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The search for the Kanrin Maru shipwreck

Saraki Misaki, the location where the shipwreck allegedly took place. Source: QGIS + OpenStreetMap

Source:Tōgō Shrine and Tōgō Association (東郷神社・東郷会), Togo Heihachiro in images, illustrated Meiji Navy (図説東郷平八郎、目で見る明治の海軍)

From 19 November 2017 until the end of March 2018, the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) and Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology will partner up in a project to search for the Kanrin Maru. This Dutch-built screw-propelled schooner corvette sank in 1871 off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan.

The wreck of the Kanrin Maru is being researched because it represents part of the shared cultural heritage of the Netherlands and Japan. This shared cultural heritage is rooted in over 400 years of bilateral relations. A most special bond was formed between both nations when between 1639 and 1853 Japan kept its borders closed to all westerners but the Dutch.

For the Netherlands, the vessel symbolises the important role the country obtained in helping Japan develop a navy of its own. The help came at a time when this period of relative isolation came to an end, and foreign warships were increasingly frequenting Japanese waters demanding access to the nation. Part of the uniqueness of the Kanrin Maru comes from the fact that it was the first of a number of warships specially built in the Netherlands for the young Japanese navy. For Japan specifically, the vessel symbolises one of the first steps towards having a modern navy according to contemporary western standards. What is more, the Kanrin Maru, as Japan’s first screw-driven steam warship, achieved near legendary status when it was successfully used in 1860 in a pioneering voyage to cross the Pacific, following in the wake of the nation’s first embassy to the United States of America. Today, the descendants of the crewmembers involved in this voyage still commemorate this event through the efforts of the Society of the Kanrin Maru Crew Descendants, while the legacy of the Kanrin Maru is still celebrated through annual festivities in Hokkaido.

In line with the Shared Cultural Heritage programme of the Netherlands, the project facilitates knowledge exchange and capacity building through a project team consisting of Dutch and Japanese experts, and a university trainee. The project is furthermore a continuation of the collaboration between Japan and the Netherlands in the field of underwater cultural heritage management.

Research includes exploring the available literature and archives for information about the ship and its historical context, in order to help trace the location of the wreck. Other organisations invited to join the project include the Kikonai Municipality Board of Cultural Education and the Society of the Kanrin Maru Crew Descendants. This November, part of the team will go to the supposed location of the wrecking event near Kikonai, talk to the local community and meet with historians and other experts in order to grasp the sense of heritage surrounding the legacy of the Kanrin Maru.

Leon Derksen will be coordinating this project on behalf of the Maritime Heritage programme of the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands. You can read his blogs and updates here on our website:  Follow the project online by using #KanrinMaru.