The Last of the Last

How Masabumi Hosono’s Night was Forgotten

The Last of the Last

Titanic Research

How Masabumi Hosono’s Night was Forgotten

As the Carpathia steamed towards New York with the survivors from the Titanic, some of them, sensing that they had witnessed a momentous event, began to make notes of what they had experienced.ii Two of them, Colonel Gracie and Lawrence Beesley, would soon publish detailed, carefully researched accounts of the disaster, which have since seen several re-issues. Both men held forth on the qualities of the “Anglo-Saxon” or the “Teutonic” race, to which they attributed the conduct of the men and women in the last hours of the Titanic.iii With such an attitude commonly prevailing, it is small wonder that no one on the Carpathia showed any interest in an Asian writing down his own experience of the previous night in a letter to his wife. He wrote it on a piece of Titanic stationery, on which he had begun a letter in English on 10 April, only to discard it.iv To most witnesses of the disaster the Asian survivors were "Chinamen,” "Japs" or "Filipinos" (they cared not which), and they had saved themselves as "stowaways" or had jumped into lifeboats against the officers' orders.v And of course they travelled third class.

Three times Hosono was told off for trying to get through to the second­class section of the decks. The first time he started to obey, until he realized that no-one else was moving in the same direction; the second time he explained that he was a second-class passenger, the third time he ignored the seaman’s words and slipped past. He joined the commotion on deck and observed that the officers were letting only women and children in the lifeboats, threatening the men with pistols. As he saw four boats launched, he tried to resign himself to his fate. But then someone shouted, "room for two more," and at that moment a man jumped into the boat. Hosono saw his chance and followed him: “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.”vi He had indeed passed unnoticed, and the other people in the boat later described him as a "Japanese stowaway."vii He was set to row like the other male passenger, an Armenian.viii

Like many survivors, Hosono believed he had got into the last boat; however, he almost certainly survived in boat 10, generally believed to have left the Titanic at 1:20 a.m. as the third boat on the port side, although one other witness claims that it was the last boat.ix It may have been the only boat he could see at the time, but his assertion probably says more about his frame of mind than the actual situation. In fact, Hosono’s report adds little to our knowledge of events in those final moments before the Titanic sank and immediately after. In some points it resembles Beesley’s; Hosono too mentions the calmness of the crowd on the doomed ship, his shock when the Titanic sank and his relief and gratitude when he was saved. He observed the re-shuffling of passengers in the boats in mid-Atlantic, as Fifth Officer Lowe prepared to row to the rescue of survivors with a few hand-picked men, and suspected it was the benefit of the crew. Like Beesley (pp.186-7), he observed that a high proportion of crew members survived.

Just as Hosono claimed that his boat was the last to leave the Titanic and he himself the last to get into the boat, he also recorded that his boat was the last to be rescued by the Carpathia: “My boat was the last. As before, women took precedence [in leaving the lifeboat – MM], and so I was truly the last of the last.” Again, the accepted story does not agree with his, giving boat 12 and Second Officer Lightoller as the last to reach the Carpathia.x Possibly, Hosono could not see the very last boat in the distance as he climbed aboard, but the significance of his claim lies in the way it illustrates his feelings. In a way, his ordeal was only about to begin, and his journal of the next four days perhaps represents the most fascinating part of his report. On the climactic events of the night followed days of utter tedium; Hosono writes of boredom, of the crowded conditions, the poor food (at least compared to the Titanic) and the bad weather which gave rise to new fears of disaster. Few survivors on the Carpathia could have felt lonelier than Hosono. In Japan, he was an important man. Born in the prefecture of Niigata by the Sea of Japan in 1870, he entered the Ministry of Communications in 1897, after graduating from Tokyo Higher Commercial School and a short spell working for Mitsubishi. In 1906, he graduated from the Russian department of the Tokyo School of Foreign Languages, and in 1910 he was sent to Russia to do research into the Russian railway system. It was on his way back from this trip and after a short stay in London that he boarded the Titanic to return home.xi While on the Titanic, his very presence in second-class and the new clothes he had acquired in London may well have given his fellow passengers some indication of his status, even if their lack of interest and perhaps his poor spoken English kept conversation to a minimum. But on the Carpathia he became just another Asian, whose survival was suspect. He slept in the smoking room, when he could find a space there, but did not like to spend much time in it, because the seamen made fun of him: “Because they are a good-for-nothing band of seamen, anything I say falls of deaf ears.” Only on the last day did he assert himself: “In the smoking room, I talked a little about myself; I showed them a bulldog tenacity and finally gained a bit of respect.”

