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Saturday, April 14, 2012

100th Anniversary Of The Titanic Disaster And The Lone Japanese Survivor

Did you know that there was a Japanese man on the Titanic? And that he was one of the survivors?

Born in Niigata-ken in 1870, Hosono Masabumi (surname first) graduated from Tokyo Higher Commercial School, and worked briefly for  Mitsubishi before getting a job with Japan's Ministry of Communications in 1897.

In 1906, he graduated from the Russian department of the Tokyo School of Foreign Languages and, in 1910, was sent to Russia to research the Russian railway system.

Our story begins now. It was on his way back from this trip and after a short stay in London that on April 10, 1912 he boarded the RMS Titanic to return home wearing some decent clothing purchased in London. I state this so you know that he did not look like a peasant - that he looked reasonably well-to-do.  

On April 14, at 11:40 p.m., just four days into its maiden voyage, the badly nicknamed "unsinkable" Titanic struck an iceberg while traveling near top speed and began taking on water.

As you may or may not know - after hitting the iceberg, few people knew there was a problem. Hell, even Hosono slept through the entire thing.

He only learned of the problem just after 12AM midnight (about 30 minutes after the iceberg collision) when a member of the crew knocked on his door, waking him up, only to tell him to put on his life vest because the ship might be sinking.

Commonsense dictates that when a boat is sinking, it's a good idea to get off it. That's what Hosono tried to do. But, on three separate occasions, the ship's crew told hm to go back to the lower levels of the ship.

Back in those days, it was women and children first - but only if you had a first or second-class ticket and had white skin. yes, I played the race card.

Why send him away? They looked at him and assumed that no non-white person would have a good ticket and been traveling (Heavens!) third-class with the Irish. Also, being Asian, he was either part of the work crew or a stowaway. I'm guessing of course. But you pick one excuse you like.

Anyhow... on his third attempt - Hosono had a great deal of respect for not wanting to go down with the ship - he slipped past a crewman guarding the way to the lifeboats.   

Standing infront of Lifeboat No. 10, he watched it being loaded with women and children. he did not enter the boat.

However... there simply weren't enough women and children from first or second-class believing the boat was going to sink, or they simply did not want to leave their husbands. Whatever.

"I tried to prepare myself for the last moment with no agitation, making up my mind not to leave anything disgraceful as a Japanese," he explained in a letter to his wife. "But still I found myself looking for and waiting for any possible chance to survive." 

Since no more women or children were left near this lifeboat, the officer helping load the passengers at this No. 10 shouted out: "Room for two more!"

Hosono watched as an Armenian man quickly jumped in.

"I myself was deep in desolate thought that I would no more be able to see my beloved wife and children, since there was no alternative for me than to share the same destiny as the Titanic," he wrote. "But the example of the first man making a jump led me to take this last chance."

So, Hosono jumped into the Lifeboat. Still, not being white has its disadvantages believe it or not. 

“Fortunately the men in charge were taken up with something else and did not pay much attention. Besides, it was dark, and so they would not have seen who was a man and who a woman.”

While the officers weren't paying much attention to the color of his skin, the others on the boat did, later describing him as  a "Japanese stowaway".

At 1:20AM, Hosonso and 34 other passengers were lowered in Lifeboat no. 10 into the Atlantic Ocean, where he began to row with the only other male passenger.

The lifeboat was built to handle 65 people.

When the Titanic finally slipped beneath the waves at 2:20AM., Hosono watched.

In a letter to his wife, he wrote from aboard the Carpathia rescue ship as it  sailed to New York with other survivors: "What had been a tangible, graceful sight was not reduced to a mere void. And how I thought about the inevitable vicissitudes of life!"

On the Carpathia, he was not just a survivor, he was a yellow-skinned Asian. The crew of the Carpathia teased him: "Because they are a good-for-nothing band of seamen, anything I say falls of deaf ears.”

In New York, the lack of interest in Hosono the survivor continued.

