Thomas Blakiston in Japan

The following is from the Hokkaido government's book Foreign Pioneers published in 1968

A Soldier Who Loved Wild Birds

Thomas Wright Blakiston was the first person to establish that animals in Hokkaido (Japan's northern island) belong to the Northern Asian family and differ in appearance from those in Honshu. As a result of Blakiston's work, the narrow sea called the Tsugaru Straits, which divides Hokkaido from Honshu, became known as an important border in the distribution of animal species. The straits are internationally known in biology as the "Blakiston Line."

It was in 1861, at the age of 28, that this remarkable man first came to Hokkaido. A former soldier, he was then called Captain Thomas Wright Blakiston. Born of a noble family in Lymington, Hants County, England, he came into the world on December 27, 1832. Brought up in a wealthy family, he was interested from early childhood in birds. In his youth he entered the Royal Military Academy and became a soldier. In 1854 when England fought against Russia, he went to the front in the Crimea as an artillery officer and was promoted to captain because of distinguished service.

After retiring from the army Blakiston went to Canada, joining the Palliser expeditionary party which was engaged mostly in surveying. He also studied the wild birds he had been interested in since childhood, writing a notable essay on Canadian birds in "Ibis," a world-famous ornithological magazine. From Canada he went to the East, investigating the upper banks of the Yangtze River in China. then under the Ching Dynasty. At thc samc time, he studied thc Miao people, making the results of his study public through the Geographical Academy of England and receiving a reward from the academy.

Soldier that he was, Blakiston was also an excellent scholar. But he came to Japan not as a scholar or soldier but as a businessman. He intended originally to operate a lumbering mill in Eastern Siberia.

Residence in Hakodate

For that purpose, he returned once again to England from China, obtained all the machines and tools necessary for lumbering, and sent them on board three ships around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean, and to the East. With his wife, he himself made his way on land across Siberia. At that time, there was no Siberian railway and he had a very hard trip. At last, however, he managed to arrive at the mouth of the Amur River. He wanted to wait for the arrival of the ships he had dispatched earlier in order to start lumbering there, cutting down the rich forests on the Siberian coast of Okhotsk Sea. But, unable to obtain permission from the Russian government, he was obliged to go to Hokkaido, and settled at Hakodate. Such was his story up to I861.

Unloading all the lumbering machinery at Hakodate, he started cutting the abundant forests in Hokkaido and made plans to send the lumber to China, where wood was in short supply. Such was the beginning of sawing lumber by machinery in Japan. But in those days transportation was so poor that his raw timber resouces soon became scarce. In 1879 he had to close the saw mill at Hakodate and move on to Kushiro. At Kushiro, however, he again found it difficult to transport the lumber and eventually had to give up lumbering altogether as uneconomical.

Coming back to Hakodate, he established, the shipping firm of Blakiston, Marr & Company, a joint investment with Marr, a friend of his. The company was awarded contracts as a regular line along the coast of Hokkaido with three ships of its own, the " Akindo-maru," the " Asuri-maru," and the "Kankai-maru." They also transported the products of Hokkaido to Yokohama, Kobe, and Nagasaki, and occasionally engaged in exporting various products of the sea to Chefoo and Hong Kong in China.

While he was still in lumbering business, an unusual incident occurred. A battle had broken out in Hakodate and Blakiston agreed to transport military supplies on his ships from Yokohama to Hakodate. In those days, foreign ships were privileged with extra-territorial jurisdiction, and thus ran no risk of being caught. Furthermore, many soldiers of the rebellion asked Blakiston for his help and made narrow escapes to Aomori on board his ships. Many Japaneses families who were on good terms with Blakiston were thus able to escape capture and war damage, all this because Blakiston, who wisely utilized his privileges as a foreigner, treated the interests of his friends as his own. Thus, he was greatly trusted by many citizens of Hakodate.

The Introduction of Modern Meteorology Techniques

There lived in Hakodate a man called Tokichi Yanagida who was on especially friendly terms with Blakiston. Yanagida was from Morioka and had come to Hakodate some six years before Blakiston. He had been engaged in trading. under the company name of " Yanagiya.'' Becoming friendly with Blakiston, Yanagida made use of Blakiston's ships in transporting the tangle, salmon, and herring of Hokkaido to Honshu and bringing back rice and oranges. He became a well-known merchant, thanks to Blakiston's kind help, carrying on a wide trade with merchants in China. It is said that Yanagida was even taught by Blakiston how to wear foreign-style clothes. A man called Seiichi Momokawa from Aomri also came to know Blakiston well and learned mathematics, modern surveying, and English from him in 1866.

In 1859, a meteorological observatory was established at Hakodate when it became an open port for foreign ships. Nagasaki and Yokohama also became open ports at that time. Hakodate was very poorly equipped. Voluntarily working in the observatory, Blakiston brought new instruments from England and in fact helped greatly in setting up modern methods of weather observation.

In fact, this soldier. scholar and businessman made the acquaintance of many Japanese and tried in various ways to introduce Western Culture to Japan. In I869, a man called Kahei Nakagawa, inspired by Blakiston's example, also started an ice busincss, making use of the moat of the Goryokaku fortress. This was the first ice business in Japan to be run by a Japanese. As an engineer, Blakiston made plans for the water supply and the harbor of Hakodate that proved to be important foundations of the planning carried-on by the Kaitakushi.

Blakiston's achievements have unfortunately not been so well known, because most of the foreign advisors to the Kaitakushi at that time were Americans and were acting in an official capacity. But he it was who introduced Western Culture into Hakodate, notably influencing daily life there.

Unsuccessful in Business but Famous Otherwise

Blakiston was a strict gentleman who did not drink or smoke. His only fault was his short temper, and his marriage was not a happy one. Because of his temper, his wife, who herself was somewhat nervous, divorced him and went back to England. When one of his servants who had been scolded by him committed suicide, Blakiston had to defend himself in court.

However, he was very kind to the citizens and was a "boss-type," so to speak, in the Japanese style. One incident showing this was the sailboat race he sponsored in Hakodate Bay where he gave sizeable prize money to the winners, thus patronizing the improvement of sailboats.

While he was working at Hakodate as a merchant, Blakiston also studied birds, publishing some essays on the subject. Visiting remote and isolated inland areas of Hokkaido and Honshu as well, he made close observations of nature, leaving many valuable records. Above all, his account called, "Japan Seen in Hokkaido " is an excellent piece of writing on the natural phenomena of Hokkaido in the early Meiji period. It is now preserved in the Hakodate Library.

It is said that Blakiston unsuccessfuly invested large sums of money in business. But not all of the money he brought from his homeland was spent on business. In fact, he lavished a considerable sum of money on his hobby, the study of birds. Although he was not successful in business, he became world-famous in ornithology.

In 1884, he terminated his work in Hokkaido, where he had lived for 23 years, and left for America. He then went home to England, but returned to America again. At the age of 52 years, he married the second eldest sister of Edwin Dun, another man who spent his later life in Japan, contributing to the colonization of Hokkaido as an employee of the Kaitakushi. Blakiston spent the rest of his life in the West of the United States, living in San Diego, Calif. He died at the age of 58 years, from pneumonia on October 15, 1891.

In August 1911, 20 years after Blakiston's death, a memorial meeting was held in Hakodate. To talk of Blakiston's great achievements, many celebrities assembled, including the British Consul and Professor Saburo Hatta of the Agricultural Department of Tohoku Imperial University (the present Hokkaido University), who was a leading authority in zoology.

More Blakiston in Japan

Thomas Blakiston in Canada

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