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Japanese students tour in the spirit of Ranald MacDonald

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014
~Edward Stratton; Reprinted from The Daily Astorian, Oct. 17, 2014

The “MacDonald’s Encouragement Study Fund”, in honor of historical English teacher and former Astorian Ranald MacDonald, sent over, from left standing, English instructor Mayumi Nakanishi and students Ren Miyashita and Takeru Oshima. Hosting and touring them around are Astoria High School student Bryce Nurding, second from right, Masaru Yatabe, Chairman of FOM, right, and Kaheawai “KK” Kaonohi, founder of the high school’s Japanese club.

The educational exchange between Astoria and Japan, foisted on the Asian nation 166 years ago by a native Astorian bent on leaving his whaling vessel and joining its relatively closed society, restarted earlier this week.

Honoring the spirit of Ranald MacDonald, an Astoria native and Japan’s first English teacher, the ’MacDonald’s Encouragement Study Fund’ sent two students and their English teacher from Rishiri Island to Oregon this past week. The group has been sightseeing around Portland and shadowing their host students at Astoria High School.

“I like talking, speaking English,” said Ren Miyashita, one of the two students visiting Astoria. “I’ve never been abroad before this time.”  Miyashita, in his second to last year of school, and Takeru Oshima, a senior, both come from Rishiri Island, located 12 miles west of northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. The island, reachable by ferry and one flight a day, boasts a population of about 5,100. Miyashita and Oshima attend Rishiri High School, which with a total of 93 kids is about 16 percent of Astoria High School’s enrollment. Rishiri Island also includes three elementary schools and two junior high schools.

“The whole objective is to internationalize the future generations of Rishiri Island by having a couple of students come over each year so they will be ready for life in a global world,” said Masaru Yatabe, chairman of the Friends of MacDonald.

MacDonald, who was born at Fort Astoria in 1824 to a Hudson’s Bay Co. fur trader, traded his wages on the whaler for a small boat and supplies and sailed toward Rishiri Island at age 24. Nearing some native Ainu fishermen, he pulled the plug, and in his sinking boat, he became a bona fide sailor in distress.  Originally imprisoned, MacDonald eventually started teaching Japanese scholars English. He became famous in Japan. Congressional reports note an interpreter asking incoming Commodore Matthew Perry, who forcibly opened Japan to trade with the U.S. in the mid-19th century, “Do you know Ranald MacDonald?”

Traveling Oregon

The 26-year-old Friends of MacDonald help guide the students and teacher on their trip. They started earlier this week in Portland with sightseeing trips to the International Test Rose Gardens and Multnomah Falls.  The group also met with the consulate-general of Japan in Portland, Hiroshi Furusawa. At the consulate, said Yatabe, Furusawa explained how Japan is trying to double the number of people in the Japan Exchange & Teaching Program, which sends young, college-educated English speakers to communities around Japan.

In Astoria for the past few days, Miyashita and Oshima have been attending sporting events, exploring the area and shadowing their host students, juniors Kaheawai “KK” Kaonohi and Bryce Nurding.  Kaonohi, who moved to Astoria from Bend, started a Japanese club at AHS, having traveled to Japan himself over the summer.  “I was part of the Japanese National Honor Society,” said Kaonohi, adding that his grandmother in Hawaii is originally from Japan.

Nurding, who’s hosted cyclists from Virginia and Sweden through hospitality exchange group Warm Showers, said he was contacted by Kaonohi and is always up for hosting and learning about different people and cultures.  Miyashita and Oshima take all the classes of their host students, including math, science, language arts and other classes as they expand their English skills. They describe their peers in Astoria as freer and more open to asking questions. Yatabe and Nakanishi said that students in Japan respect the teachers more and are much less likely to speak up, often to the detriment of their own social skills.

This is the second year of the exchange through the MacDonald’s Encouragement Study Fund. Last year, students Tatsuya Koujiya and Yuuki Komatsu arrived in Astoria with their principal, Hiroyuki Tsukamoto.  For 2016, said Yatabe, Kaonohi is trying to organize a similar trip to Rishiri Island, where he and Nurding can experience life there, although the effort will likely require raising the funds. “Then the exchange will be complete.”

On Friday, after attending the Astoria-Banks football game, the exchange group heads for a similar experience in Republic, Wash., where MacDonald died in 1894.

Cherry Blossoms and Friendship

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

Portland Cherry Blossoms

Photo by Mas Yatabe, taken at Portland Japanese Garden
Article By Ichiro Fujisaki, Ambassador of Japan to the United States ~ Reprinted from The Washington Post, January 21, 2012

This spring will mark the 100th anniversary of the chilly day in late March 1912 when two women in heavy coats dug into the earth along the north edge of the Tidal Basin to plant saplings. First lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Iwa Chinda, the wife of the Japanese ambassador to the United States, were joined by just a few people as they helped cherry blossom trees from half a world away take root in the nation’s capital.

