An Irishman's Diary

Thu, Dec 27, 2012, 00:00

At 8am on a freezing cold winter’s day there’s a big queue outside Titanic Belfast. Asian, Hispanic and Muslim visitors huddle together as they peer in through the windows in anticipation of the wonders within.

Since opening in April of this year, the centre hosted tourists from more than 111 countries (including Nepal, Qatar and Belize) by November, and although a figure of 400,000 visitors was optimistically hoped for in the centre’s first year of operation, eight months on and Titanic Belfast is soon to clock up its 600,000th customer.

If the figures have greatly exceeded expectations it’s due to the international appeal of the Titanic story. There may have been only 28 different countries represented on board the ill-fated voyage, but it can appear that almost every country has some connection – however remote – with ship/passengers/crew/survivors.

Since its opening, artefacts, photographs, letters and memories are being sent to the centre to flesh out and illustrate all the stories behind the great drama of the voyage. But one passenger – a Masabumi Hosono – has nothing beside his name, even though his story is one of the most perversely tragic.

Hosono was a 42-year-old Japanese civil servant who boarded the ship as a second class passenger – he had been in Europe working for the Japanese ministry of transport and was taking the long way home via the US.

On the night of April 14th, 1912 as the ship began to sink he watched from the deck as all the lifeboats filled up quickly with women and children.

As he wrote later than night: “I tried to prepare myself for the last moment with no agitation, making my mind up not to do anything disgraceful for a Japanese person. But I still found myself looking for a possible chance of survival”.

As Lifeboat 10 prepared to sail, an officer shouted out “Room for two more”. Mindful of the “women and children” rule, he pointed this out to the women around him but they were all staying on board with their husbands – still hopeful that the ship wouldn’t actually sink. It was only after a man beside him jumped into Lifeboat 10 and a ship’s officer urged him to take the last place that Hosono acted.

When rescued by the RMS Carpathia, he began writing down in a letter to his wife what had happened on the night and how he had survived.

The letter was written on Titanic stationery which had been in his pockets and it is believed to be the only such document known to exist on Titanic stationery.

He arrived home to much press interest and happily granted interviews as the “Lucky Japanese survivor”. All changed though when the inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic opened. Hosono was accused – at a US Senate hearing – of having passed himself off as a woman in order to get on a lifeboat. Hosono had been mistaken for another Asian passenger who was judged to have acted “ignobly” by taking the place of a woman on Lifeboat 13.

From hero to zero. Hosano had been “named and shamed” at the Titanic inquiry. Overnight he was sacked from his job at the ministry of transport. The previously friendly Japanese press denounced him as a coward and a school textbook used his story as an example of dishonourable behaviour. He was denounced as “immoral” for saving himself at the expense of women and children. He became “Japan’s shame” and was ostracised. The experience broke him and he never spoke of the Titanic again – even forbidding mention of the ship in his company. He died in 1939 – disgraced and unmourned.

But the letter he had written to his wife while on the Carpathia was still somewhere. Even though it vindicated him, showing he was on Lifeboat 10 not 13, the family didn’t want to revisit the story for fear of a new round of incrimination, so it lay hidden in a book at the bottom of a drawer.

Following the opening of James Cameron’s Titanic film in 1997, an Exhibition Titanic Japan event was staged the same year in Tokyo. There was only one Japanese passenger on the Titanic so a researcher for the exhibition, Matt Taylor, approached Hosono’s grandchildren to ask if they could supply any material. As Taylor remembered: “I discovered, folded between the pages of a book, a brown page with the letterhead “On Board RMS Titanic”. It was an amazingly powerful document”.

The letter revealed that Hosono had helped save the lives of his fellow survivors by quickly rowing Lifeboat 10 away from the pull of the sinking Titanic. His grandson – Haruomi Hosono – a member of the famous music group Yellow Magic Orchestra – now says: “Honour has been restored to the Hosono family”.

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