A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

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Remembering the 1886 Sinking of the Normanton (ノルマントン号事件)- in which the British Captain and European Crew Abandoned Ship, Leaving all Asian (including all 25 Japanese) Passengers to Drown


Stone Monument to those who drowned when the Normanton went down

Stone Monument in Wakayama Prefecture to the 25 Japanese who drowned when the British ship the Normanton went down. The incident caused widespread outrage in Japan. Not only did the British captain and his crew abandon ship leaving the Japanese passengers to their fate, but at a hearing held at the British Consulate in Kobe, they were all found innocent of any negligence (they claimed the Japanese understood no English!). The public outcry was such that the British agreed to a retrial at their consulate in Yokohama where the captain was given a three-month sentence.  No compensation of any sort was ever offered the bereaved families. Now nearly  forgotten, the Normanton Incident made it clear to  the Japanese public that it was necessary to revise the unequal treaties imposed on Japan by the Western powers in the late 1850`s.

By Avi Landau

I am an atrocious typist. In fact the word TYPIST should not even be used when referring to a person with the poor keyboard skills that I have. It would probably be best just to say that when it comes to typing- I stink. You should not be surprised then, that when I took on the task of translating into English one of world-renowned author Junichi Saga`s still untranslated books*, that I did so with paper and pen.

Naturally, when I completed the English version, I  felt a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, though all I actually had to show for all the work was a color-faded plastic shopping bag stuffed with hundreds of loose sheets of paper. Fortunately I had remembered to number (most of) them!

Because of my TYPOPHOBIA, it  took me a few months to build up enough resolve to start inputting the text onto my computer. Much more pain-staking for me than the actual translation work itself, I spent every free hour, for months, going through the repeated process of examining a few words of my scrawl, and then SEARCHING AND PECKING at the keyboard. It was a  tedious and  dizzying experience – a real come-down after the challenge and thrill of translation.

Making it all the more depressing, was the TV news I would often hear wafting in from the next room while I was at work. First there was the baffling disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, and then the tragic sinking  of the Korean ferry Sewol, in which more than 300 high school students had gone down with the ship.

Making this disaster  even more painful for Koreans was the mishandling of what should have been a routine rescue effort – and even more so by the fact that the captain and crew had escaped the sinking ship, saving themselves while leaving the students to drown on the doomed ship.

Even when I was not at work typing, while I was out about town, it was the Sewol story which dominated conversation. No one could fathom how the captain and crew could have left those students on board telling them to stay where they were, while they themselves snuck off incognito (the captain in his underwear) to safety.


A sign next to the stone monument reads: The British freighter the Normanton (1533 tons) sank on January 24th 1886. Twenty-five Japanese were left on board to drown as the British crew used the lifeboats for themselves alone. Because the Tokkaido Railroad had still not been completed, at that time it was common for foreign freighters like the Normanton to carry passengers between Kobe and Yokohama. Two months after the tragedy, skin divers from the Amagusa Islands were able to locate the wreck, but it was not possible to salvage it or recover the bodies of the dead. This monument to the wreck was erected by the daughter of Yatani Jiro, one of the passengers who drowned when the ship went down

Then one night, right in the midst of all the unfolding of this and the continued debate about the behavior of the captain and crew, I came to a passage in my translation which I had completely forgotten about. My curiosity was peaked as I typed out these sentences I had translated months earlier:

“Mother was sitting beside the PECHKA (traditional Russian stove) and singing softly. The words went something like: “The foreign ships are well-known, we were led on board, and taken far from the shore…..” It was a song that was very popular at the time, about a famous incident that occurred in the 1880`s. There had been a British passenger ship- The Normanton- which sank. There were many Japanese on board who perished. She was singing that song. I stood in the darkness of the late night and listened as she  repeated it over and over again.”

A sunken ship! What a coincidence! But when I did a little web surfing to find out more about what had happened at that time, I realized the coincidence was much greater than I had first thought- the sinking of the Normanton in 1886 also involved a captain, in this case a British captain, abandoning ship and leaving his passengers behind to drown!

You can read more about the all but forgotten Normanton Incident here:


and listen to the song the boy (Susumu Saga) heard his mother singing that night in Siberia way back in 1920 :



Here are the some of the lyrics translated into English:

The roar of the waves pounding against the shore Awoken from a dream by a storm in the dead of night Staring out at the great blue expanse Wondering where the hell my fellow countrymen are

Try to call out, try to shout, but I have no voice I seek and search but find not even a shadow If the rumors are true, the passing moon and twenty-five of our dearest brethren set sail

Godspeed your journey as the crow flies We know a little bit about foreign ships And we know those built by Brits Are famed for their nautical prowess

Like lambs, we were led aboard the vessel we passed all too quickly the 300 kilometers of distant wake and water to old Totomi only to reach Kumano Inlet in Kishuu

and then in the middle takes a surprising turn:[4]

O, the inhumanity of this foreign ship The cruel and merciless captain Whose very name reeks of cowardice Watched their sorrowful plight from afar

Forgetting all of his responsibility Hey made fast for a cowardly retreat Dragging his men along with him They jumped aboard the lifeboats

They see each others shadows off Tears of regret cutting quick and deep They wipe them down and fight them off You’re a hateful bastard, Drake

No matter how different your race may be No matter how little you know of mercy You just stood by and watched You left us there to die, you coward


The photos I have used in this post were uploaded from the following site. Go to it for more images of the Monument to the Normanton Incident:


* HYOSETSU NO BAIKAL (氷雪のバイカル) which can be literally translated as the “Frost and Snows of Baikal” is the true story of a Japanese family (the author`s own grandparents and father) that went off to live in Siberia just after the Russian Revolution. My English version was released under the title: “Susumu’s Saga”.


Just today (Dec. 12, 2020) I found an old Japanese film on youtube called: Masquerade – Secret of the M.S. Normanton Incident (仮面の舞踏ー秘話ノルマントン号事件) which was made in 1943 (in Japanese only – with no subtitles)