

Daikokuya Kodayu returned home after nine years as a castaway. In Edo, he became something of a celebrity, much as he had in St. Petersburg. When Kodayu and Isokichi arrived at the Shogunal capital, they were interrogated by Edo officials. During this process, they both wore Russian clothing. Authorities also noticed that their mannerisms had changed. In physical comportment and even attitude, it seemed both had been Russophied. Hidden behind a screen, the Shogun, Tokugawa Ienari himself, listened to the discussions of their time in Russia. Thus Kodayu became an object of fascination for rulers in both his native Japan and the Russian Empire.

Practitioners of so-called Dutch Learning (蘭学, essentially the study of the West) flocked to Kodayu’s state-provided mansion in Edo, and two books of his adventures were produced. His account helped create an image of Russia as an ideal, kind land, where none were made to commit seppuku and women were equals to their husbands. This, of course, was idealism based on limited information — the Russian Empire was still a brutal place with a system of class serfdom. Still, it fascinated many at the time. For his expertise on Japan’s northern neighbor, Kodayu remained a popular and well-regarded personage until his death in 1828.

The Fate of Nations

The return of the Japanese castaways by the Laxman Mission created a positive impression between Japan and Russia. Alas, it was not to last.

By 1804, Catherine the Great had passed away; in her place sat her grandson, Tsar Alexander I. Eager to follow up on the invitation issued to Adam Laxman for trade negotiations in Nagasaki, he dispatched a Russian nobleman named Nikolai Rezanov to open up relations. Here, the Laxman Mission’s misunderstanding of Tokugawa foreign policy proved disastrous; Rezanov was instructed to act as direct representative of the Tsar. By now, Matsudaira Sadanobu was long gone, and even more conservative Edo officials were tasked to respond to Rezanov. They rejected him outright.

Rezanov, enraged by this slight, departed Nagasaki. Hoping to avenge the insult to Tsar Alexander, he commanded subordinates to carry out attacks on Japanese settlements in Sakhalin, Ezo, and the Kuril islands. This came as an immense shock to Edo; war was nearly declared. Although the attacks, never sanctioned by St. Petersburg, ceased, a sense of Russophobia lingered in Japan for decades.

Since then, Japan has had an often shaky relationship with its massive northern neighbor. Trade was opened in the 1850s, with tensions over rivalries regarding control of East Asia flaring up during the Meiji Era. Almost exactly a century onwards from the Laxman Mission, the Russian Crown Prince, Nicholas II, was nearly assassinated by a crazed Japanese policeman during a state visit near Kyoto; only the quick actions of Emperor Meiji to befriend Nicholas prevented war. A decade later, however, war did break out nonetheless over territorial issues in Manchuria, resulting in the surprise Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War. World War II saw the Soviet Union conquer Japanese colonies in mainland Asia and Sakhalin; the state of ownership over the Kuriils remains a major point of contention.

Yet despite all this, a sense of mutual fascination and, at times, admiration exists between Japan and Russia. Much of their history contains surprising connections, both positive and negative. So much of their shared history and sense of the other as a real entity begins with Daikokuya Kodayu. With any luck, the story of this stranded castaway, who came to love and be rescued by Russia, can serve as a basis for friendly relations between these two nations into the future.


(2003) 鎖国の悲劇『北槎聞略– 駒澤大学。

Ravina, Mark. (2015). Tokugawa, Romanov, and Khmer: The Politics of Trade and Diplomacy in Eighteenth-Century East Asia. Journal of World History,26(2), 269-294.

Keene, Donald. (1969). The Japanese discovery of Europe, 1720-1830. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

Mikhailova, Yulia. (2008). Japan and Russia: Three centuries of mutual images. Folkestone: Global Oriental.

大黒屋光太夫 – フリー百科事典『ウィキペディア』. (n.d.). Retrieved from大黒屋光太夫

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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