Thursday, August 18, 2016

Japan's First ESL (English as a Second Language) Teacher

September 2016: I'll land in Wakkanai, Japan's northernmost airport capable of handling commercial jets. If the plane were to fly 30 miles further, I'd be in the Russian Federation.

I'll then take a boat to Rishiri Island.

July 1848: Ranald MacDonald, 24 years old, half native American, half Scottish, landed on Rishiri Island. He represented himself as a castaway to the Ainu, the local, indigenous people.

But MacDonald was not a castaway. Driven by curiosity, he was risking death by entering a society that was closed to outsiders. He had boarded a whaler in Lahaina, Maui, and persuaded the captain to set him adrift in a small boat in the Sea of Japan.
In 1848, Japan had been a closed, feudal society for over 200 years.
Honshu was then the northernmost of Japan's main islands. The Ainu, a race distinct from the Wajin (the Japanese race) lived on islands to the north of Honshu, including Ezo (today's Hokkaido) and Rishiri.
An act of colonialism, the Japanese Matsumae clan had taken exclusive rights over Ezo and nearby islands. They traded with the Ainu people and kept them firmly suppressed.
The Ainu population at that time was about 20,000. Their population was being overtaken by the Wajin Japanese.
The Ainu hosts eventually handed MacDonald over to the Japanese authorities who took him by sea to Nagasaki over 1,000 miles to the south.
Nagasaki was Japan's only official point of contact with Europeans, and was limited to Dutch traders. The Dutch traders operated under strict control from a small island just off Nagasaki.
At the time, Japan did not have adequate English translators, and this was starting to be recognized as a problem. English had to be translated via a third language such as Dutch or Chinese. 
The arrival of MacDonald was opportune. For six months, while under house arrest, he taught English to Japanese translators. Some of these translators would become key players in the opening up of Japan in the 1850's and 1860's.

In April 1849 MacDonald was allowed to board a Dutch ship and leave Japan.

Today, MacDonald is recognized in Japan as their first native-English-speaking English teacher, their first ESL (English as a second language) instructor.

ESL classes are a big business in today's Japan.

Cramming School, Nagasaki, April 2016.
Maybe I have a second career lined up.

Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan by Frederik L. Schodt provides a fuller story based on MacDonald's notes and Japanese documents from the period.

MacDonald's notes were published posthumously in 1924: The Narrative of His Early Life on the Columbia Under the Hudson's Bay Company's Regime; of His Experiences in the Pacific Whale Fishery; and of His Great Adventure to Japan; With A Sketch of His Later Life on the Western Frontier, 1824-1894 by Ranald MacDonald. I was surprised to find a copy in my local library.

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