Thursday, April 29, 2010

Tateishi Onojirō: Japan’s First Teen Idol

I have been writing a fictional novel set in the Bakumatsu period of Japan for close to a year now. And during that year, I have had to do some painstaking research in order to make my story viable to my most critical audience. In one of my chapters, I tell the tale how my fictional protagonist William Merrick had gone from the disillusionment of the Mexican American War to finding his way to San Francisco during the California Gold Rush where along the way he befriends Nakahama “John” Manjiro. It is through these circumstances that the two friends will meet again in 1860 when the Shogunate Warship Kanrin Maru arrives in San Francisco with the first Japanese Embassy Delegation to America.

For this chapter I had read through Masao Miyoshi’s As We Saw Them to gain further insight as to what happened during that first official visit by any Japanese government to an American City. This was most helpful in understanding the likes of Katsu Kaishu and Master Scholar Fukuzawa Yukichi who make careful brief appearances in my book. In reading of their cross cultural adventure I had come across a peculiar story of a curious young sixteen year old Samurai named Tateishi Onojirō whose looks made him an overnight sensation and darling of the American Press.

“Tommy” as he had become known worked as a second level interpreter. He held no great title or high status in Japan but in America he was mobbed by women like any modern day rockstar. Onojirō had been described as a darling fellow and Japanese Prince by sailors who liked his less than repressed character as opposed to the remainder of the delegation whose composure was restricted by decorum demanded by those representing the Shogunate. Wherever this kid went, Onojirō was surrounded by crowds of women seeking his autograph and bestowing flattery. His love letters and poems became front page fodder which only increased his popularity. Of course this sounds like typical celebrity fair but when you consider this took place in 1860 one has to go wow!

Onojirō’s place in history may have only occupied a meager footnote in the chronicles of the 1860 voyage to America but his image that was so illustrated by the American Press of the 1860’s still exists in these rare photographs of the former teen sensation. I can only imagine what kind of ego he must had developed and what let down awaited him when he returned to Japan with no throngs of female admirers awaiting him. At least he survived the Imperial Restoration to tell the tale and later returned to America in 1871. By then he was just another twenty eight year old former Samurai. We will never know if he got over his former teen fame for he disappeared into obscurity. All we know is that in the last recorded sighting he was ever still the ladies man even if he was no longer popular.
To find out more about Tateishi Onojirō, check out Masao Miyoshi’s As We Saw Them - The First Japanese Embassay To The United States
To see more photographs of the 1860 delegation please visit

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