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Washington, Banzai!


How A Band of Japanese Ronin Helped Win The American Revolutionary War


By Chris Oakley

Part 3



Summary: In the first two chapters of this series we recalled the founding of the Japanese settlement New Kyoto in Virginia and New Kyoto’s growth into a full-fledged town. In this installment, we’ll examine the role that the descendants of the original New Kyoto settlers played in the American Revolutionary War and the creation of the US Constitution.


When word of the skirmish between British troops and American colonists at the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord reached the citizens of New Kyoto, they realized the time had come for them to take a stand in defense of their homes and ideals against the distant tyranny of King George III in London. The town militia, which included some of New Kyoto’s best swordsmen, assembled to march on the nearest British garrison to forestall any attempts on the British army’s part to occupy their town.

Facing adversaries who used swords in battle was nothing new for the British soldier; indeed, in those days instruction in the art of sword-fighting was a critical part of the British army’s training regimen. But the Japanese volunteers hiking their way through the Virginia countryside to confront British troops had a particularly great knack for the blade; although like their English-descended fellow colonists they now fought mostly with rifles, the men of New Kyoto could still use the katana blade with deadly effect in close-quarter combat-- they were even better than bayonets for running an enemy through, one of the volunteers said. And when the British army fought the Japanese volunteers for the first time, they would learn just how effective those katana blades could be.

In fact, according to modern estimates by scholars of the American Revolution, at least one out of every five British troops killed in action in Virginia and the Carolinas in the early months of the war fell victim to katana blades used against them in close combat by the Japanese colonists. By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed in July of 1776, the ordinary British soldier had developed a rather lively anxiety where the katana blade was concerned....


...and subsequent engagements between the American colonists and His Majesty’s troops did nothing to relieve that anxiety. In fact, the fear got exponentially worse after the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. One British private fortunate enough to survive his initial encounter with a katana-wielding rebel soldier wrote in a letter to his family back in Liverpool: "This Asiatic fought as if the Devil himself had taken possession of his soul....I saw him dispatch four or five of our men by his own hand, and he might have very well slain me also had not my platoon sergeant had the good fortune to shoot him through the head." General Horatio Gates, commander of the victorious American forces at Saratoga, marveled at the efficiency with which Japanese volunteers dispatched British troops in close combat. In a letter to Continental Army headquarters a few days after the remaining British troops near Saratoga surrendered, Gates told General George Washington: "If I had but a few more of these remarkable men in my ranks, I have very little doubt but that I should be able to march to London sweeping all before me."

Despite Japan’s self-imposed isolation, word of the New Kyoto colonists’ exploits in the service of the Continental Army was slowly filtering back in dribs and drabs courtesy of the Dutch traders who were the only foreigners then allowed inside Japan’s borders. Many Japanese young men were inspired by these tales to brave the wrath of their homeland’s establishment and the hazardous waters of the Pacific to make the journey to America to take part in the colonial struggle for independence. Not all of these young men would get there in time to have a major role in that struggle, they would all help to shape the nation which arose in the struggle’s aftermath.

By 1781 New Kyoto was the third-largest city in Virginia in population terms and three other Japanese settlements had been established in North America. With East and West rubbing elbows so close together, the twain weren’t just meeting, they were blending into one another. Just as the original Tamagura expedition and its descendants had mastered the use of firearms in combat, so were colonists of European descent studying Japanese styles of hand-to-hand fighting-- including a martial art invented in the Ryukyu Islands known as karate. Many a British soldier found himself flat on his back, and from there in an American rebel POW camp, thanks to such techniques of unarmed combat.

At the end of the American Revolution in 1783, there were some 300,000 Japanese settlers living in the thirteen colonies. And in spite of the Japanese establishment’s best efforts to prevent it, more were coming across the Pacific every month to put down roots in the New World. When the US Constitution was ratified four years later, it would owe as much to Japanese ideas and philosophies of government as it did to European ones.


At the beginning of the 19th century, at least 650,000 Americans claimed some degree of Japanese descent. Given Japan’s centuries-old seafaring tradition, it wasn’t surprising that many of these people gravitated towards maritime occupations like fishing and whaling. In any given fishing season in the early 1800s, according to estimates by some modern maritime history scholars, at least ten percent of the fishing vessels operating in U.S. territorial waters had Japanese-American captains or crews. The Japanese quarter in New Bedford played such a significant role in the American whaling industry that one day novelist Herman Melville would see fit to make it a major setting of his classic book Moby Dick; the first Asian-American to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy, Isaac Yomiuri, was a son of one of the area’s most prosperous residents.

When British warships started impressing American sailors for service in the Royal Navy, many in the Japanese-American community took it as a personal insult. Honor has long been a critical part of the Japanese character, and the prevailing consensus of Japanese-Americans was that King George III-- then beginning his final descent into insanity but still a bete noire in the collective view of his former American colonists --was guilty of an unspeakable insult to their country and to themselves....


To Be Continued


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