Once in New York, the lack of interest in his person 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 Newspaper, which also carried a photograph of him with his family, and to a few other newspapers and magazines.xii Then he picked up his life as well as he could.

He lost his post at the Ministry in May 1913, and his career undoubtedly suffered. But the Japanese government could not afford to drop such a highly trained expert, who had just returned from government-sponsored study abroad, so he was soon (June 1913) re-employed, albeit on a contract basis at first, and worked for the Ministry until his death in 1939. He weathered the attacks he, like so many other male survivors, had to endure.xiii Samurai ideals of glorious death played little role in this. By 1912 they were out of fashion anyway; when in September that year General Maresuke Nogi, the hero of Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese War, followed Emperor Meiji into death, the Japanese reacted with disbelief and shock, and derision as well as respect was expressed.xiv

Besides, no samurai code said anything about “women and children first.” This alleged “rule of the sea” would have been familiar to the Japanese through a different source. Samuel Smiles’ Self Help (1st edition 1859) is not well known in the English speaking world today, but in Smiles’ lifetime it sold over 250, 000 copies and was translated into several languages. In 1870 Masanao Nakamura (1832-1891), scholar, educator and champion of Western thought, translated Self Help into Japanese. Published in 1871, Saikoku risshi hen (A collection of success stories from Western countries) became one of the great bestsellers of the period, said to have sold a million copies. To this day educated Japanese have at least heard of the title and book’s enormous influence on previous generations. The stories, with which Samuel Smiles illustrates the importance of “character – the true gentleman” – include the wreck of the Birkenhead on the coast of Africa in 1852.xv Thanks to the chivalry and courage of the 472 men who went down with the ship, the 166 women and children on board were saved in the lifeboats (at least according to the testimony of Captain Wright, who – rather surprisingly in the circumstances – lived to tell the tale). The story is included in Nakamura’s translation under the heading, “The composed calm of the seamen when an English ship sank on the coast of Africa.”xvi

The opinion of the West mattered greatly to the Japanese in 1912. Their country had come a long way in the last sixty years. Escaping colonization, Japan had since the enforced opening of the country by Commodore Perry in 1853 and the fall of the shoguns in 1868 risen to a modern industrial nation, with a central administration, a parliamentary constitution, a public education system, an efficient infrastructure, a growing economy and a strong military, which had beaten a Western nation, Russia, in 1905. But the Western nations did not welcome Japan playing their own game, and Japan often felt treated as a steerage passenger on the international scene.

Hosono's failure to act as the Anglo-Saxon nations evidently expected their men to act caused embarrassment in Japan, but more because of the Japanese’s acceptance of Western values than because of their own traditions. An ethics textbook for girls in the 1910s condemned Hosono’s behaviour with the telling comment that it disgraced the Japanese. When Hosono’s family expressed concern about this, he replied: “I am alive here and now, what is wrong with that?”xvii Otherwise, apart from the occasional flare-up of indignation, Hosono's countrymen preferred to forget the affair. Hosono himself never spoke of it. After his death his letter was published, and again in 1980, when attempts to locate the wreck aroused new interest in the Titanic.

It took James Cameron’s film in 1997 to bring Hosono's story to a wider, even an international audience. And at last Western Titanic buffs came on the scene. These - according to Biel (pp.177, 270) mostly white men - had so far shown little interest in non-white passengers on the Titanic. Now, some of them fell over themselves to praise the “discovery,” sometimes giving the impression that Hosono’s letter remained unknown for 80 years, when it in fact had previously been published in full in the Japanese press. Commentators invoked “Japanese culture” (culture, as if it were immutable, having taken the place of “race” to explain foreign behaviour) to explain why Hosono's night on the Titanic was forgotten in Japan.xviii No-one asked why it was equally forgotten in the West, where the Titanic enthusiasts painstakingly searched for every little mosaic stone concerning the story of that “Night to Remember.” With the help of someone able to read Japanese, Hosono's trail could so easily have been followed. As a second­class passenger,xix he could be assumed of sufficient social standing to find his way into the newspapers. Sure enough, the Japanese Ambassador in London telegraphed news of Hosono’s survival to Tokyo on the 19th of April, and the newspapers reported it, just as newspapers in many countries today report the fate of their own nationals in a disaster.xx

But as on the Carpathia in April 1912, so in the years that followed the disaster, no Westerner had much interest in the lone Japanese. Hosono's story, written as a private letter and not for public consumption, vividly illustrates how human reactions to a tragedy resemble each other across cultures and races. Nevertheless, Western perceptions of the Japanese still focus on differences and on that which separates “them” from “us.” Masabumi Hosono’s version of the night may not shed new light on the events in mid Atlantic in April 1912. His fate, however, and that of his story say a great deal about Western attitudes towards Japan then and now.

