Podcast Episode 172: An American in Feudal Japan


In 1848, five years before Japan opened its closed society to the West, a lone American in a whaleboat landed on the country’s northern shore, drawn only by a sense of mystery and a love of adventure. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Ranald MacDonald as he travels the length of Japan toward a destiny that will transform the country.

We’ll also remember a Soviet hero and puzzle over some security-conscious neighbors.


In 1794, two French Hussars began an episodic duel that would last until 1813.

In 1945, the Arkansas legislature accidentally repealed every law in the state.

Sources for our feature on Ranald MacDonald:

Frederik L. Schodt, Native American in the Land of the Shogun, 2003.

Jo Ann Roe, Ranald MacDonald: Pacific Rim Adventurer, 1997.

William S. Lewis and Naojiro Murakami, Ranald MacDonald: The Narrative of His Early Life on the Columbia Under the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Regime, 1990.

Herbert H. Gowen, Five Foreigners in Japan, 1936.

Gretchen Murphy, Shadowing the White Man’s Burden: U.S. Imperialism and the Problem of the Color Line, 2010.

Joel E. Ferris, “Ranald MacDonald: The Sailor Boy Who Visited Japan,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 48:1 (January 1957), 13-16.

Benjamin MacDonald, “Narrative of Benjamin MacDonald,” Washington Historical Quarterly 16:3 (July 1925), 186-197.

David N. Cooper, “Behind the Bamboo Curtain: A Nineteenth-Century Canadian Adventurer in Japan,” Manitoba History 74 (Winter 2014), 40-44.

Gretchen Murphy, “‘A Home Which Is Still Not a Home’: Finding a Place for Ranald MacDonald,” American Transcendental Quarterly 15:3 (September 2001), 225-244.

Frederik L. Schodt, “The Chinook Who Paved the Way for Perry: Ranald MacDonald’s Adventure in Japan, 1848-1849,” Whispering Wind 33:3 (June 30, 2003), 20.

Frederik L. Schodt and Shel Zolkewich, “Ranald MacDonald’s Excellent Adventure,” The Beaver 83:4 (August/September 2003), 29-33.

“When Japan Was a Secret: Japanese Sea-Drifters,” Economist 385:8560 (December 22, 2007), 93.

Jeffrey Dym, “Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan [review],” Canadian Journal of History 39:2 (August 2004), 446-448.

F.G. Notehelfer, “Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan [review],” Journal of Asian Studies 63:2 (May 2004), 513-514.

Gordon B. Dodds, “Ranald MacDonald: Pacific Rim Adventurer [review],” Journal of American History 85:2 (September 1998), 663-664.

Stephen W. Kohl, “Ranald MacDonald: Pacific Rim Adventurer [review],” Pacific Historical Review 68:1 (February 1999), 103-104.

Herman J. Deutsch, “Ranald MacDonald: Adventurer by Marie Leona Nichols [review],” Pacific Historical Review 10:2 (June 1941), 231-232.

Listener mail:

“Stanislav Petrov, Who Averted Possible Nuclear War, Dies at 77,” BBC News, Sept. 18, 2017.

Associated Press, “Stanislav Petrov, ‘The Man Who Saved the World’ From Nuclear War, Dies at 77,” Sept. 21, 2017.

Roland Oliphant, “Stanislav Petrov, the ‘Man Who Saved the World’ Dies at 77,” Telegraph, Sept. 18, 2017.

Kristine Phillips, “The Former Soviet Officer Who Trusted His Gut — And Averted a Global Nuclear Catastrophe,” Washington Post, Sept. 18, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Mike Davis.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!