When William Howard Taft became president in 1909, neither the Jefferson Memorial nor the Lincoln Memorial had been constructed. Mrs. Taft was hoping to host outdoor concerts and felt that the Tidal Basin area needed some embellishments.

Eliza Scidmore had long awaited such an opportunity. Scidmore, a travel writer, had fallen in love with the cherry blossom trees she saw gracing river banks in Tokyo while she visited her brother, a U.S. diplomat, when he lived in Japan. She had been trying for two decades to persuade authorities to plant them in the District.

David Fairchild of the Agriculture Department shared her view. Before the first lady’s project arose, he had imported some seedlings from Japan and given them to D.C. schools. Scidmore and Fairchild thought that the first lady’s project was a golden opportunity and recommended planting Japanese cherry trees. Mrs. Taft, who was familiar with cherry blossoms from visits to Japan, liked the idea and immediately requested the trees be planted. Col. Spencer Cosby was given the task.

At that time, renowned Japanese chemist Jokichi Takamine, who lived in New York, was visiting Washington. He was an advocate of improving U.S.- Japanese relations and was concerned by the hardening atmosphere in the United States toward Japan. Believing that the cherry blossoms could be a bridge between two peoples, Takamine had been working for years to persuade New York authorities to plant cherry trees along the Hudson River.

Takamine heard from his friend Scidmore about the first lady’s idea, and he proposed to donate 2,000 trees from Japan to the project. The Japanese consul general in New York, Kokichi Mizuno, who was also visiting Washington and was at the meeting with Takamine and Scidmore, proposed making the trees an official gift from the mayor of Tokyo, Japan’s capital city. Takamine, as a leader of the Japanese community in New York, agreed, and he went so far as to suggest to other Japanese in New York that, if official funding was not possible, contributions should be made by the leaders themselves.

The first lady welcomed the Japanese initiative. While Mizuno was communicating this situation to headquarters, the Japanese ambassador to the United States, Kogoro Takahira, confirmed the plan with the U.S. Secretary of State and also recommended to Japan’s foreign minister that the trees be an official gift from Tokyo. The Foreign Ministry then formally contacted the city of Tokyo. Mayor Yukio Ozaki, who was thankful for the role the United States had taken preparing negotiations leading to the Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russo-Japanese War, seized this opportunity.

In 1909, he acquired the Tokyo City Council’s consent to donate 2,000 saplings. Transport across the Pacific was made available by Nippon Yusen Line, free of charge. Young trees about 10 feet tall arrived in Washington in January 1910. People were jubilant. The endeavor attracted media attention, including an article by Scidmore in Century magazine about the beauty of the trees. But just as it seemed everything had come together, U.S. Agriculture Department inspectors found that many of the trees were riddled with insects. The trees had to be burned. Ambassador Yasuya Uchida, who was then in Takahira’s post, wrote to Tokyo to defend the measures U.S. officials had taken and strongly recommended another attempt. The city of Tokyo decided, in April 1910, to donate as many as 3,000 specially grown germless saplings. This time the city took charge of the shipping as well. When the four-foot-tall saplings arrived in the District in March 1912, a thorough inspection was conducted. The trees were found to be in excellent condition, free from insects and plant diseases. It was decided that they should be planted at once. Only a few people, including Scidmore and Cosby, were present at the ceremony.

Ozaki visited Washington twice during the spring season. On both occasions, he composed traditional Japanese verses describing his strong attachment to those cherry trees Tokyo had given. His second visit came just five years after World War II, but he was honored in Congress for the gift. One of his poems reads:

“Viewing the cherry blossoms by the Potomac

Enchanted by the moon and appreciating the snow

There I will find the end of my life.”

Today, more than 3,000 trees surround the Tidal Basin, and approximately 100 of them are originals from 1912. When the Cherry Blossom Festival started in 1927, Mrs. Taft was the main guest, along with former first lady Edith Wilson. Just as the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France, has become a symbol of New York, cherry blossoms from Japan have become a symbol of Washington. The trees and their story are a living testament to the friendship between our peoples.

Commemorative Cherry Tree Planting at the Portland Japanese Garden ~

Thursday, April 12 ~ 10 a.m.–noon
Free with admission

In conjunction with the Japan-U.S. Cherry Blossom Festival Centennial and in collaboration with the the Consulate-General of Japan in Portland, the Japanese Garden will present a commemorative cherry tree planting in front of the Heavenly Falls on April 12th, 2012.