© Margaret Mehl

i I thank my colleague Takahisa Furukawa, professor at Yokohama City University and descendant of Hosono Masabumi, for sending me copies of Hosono’s letter as printed in Sunday Mainichi and of his interview in Yomiuri shinbun. Professor Furukawa has himself published published a short article on Hosono: “Taitanikku gô no Nihonjin” (The Japanese on the Titanic), in Yûjirô Ôguchi et al., eds, Nihonshi shiwa 3: kindai, kendai (Tokyo: Yamakawa 1994), pp.134-7. ii Colonel Archibald Gracie, Titanic: A Survivor’s Story (1913; re-issued Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing 1985), p.114; Lawrence Beesley, The Loss of the S.S. Titanic By One of the Survivors (1912; re-issued, Boston: Houghton Mifflin 2000), p.149.
iii Gracie, p. 34; Beesley, p. 51, 193; see also Steven Biel, Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), pp.47-8. iv His wife received a letter he wrote on the Titanic on 24 April; see Hideo Hosono, “Dasshutsu shita chichi wa hikyô dewa nakatta” (My father who escaped was no coward), Sunday Mainichi (14 September 1980), pp. 33-4.
v Walter Lord, A Night to Remember (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978), p. 138; Biel pp.45­50; 55-7.
vi This and other passages quoted from the printed letter in Sunday Mainichi (“Tada hitori no Nihonjinn jôkyaku no sônan,” 14 September 1980), pp.30-3; translations by the author. vii Gracie, p.147.
viii Neshan Krekorian; see article by Don Fraser in The Standard (St-Catharines, Ontario, Canada, 10 April 2001; http://www.geocities.com/Paris/Palais/2230/titanic.html, accessed 24/10/02) and Encyclopedia Titanica: Third Class Passenger: Neshan Krekorian (www.encyclopedia­titanica.org; accessed 24/10/02).
ix Robin Gardiner and Dan van der Vat, The Riddle of the Titanic: An Astonishing Reassessment of a Disaster that Shook the World (London: Orion, 1995) pp. 140-1.
x Gardiner/van der Vat, p.169.
xi All biographical information on Hosono Masabumi from Ikuhiko Hata, ed., Nihon kingendai jinbutsu rireki jiten (Biographical Dictionary of 3200 Leaders of Modern Japan), (Tokyo: Tokyo University Press, 2002), p.458.
xii Yomiuri shimbun (4 June 1912, morning edition, p.3).
xiii Biel, pp.27-9.
xiv Carol Gluck, Japan’s Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 221-6.
xv Samuel Smiles, Self-Help (1859; re-issued London: IEA Health and Welfare Unit, 1996), pp. 248­9.
xvi Samuel Smiles, tr. Masanao Nakamura, Saikoku risshi hen (1874; reissue of the 1927 edition published by Hakubunkan, Tokyo: Kôdansha, 1991); unfortunately, I have not been able to examine the original edition, but apart from modernization of the spelling, the text appears to be unchanged.
xvii Hideo Hosono, p.34.
xviii Frank Gibney Jr, “ Mending History: The Descendants of Japan’s Sole Titanic Survivor Aim to Clear His Sullied Name,” Time 150.19 (10 Novermber 1997);
www.time.com/time/magazine/1997/int/971110/asia.mending histo.html, accessed 10/10/02; in a similar vein: Josef Coleman: “Titanic account from sole Japanese survivor sheds light on disaster,” Athens Daily News (online version: 20 December 1997);
www.onlineathens.com/1997/122097/1220.a4titanic.html, accessed 21/10/02. Also Don Lynch, quoted in Mimi Lai, “A Case of Injustice: The Story of Masabumi Hosono,” www.geocities.com/Athens/Agora/6683/mhosono.html, accessed 21/10/02. xix His name is listed on the White Star Line’s list, quoted in Lord, A Night to Remember, p. 213, and it is on the list of survivors picked up by the Carpathia, quoted in Gardiner, van der Vat, p. 365.
xx Ôsaka mainichi shibun, (21 April 1912); quoted in Meiji hennenshi hensankai, ed., Shinbun shûsei Meiji hennenshi (Chronological history of Meiji compiled from newspaper), 15 vols. (Tokyo: Zaisei keizai gakukai, 1936) vol.14, p.554.

Related Biographies:
Masabumi Hosono

Contributor
Margaret D. Mehl
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