Rev. Samuel C. Damon, publisher of the Honolulu-based monthly newspaper The Friend, published an interesting article in the July 1862 edition about a Japanese national named Joseph Heco. At the time of the news story Heco had been appointed interpreter to the U.S. Consul at Kanagawa. He was in Honolulu on his way back to Japan to begin his duties.
Years before Joseph Heco was among the Japanese who found themselves swept out to sea due to typhoons, only to find himself and the crew of his “junk” rescued by an American ship. They were taken to San Francisco. That was only the beginning of a colorful life for young Joseph Heco. His future would include an American education, an American government service position, voyages on the Black Ships Powhatan, Susquehanna among other vessels, and an act of diplomatic mediation that saved Yokohama from destruction by the Russian fleet –leading to the ceding of the northern section of Sakhalin Island to the Russian Empire.
He was appointed Secretary to the Captain of the Fenimore Cooper. That ship was lost in a typhoon in Japan. The American crew would go on to board the Japanese warship Kanrin Maru that, along with the U.S.S. Powhatan, would traverse the Pacific Ocean with the Japanese Embassy in early 1860.
He also worked for U.S. Consul Townsend Harris in Kanagawa.
Damon’s article quotes an article from the San Francisco Evening Bulletin:
It afford us pleasure to meet again this gentleman. He is young in years, but old in adventures. We learn from him that he has been appointed interpreter to the U.S. Consul at Kanagawa, and is now proceeding thence to enter upon his duties. His sympathies are unmistakably with the North in the great struggle. During his last visit to America, he spent several weeks in Baltimore, where he had ample opportunity to become acquainted with the sentiments of Secesh! He is taking with him plans and specifications of iron-clad vessels of war, for the information of the Japanese Government, which will doubtless induce the Japanese to countermand the order which they have sent to the United States for building a first-class gun-boat after the old style.
The following notice of Mr. Heco, we copy from a late Evening Bulletin:
THE STORY OF JOSEPH HECO, THE JAPANESE. –Among the late arrivals from the Eastern States was Joseph Heco, who, although Japanese by birth, in an American by education and citizenship, and has been from time to time, during the last ten years, a resident of San Francisco. Mr. Heco’s adventures have been so varied and curious, that we have requested him to give us a slight sketch of his history. He has done so, and it forms the basis for the following narrative, which will be found quite interesting.
It seems that Heco’s father was a wealthy landed proprietor, residing about thirty miles from Osaka, an important seaport in the southern part of Japan, in which city resided his brother, who has engaged in commerce. Young Heco, at the age of 13, was sent to Osaka to learn commerce and navigation from his uncle. In the summer of 1850, he went in one of his uncle’s junks to Jeddo. The junk arrived safely at its destination, discharged, and having taken in a return cargo, sailed for Osaka via Worangawa. After leaving the latter place, the junk fell in with a typhoon, was disabled and blown out to sea. After remaining fifty days at the mercy of the waves, the wreck was fallen in with by the American bark Auckland, Capt. Jennings, who took off the crew (in all 17 persons) and brought them to San Francisco. They arrived here in February, 1851. The Collector of the Port placed all these persons on board the revenue cutter, and wrote to the Government at Washington for instructions as to their disposition.
Government, with the laudable desire to set an example of humanity, and to cultivate good fellowship with Japan, sent the sloop of war St. Marys to take these castaways back to their own country. They accordingly embarked on board this vessel, and sailed for Hong Kong, where they were transferred on board the U.S. steamer Susquehanna, to await the arrival of the Japanese expedition under Commodore Perry.
After several months of delay, Heco determined to return to San Francisco, took passage on board the bark Sarah Hooper, and arrived here in the fall of 1852. He was accompanied by the second mate, and one of the sailors. The Second mate, Toro, will be remembered by many of our readers as a porter at the bank of Wells, Fargo & Co.
At that time Beverley C. Sanders was Collector here, and took Heco, who was then about 15 years old, under his protection, with the intention of educating him, thinking that he might some day be very useful, both to his own country and ours. With this view Mr. Sanders took him to the Eastern States and placed him at school in Baltimore. Heco afterwards returned to San Francisco and continued his schooling here, until early in 1856, when he entered the counting-house of Macondray & Co., in this city, where he received a thorough mercantile education.
Heco then accompanied Dr. W.M. Gwin to Washington, in hopes of obtaining from the United States Government some appointment in their service at Japan, which would secure him from any fear of molestation from his own countrymen. He succeeded in obtaining the position of Secretary to the Captain of the Fenimore cooper, which vessel was to sail from San Francisco on a surveying expedition in the Pacific Ocean and on the coast of Japan. Owing to severe illness, Heco was obliged to leave the Fenimore cooper at Honolulu. After his recovery he took passage for Hong Kong in the clipper ship Sea Serpent. From Hong Kong he went to Shanghae in the U.S. steamer Powhatan, and thence to Jeddo in the U.S. steamer Mississippi.
Shortly after Heco’s arrival in Japan, the Fenimore Cooper was lost, and he was left to his own resources. He entered into business as commission agent, custom-house broker and interpreter, and was of great service to our Consul at Kanagawa, owing to his knowledge of the English and Japanese languages. On one occasion, a lieutenant from one of the Russian frigates was murdered by the Japanese at Yokohama. The Russian Admiral applied to the Japanese authorities for the delivery of the murderers. Receiving no satisfaction from the Government, he determined to destroy Yokohama; but the U.S. Consul, Mr. Dorr, advised him to employ Heco as mediator, which he did. Heco not being able to find the assassins, arranged with the Japanese Government to compromise the matter by ceding to Russia a portion of the Saghalien Island, and in that way saved Yokohama from bombardment and destruction by the Russian fleet.
Owing to the peculiar distinctions made by the native Japanese between Government officials and persons engaged merely in mercantile pursuits, Heco found his position in Kanagawa a disagreeable one, and decided to try his luck again in Washington. He returned to San Francisco, and proceeded to Washington, taking with him strong letters of recommendation to the most influential persons both in and out of Congress. His visit was highly successful, and he has been appointed Interpreter to the Consulate at Kanagawa. This appointment enables him to wear a diplomatic uniform, and will give him among his countrymen a rank equal to that of Lieutenant-Governor of Kanagawa owing to his being Acting Vice-Consul, in the event of the absence of the U.S. Consul.
Mr. Heco informs us that he has also the privilege of transacting business on his own account at Kanagawa. There are but few instances where a shipwrecked lad of thirteen has, in the space of ten years, by his own energy and courage, mastered a new language, and become thoroughly acquainted with the habits and customs of a nation of whom he had never heard before. The future career of this young gentleman will be watched with interest by all Americans, and more especially by the people of this city, among whom he has lived so long, and to many of whom he is personally known. In Mr. Heco, Americans will, we believe, always have a true and it may be a powerful friend in Japan; and we and all our people most heartily wish him every success in the commercial pursuits to which he is now about to turn his attention in that country.