The North-West

FIVE The Japanese Connection

We had a nice breakfast this morning. Not all the truffle had found its way onto the pasta, so a few slices were steeped in a bottle of olive oil while the remainder sat in an airtight box enveloping some eggs with a miasma of flavour.

There is no better way to start the day than truffled eggs on some toast drizzled with home-truffled oil – though the Captain thinks grilled matsutake would come close. These wonderful mushrooms are Japan’s answer to the truffle – and can cost $1,000 a pound in Tokyo. One must be grateful that the Emperor’s Edict of March 11th, 1863 to ‘expel all foreigners’ has been rescinded. But the fact that matsutake also grow wild in the forests here led us to speculate as to how the species had reached the North-West.

Matsutake spores might have come in on the breeze: in the Pacific War, the Imperial Japanese Army released balloons from Japan which floated on the prevailing wind across to the West Coast. These ‘fire balloons’ carried 15 kg of explosives in what were at the time the longest-range attacks in the history of warfare. They were largely ineffective – though six people died in Oregon when the children of a family out for a picnic in the woods saw one of these big balloons and started to kick it around. The family is are buried in Port Angeles, north of Seattle, near the memorial to Raymond Carver; around the site of their deaths, in Oregon, remorseful Japanese have planted flowering cherry trees.

The direction of the wind is mirrored by the flow of a major ocean current. The Oyashio Current flows out the Arctic southward along the coast of Japan and north of Tokyo hits the warm waters of the Kuroshio Current coming up from the south. Their conjoining propels them eastwards as the powerful North Pacific Current – almost straight at us here in the North-West.

This organic connection with Japan through wind and current has been used to explain why, in pre-contact times, Indigenous groups had metal tools – given that there was little or no metallurgy pre-contact. The theory promoted by a University of Washington anthropologist, the late George Quimby, was that the metal came from Japanese ships driven onto the West Coast: “bad storms and heavy seas could easily disable coastal merchant and fishing vessels. Once a junk was helplessly adrift without masts, and usually without rudder, the Kuro Siwo (Kuroshio ) Current, the North-Pacific Current, and prevailing westerly winds destined the vessel for a trans-Pacific voyage lasting more than a year”.

This theory has been attacked for lack of evidence – which brings into play the archaeologists maxim ‘the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. In Quimby’s defence there is the story of a torii, the gateway to a shrine on Honshu, being washed up in the North-West – and of the immense gratitude when the torii was restored to the temple in Japan.

My memory is that this torii was pulled into the Kuroshio Current by the terrible tsunami of 2011, the catastrophic wave that brought nuclear disaster to Fukushima. Recently, the journal Science reported that the tsunami had also propelled 289 living coastal species across the Pacific from Japan attached to various bits of flotsam: “Transoceanic rafting is a fundamental feature of marine evolutionary biogeography and ecology, often invoked to explain the origins of global patterns of species distributions”. [2]

Who knows – perhaps the metal tools and matsutake mushrooms did arrive this way. As perhaps did something else, something that surprised me when we were still in Seattle. I was in a bookstore and the meditative quality of the music in the background made me think it was being played on a shakuhachi , the ancient Japanese flute. In fact, we were listening to a Native American Flute being played by Seattle resident, Mary Youngblood.

My immediate and ill-informed conclusion was that the Native American flute had derived from the shakuhachi , brought perhaps by shipwrecked Japanese sailors. But this cannot be: though the two instruments are essentially pipes with fingerholes, the mechanics of producing the sound are very different. Shakuhachi players blow across the top of the pipe and create pitch through control of their embouchure, while the North American Flute player needs no embouchure, simply blowing into the instrument rather like a recorder.

Mary Youngblood is an extraordinary musician: she has won two Grammys and three Nammies – Native American Music Awards. Other Nammy winners include Jimi Hendrix (who self-identified as of Cherokee descent); Hank Williams (a descendant of Muskogee Creek and Cherokee); and Ritchie Valens, of La Bamba fame, who had Yaqui roots.

Philip Glass wrote for the Native American Flute. His Piano Concerto No. 2 was inspired by the 1803 pioneering odyssey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from the Mississippi to the mouth of the Columbia River. The second movement is is scored for strings, piano and Native American flute and is titled Sacagawea to commemorate the Shoshone woman who guided Lewis and Clark through territory unknown to them.


How to make the perfect matsutake meal –

Japanese balloon bombs and a warning –

Not all of the film is in English, but provides a lucid explanation of Pacific Ocean currents –

The sound of the shakuhachi

Mary Youngblood playing Beneath the Raven Moon

Philip Glass Piano Concerto No. 2 (second movement) Paul Barnes, piano and Ron Warren, Native American Flute –

Tips on improving your Native American Flute performances (and in the background, a multitude of different kinds of flute) –

Ritchie Valens La Bamba

marine life (c) meirion harries


[1] Japanese Wrecks, Iron Tools, and Prehistoric Indians of the Northwest Coast
George I. Quimby Arctic Anthropology Vol. 22, No. 2 (1985), pp. 7-15

[2] Tsunami-driven rafting: Transoceanic species dispersal and implications for marine biogeography
James T. Carlton et al. Science 29 Sep 2017: Vol. 357, Issue 6358, pp. 1402-1406

Categories: The North-West