Gates Ajar ~ Winter 1988-89

Saturday, November 12th, 1988

FROM STICKS TO STONE:    Monuments Tell MacDonald Story

He doth raise his country’s fame
with his own

And in the mouths of nations yet
His praises shall be sung; Death
comes to all
But great achievements raise a
Which shall endure until the sun
grows cold….
~Georgius Fabricius (1516-1571)

1894 Ranald MacDonald, 70, suffering from some “pains in the joints”, had gone up the Kettle River to Toroda.  His newly-widowed niece, Jennie Nelson, wanted his company.  He died there, August 5, 1894, whispering the Japanese word for Farewell:  “Sayonara, my dear, sayonara …”

He was buried in a desolate old Indian cemetery near Toroda, his grave unmarked and soon almost forgotten.  However, a 1917 photograph shows a wooden cross, apparently the first of three markers mounted over the old traveler’s final resting place.

1938 FOM MEMBER Richard M. (Dick) Slagle of Republic, WA, was in the party which placed a cast concrete marker on the grave in 1938.  He took photos of the ceremony with his “little $1 box camera”.

“I was a recent high school graduate,” he writes, “and in June of that year was approached by our local scoutmaster …  He had been asked to have the Boy Scout troop participate in a ceremony at a grave and to make a marker.  Not having any other information and only several days’ time, we set about the task of making a cement cross.  When the cement was poured we scratched in the name as neatly as we could:  Ranald MacDonald.

“On the day of the ceremony we loaded the cross into a school bus and rode to the Kettle River location, about 30 miles north of Republic.  It was a warm summer day and about a dozen or so people assembled in the little Indian cemetery on the edge of a bench.  It overlooks the Kettle River, the mouth of Toroda Creek and the ranch where Ranald MacDonald was visiting at the time of his death.

“Among the people gathered were Judge William C. Brown of Okanogan, a man with a lifelong interest in regional history and especially the history of the native people.  Judge Brown had organized the vent and as he spoke I first heard the story of Ranald MacDonald.

“However, the high point of the program was to hear Mrs. Jennie Lynch (the former Jennie Nelson).  At that time she was probably in her 70’s, an active Indian lady and a favorite of her uncle Ranald.  As our group stood on this spot and looked over the scenic Kettle River valley she told the story of her memories of her uncle and his fondness to visit their ranch and of his last trip and final illness … ”

1951 The British Columbia Historical Quarterly reported on an event on October 27, 1951: The Committee on Historical Sites of the State Parks and Recreation of Washington held ” … a dedication service at the Indian Cemetery at Toroda, on the Kettle River, to mark the grave and honor the memory of Ranald MacDonald, one of the most colorful figures of the early fur-trade days, whose varied experiences took him as far afield as Japan.”  Fifty-seven years after his death, the stone, which is still in place, told the story:


MacDonald’s grave with rocks from Rishiri Island.   Photo by Frederik L. Schodt

Another 30 years passed.  Then, as the Oregon-Japan connection gained strength, the story of Ranald MacDonald was rediscovered.  In Japan, Prof. Torao Tomita published a translation of MacDonald’s memoir.  The story was featured in a novel, “Ocean Festival“, by Akira Yoshimura.  Other publications followed in Japan.

1987 On July 2, 1848, Ranald MacDonald made his official landing in Japan at Notsuka Cape on Rishiri island, just off the Hokkaido coast.  Some 143 years later, on July 4, 1987, the Rishiri Rotary Club unveiled an historical monument erected on the rocky, black lava cape.  The memorial was made from a rough log of Ezo-matsu (spruce) native to the small island.  It was 3 meters (almost 10 feet) high and 35 centimeters (about 14 inches) in diameter.  Vertical Japanese writing described Ranald MacDonald’s landing on this island.  Next to the log was a large explanatory sign:

“The memorial stands facing the Pacific Ocean, looking out toward Oregon in North America,” says Masaki Takahashi.  As a member of Rishiri Rotary, he first urged construction of the monument and four years later saw it unveiled.  Funds were provided by Rotary and supervision by Prof. Jukichi Suzuki, a Rishiri native who strongly supported the concept of a commemorative marker for “the first spontaneous cultural exchange between Japan and North America.”

“Large numbers of tour buses stop every day,” says Dr. Takahashi.  Tourists ” … admire and are excited by the brave deeds of MacDonald of Oregon, who was dedicated to mutual understanding between Japan and North America in a time long gone, and who took his life in his hands to achieve it, 140 years ago.”  (The writer notes that, at the time Ranald MacDonald entered Japan, “it was a closed country, and entry by an outsider was usually punished by death …”

1988 A two-sided monument, Japanese text on one side , English on the other, was erected on the site of Fort Astoria, Ranald MacDonald’s birthplace.  It was dedicated to his memory in sunlit ceremonies at Astoria, Oregon on May 21, 1988. [See Vol. 1 No. 1 of this newsletter for details.]