He made his way to the office of the Mitsui trading company - and what a haven it must have seemed to him! - where old school friends lent him the money to travel home.

While he waited for a ship to leave San Francisco he told the Japanese community there his story.

Back in Tokyo, he gave an interview to the Yomiuri Shinbun (Yomiuri Newspaper), which also carried a photograph of him with his family, and to a few other newspapers and magazines. Then he picked up his life as well as he could.

But it's apparently not easy to survive a disaster.

He lost his job with the Ministry in May 1913, but the government could not afford to drop such a highly trained expert, who had just returned from government-sponsored study abroad

In June of 1913, he was rehired and worked on a contract-basis, but continued to work there until his death in 1939.

But  the story is not over.

People began to wonder how after the Titanic went down some 162 women and children were counted as being dead... and yet 338 men had managed to find their way into the lifeboats... did they displace those women and children to save their cowardly asses?

And guess who got the worst criticism of them all? That's right - Hosono. 

While the so-called Western newspapers were critical of the surviving men, they didn't seemed bothered by the Japanese Hosono. He was just a gaijin (foreigner) after all.    

Instead, the worst criticism came from Japan itself, who felt he had  broken two inglorious Japanese taboos. Remember, this was 1912, and the samurai had only been dissolved maybe 30 years earlier.

  • He had chosen life  over an honorable death. 
  • He had chosen life over death in public
He had made Japan look bad in the eyes of the world, and was called a coward. Because of this, he was fired from his job in the government. Yes, he was rehired a month later, but the damage was done to his reputation, and he never recovered that.

Heck, even Japanese university professors called him immoral, and he was even written up in textbooks for students to learn about as someone who had let his country down. An ethics textbook for girls in the 1910s condemned Hosono’s behavior with the telling comment that it disgraced the Japanese.

Just by being a survivor.

It was so bad that some in the public said he should commit ritualistic suicide - hara-kiri - to bring honor back to himself and his family and for Japan.

He never did, of course - he did nothing wrong - but such was the face of Japanese society then, caught between the old ways of Bushido  - the way of the warrior - and the new ideals brought to Japan of Western and European society where it was okay to be a survivor.

Even his family was concerned with his so-called cowardice, but Hosono wisely stated: “I am alive here and now, what is wrong with that?”

Aside from the early days, Hosono refused to talk about his experience aboard the Titanic, and he died a broken and forgettable person in 1939. That was okay by Japan, because they didn't want to talk about his cowardice either, hoping that by not talking about it, the world would forget their country's dishonor.

It's interesting to note that no one other than Japan cared about Hosono's so-called dishonorable act, and despite early newspaper accounts describing in detail what I have written about here, Hosono was largely forgotten in the history of the Titanic.

But... here, today, 100 years later, while it is indeed sad to have to honor the anniversary of such a tragic event and all those who lost their lives, it's even more sad and tragic to have to write about one poor man who did nothing wrong except be a survivor and to have been villified for it.

The notes and letters the Hosono wrote about the event laid in a family dresser until 1997 when someone re-discovered it when the movie Titanic made its Tokyo debut... and Hososno's tragic story was once again brought to light.

By the way... the letters written by Hosono are written on actual stationary from the Titanic, and is either the only piece of stationary believed to have survived the disaster, or certainly one of the very few pieces, what with paper and water not being an ideal combination. He wrote the letters to his wife while aboard the Carpathia rescue ship from stationary he had taken earlier from the Titanic.

Finally, after discovery of the letters, and with the sad love story of the Titanic movie, Japan finally embraced Hosono - not as a coward and failure to the image of Japan - but as a survivor of the Titanic disaster. 
Files compiled by Andrew Joseph


  1. Holy shit! What a great story! All I can say is Holy Shit!!!! The guy is a hero... Forget that national pride business!!!!

  2. Thanks for the plug again, Mike. This IS a great story - and I bet it would make a damn fine movie, too.

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