By Beth David, Editor
Gerry Rooney wears many hats, but most of them are connected to the story of Manjiro Nakahama, which connects the little town of Fairhaven, Mass., to Tosashimizu, a small village in Japan.
From humble beginnings as the Sister City Committee, with one file cabinet that had to be returned to a corner at the Millicent Library, to a transformation and name change to The Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society and new digs in a three-story museum with a carriage house, Mr. Rooney has been along for the whole ride.
Not only along, exactly, more like driving the vehicle, for much of it, anyway. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the sister city relationship between Fairhaven/New Bedford and Tosashimizu.
John Bullard was mayor then, and his administration showed a lot of support for the sister city relationship and the festival (which was annual then). Ken Wood, Walter Silveira, and Joe Cataldo were Fairhaven Selectboard members. That was 1987.
At some point, early on, Mr. Rooney found himself voted in as president. He and his wife Ayako, who is from Japan, were members right from the start.
Fairhaven has a strong connection to Tosashimizu, which is the home village of Manjiro, who was stranded as a young teen on a deserted island and rescued by Captain William Whitfield of the whaleship John Howland.
Capt. Whitfield lived in Fairhaven, but the boat was out of New Bedford, so including the city in the sister-city committee was a logical thing to do.
Young Manjiro lived with the Captain in Fairhaven and was educated in Fairhaven schools, becoming the first Japanese person to live in the US and be educated here. Although just a poor boy from a poor village, his connection to the US and his knowledge of English put Manjiro in a position to become instrumental in opening up Japan to the west.
The Whitfields and the Nakahamas have kept their friendship alive for 176 years.
According to Scott Whitfield, a sixth generation descendant of “The Captain,” as he is almost universally called, each generation in his family has told the story starting at an early age. It was a bedtime story his parents told him, and one he told his children. And then they got older and realized it was true.
The Captain’s house on Cherry Street in Fairhaven has its own story to tell. Although Manjiro did not spend as many nights there a he did in the Captain’s farm on Sconticut Neck, the Cherry Street home was the first place Manjiro came to in Fairhaven.
When it fell into disrepair and was at risk of being sold for non-payment of taxes in 2008, Mr. Rooney and the other committee members scrambled to save it.
Then Dr. Shigeaki Hinohara came into the picture. A veritable celebrity in Japan, Dr. Hinohara raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy the house, then turned it over to the town, with the stipulation that it be run as a museum by the Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society, which had organized as a nonprofit.
Dr. Hinohara also spearheaded the efforts to get the building restored.
It is now a destination for people from all over the world, with 55,000 people touring the museum since it opened in 2009. Mr. Rooney said 70% of the visitors were Japanese.
It has not come without challenges, though, particularly financial.
“At the library, life was simple,” said Mr. Rooney. “Now, we’ve got a three-story house with all the bills that go with it.”
He said it costs just under $40,000 to run the house, a figure that amazes most people for how low it is.
“It’s a shoestring budget,” he said.
The museum has a couple of small corporate sponsorships, including one from Toyota, but the bulk of the operating expenses comes from people who visit the museum: museum tours, guided tours of the Manjiro Trail, memberships, donations, events.
Although Mr. Rooney admits that one or two events ended up losing money.
He said every year travel agents from Boston bring two large tour buses with students from Osaka for tours of the Manjiro Trail and the museum. For that, he needs at least four volunteers to help guide them, he said. Local schools also tour the museum and the trail on a regular basis.
The museum does a lot of outreach to schools and has created a curriculum for teachers.
A few years ago, no students knew how old Manjiro was when he was rescued, said Mr. Rooney.
“Now they all know,” he said. “So it’s working.”
The next big project is to transform the carriage house into a community/cultural center. The WMFS will be able to expand its offerings to the community, and that should help bring in more operating revenue, too. Right now, they have one room that can accommodate about 10 people, to run workshops and seminars.
Renovating the carriage house is estimated to cost about $350,000. The WMFS used some Community Preservation funds from the town of Fairhaven to hook up water and sewer to the carriage house.
“So, we keep plugging along,” said Mr. Rooney.
The museum is staffed by volunteers, and Mr. Rooney is only paid for 10 hours a week. During festival years, that 10 hours can be used up in one day, he said.
The WMFS organizes the Manjiro festival, which is held every other year in Fairhaven and on in between years in Tosashimizu. As the years have gone by and fewer of the original members are involved, Mr. Rooney said it is falling more and more on Fairhaven to bear the brunt of the work and the cost.
The museum’s hours are limited, but Mr. Rooney’s phone number is posted on the door so he can meet anyone who arrives after hours. They are usually from out of town, mostly far, far out of town, like Japan, so he does his best to accommodate them.
“I try never to refuse that kind of thing,” he said, adding that the feedback is usually ecstatic. “Those are the things that keep you going.”
To learn more about Manjiro’s story, visit http://www.whitfield-manjiro.org/ or http://fairhaventours. com/manjiro-nakahama/ or http:// millicentlibrary.org/the-presentation-of-a-samurai-sword-booklet/
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