The monument is gray granite.  A pentagonal bar across the top suggests the gate to a Japanese shrine.  The text tells MacDonald’s story and also incorporates the names of organizations and individuals in Oregon and Japan whose gifts made the monument possible.  The monument reflects a suggestion made almost 80 years ago by Eva Emery Dye, an early Northwest author who corresponded with MacDonald and published a book based on his life:

Of all Oregonians,” she wrote, “Ranald MacDonald deserves a statue pointing to Japan.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


From our perspective, many people have been involved in the promotion of knowledge about Ranald MacDonald.  Probably the most valuable contribution has been the “living history” project at Ft. Astoria.  Sponsored by the Clatsop County Historical Society with a grant from the Committee to Promote Astoria (which distributes income from motel tax), two young men, Brian Johnson and Troy Baker, dressed in the garb of fur traders of 1822, were on duty seven days a week to talk with visitors about important events at Ft. Astoria.  Although the main topic is the founding of Ft. Astoria in 1811 as the first American business enterprise on the Pacific Coast, the presence of the Ranald MacDonald birthplace  monument makes MacDonald’s life story an inescapable subject for discussion.  It is estimated that 2,000 people heard the “trappers” during the past summer.

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Mt Rishiri photograph by Eiji Nishiya


WHY ON RISHIRI? MacDonald’s Landing Place in Japan

(Some interesting points to ponder in connection with Ranald MacDonald’s initial landing in Japan are raised in the following material, provided by Masaki Takahashi and Yuji Ushiro of the Friends of MacDonald in Rishiri.)

RANALD MacDONALD BOARDED the whaler Plymouth for Japan in December 1845.  About five miles southwest of Teuri and Yagashiri islands (off the west coast of Hokkaido) in June of 1848, Ranald left the Plymouth in a small boat.  His efforts to land on Teuri were unsuccessful and he landed instead on the southwest beach of Yagishiri, where he spent two days.  Early on July 1st he headed for Rishiri Island.

Why did he choose Rishiri Island after leaving Yagishiri?  These may be the reasons:

1 – It’s likely that Ranald assumed Yagashiri was an inhabited island.  To attain his purpose, he had to meet Japanese people.  When he realized that Yagishiri was, in fact, uninhabited, he knew he had to find another place to land, hopefully a place with people.  Ranald may have surmised that the mainland – Hokkaido – was too large to permit locating inhabitants easily.  An island, on the other hand, would be small enough to find people.  Rishiri has a high, snow-capped mountain peak and it is clearly visible on a clear day.  Ranald may have assumed that, with such a large mountain, the people who lived there would have been forced to live along the beaches and thus be easier for him to find.

2 – Japan’s cruel treatment of foreigners was notorious.  Ranald wanted to avoid danger.  He may have reasoned that casting away on an island – rather than on the mainland – would afford him the best possible chance of meeting commoners rather than government officials (who would likely immediately capture him).  He may have also thought that if there were fewer people, “commoners” rather than officials, they might be more sympathetic to his plight as a castaway and would be kind to him.

3 – If there were still no inhabitants (on Rishiri) he could move on to the mainland; to leave the mainland for one of the islands would have been more difficult.

4 – Douglas Williams – a reporter for Hokkaido Broadcasting Co., and a member of the film crew which visited Astoria for the monument dedication – thought that, because there is a high mountain in Oregon (Mt. Hood, which is quite visible from the Ft. Vancouver area where Ranald grew up) MacDonald may have unconsciously (or unconsciously?) have been drawn to Mt. Rishiri.

5 – From mid-June to July the shores of the Sea of Japan along the northern part of Hokkaido are often blanketed with thick fog.  Mt. Rishiri may have been the only visible landmark.  About 50 miles separate Yagishiri from Cape Notsuka, Rishiri; it is impossible to row all of the way from one island to the other. According to MacDonald’s own story, he sometimes hoisted a sail or simply allowed his small boat to be carried by the ocean currents.  (Presumably the time he had spent in the Sea of Japan on the whaler Plymouth would have given him some knowledge of the currents thereabouts.)  An experienced sea captain familiar with the area explains that tidal action alone could have carried MacDonald from Yagishiri to Rishiri.

Why Cape Notsuka?  Wind.  It likely carried Ranald’s small boat to Cape Notsuka on northern Rishiri rather than to Minamihama or another sandy beach on the southern coast.

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