A Phrase that Touches the Heart E Pluribus Unum

Other Eyes and Ears – Vol.4

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145 years after Commodore Matthew Perry and his ‘black ships’ first arrived in Japan and triggered the start of the Meiji Restoration (1868), ending over 200 years of self-imposed isolation, America remains an important influence on Japan.

But hold on a moment. What’s wrong with this picture? In English, we call the country the “United States of America,” but in written Japanese we use the character for “people” rather than “state” (the characters are homonyms). As Abraham Lincoln declared in his Gettysburg Address of 1863, America’s has “a government of the people, by the people and for the people,” but calling it the “United Peoples” suggests a socialist or even communist form of government.

This is why, in Japanese, we really should be using the character for state rather than people.

In any case, when it gained its independence following the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the War of Independence (1775-1783), the United States of America consisted of 13 states.

The Great Seal of the United States features 13 stars across the top, and 13 stripes decorate the shield at the breast of the bald eagle (another national symbol) in the center. The eagle holds an olive branch with 13 leaves in its left talon, and 13 arrows in its right. The motto also has 13 letters. There is 13 of everything.

Look closely now at the inscription on the ribbon in the eagle’s beak.

It states, in Latin, E Pluribus Unum, “E” meaning “from,” “Pluribus” meaning “plural,” and “Unum,” meaning “uni-/unite/one.” In other words, “out of many, one,” representing a unified nation made up of many states. This phrase was America’s official motto until 1955.
These words are familiar to any American, but in Japan, even the most ardent fan of America is unlikely to know them.

One Japanese who was moved by this word “united” was John Mung (Manjiro, later known as Nakahama Manjiro), who was instrumental in the negotiations that led to the Convention of Kanagawa, which was signed between the United States and Japan in 1854.

Most Japanese know the story of Manjiro, who was born and raised in Naka-no-hama, a village in Tosa (now Kochi Prefecture), and as a youth was caught in a storm while out fishing and found himself stranded on a deserted island. He was rescued by a passing American whaling ship commanded by one Captain Whitfield, who took him back to the East Coast of the United States, where he was given an education; upon his return to Japan, he served as a bridge between the two nations.

Manjiro was impressed with the concept of “E Pluribus Unum,” and emphasized that this was the direction the new Japan should take as well. Records show that this also inspired the pre-Meiji samurai and political figure Sakamoto Ryoma to action.

These are turbulent times. This phrase, which urges us to unite as one, touches me deeply.

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