Early on the morning of March 22, 1916, Capt. Matsuzo Sakamoto had his freighter, the Seiko Maru, unmoored from Tacoma’s Milwaukee dock.
In those days, the city’s wharves were busy with freight and passengers. The era of sailing ships had given way to faster, more efficient steamers such as the Seiko Maru.
As the Japanese ship sailed out of Commencement Bay, Sakamoto would have seen the long wheat warehouses lining the waterfront and the castle-like outline of Stadium High School.
Maybe Sakamoto thought of reuniting with his wife Fusa and his children in Kobe after long months on the Pacific Ocean. He had bought some souvenirs in Tacoma for his 5-year-old daughter, Chiyoko.
At 8:20 a.m. the Seiko Maru docked in Port Townsend “to secure deckload of lumber before proceeding,” according to a shipping news item.
Then the Seiko Maru headed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and to the Pacific. It’s next stop: Yokohama, Japan.
On board with Sakamoto for the journey home were 48 crewmen, some as young as 18, and a cargo worth $524,000.
A month of sailing and miles of rough seas separated the Seiko Maru from its home.
So when the ship didn’t arrive in Yokohama as scheduled it probably wasn’t a cause for worry. Bad weather often delayed ships.
But the days stretched on and still no profile of the 365-foot-long ship appeared on the horizon.
Eventually the families of the crewmen had to face their worst fear: The Seiko Maru and its crew were never coming home. The ship was lost at sea. No sign of it was ever found.
For at least one of those families, the mystery of the Seiko Maru has endured through the generations.
Last week, 100 years after the ship disappeared, Kyoko Nishio arrived in Tacoma from Yokohama to search for clues of the Seiko Maru.
Nishio is Sakamoto’s great-granddaughter. She is haunted by the mystery of the ship’s disappearance.
“I want to keep his memory alive,” Nishio said. “It’s my life’s work.”
The Tyne Iron Shipbuilding Company in Newcastle, England, built the steel-hulled ship in 1896. Initially named the Fitzpatrick, the steamer had one propeller.
It went through several owners and names, both British and Japanese, until it was sold to the Osaka Shosen Kaisha Line in 1914 and renamed the Seiko Maru.
In the decades leading up to World War II, travel between Puget Sound and Asia was frequent with passenger and cargo ships making the crossing.
OSK even had a ship named the Seattle Maru. Like most of OSK’s fleet, the Seattle Maru was later sunk was by the U.S. military in World War II.
Japan’s ships weren’t the only casualty of the war. Many of the country’s archives were lost, providing few clues for Nishio in her search.
So it was in America, and in the Seiko Maru’s last ports of call, that Nishio came looking for answers.
Matsuzo Sakamoto was 50 when he left Kobe with his crew on Feb. 17, 1916.
He arrived in Seattle on March 13, according to a ship’s manifest and crew list, signed by Sakamoto, that still exist in the U.S. National Archives.
The ship’s crew was given a clean bill of health and none held in quarantine.
In Tacoma, the Seiko Maru was loaded with cotton, flour, potash and steel for the trip home. Though the world was at war, the ship reportedly carried no munitions.
Before he left Tacoma, Sakamoto wrote a letter home.
“He sent this letter from the central Tacoma post office on March 16, 100 years from today,” Nishio said Wednesday, displaying the carefully preserved letter she had brought with her from Japan.
The letter is addressed to Sakamoto’s wife, Fusa.
“He would leave Tacoma on the 22nd of March, 1916, and would get to Yokohama around mid-April and then get back to Kobe in late April,” Nishio translated.
In the letter, Sakamoto asks his wife if she had given birth to the couple’s latest child. He asks his daughter Chiyoko, who was Nishio’s grandmother, to treat the new baby well.
“Be a good girl,” the letter reads. He promised his daughter souvenirs from America.
For the rest of her life, Chiyoko held on to that letter, even taking it and some photos to a bomb shelter during World War II just before her home was destroyed.
“I think my grandmother didn’t remember his face so that’s why she had kept his letter and picture,” Nishio said. “This was the only memory for her. She lost everything in the war.”
Chiyoko Nishio died at age 88.
To honor her ancestors, Kyoko Nishio sent some letters to her family from the same post office on Wednesday. She also mailed a small mirror her grandmother owned. It was a talisman of sorts.
“Now she can travel from Tacoma to Japan like my great-grandfather did 100 years ago,” Nishio said.
Chief in Nishio’s search is a list of the belongings he was supposed to be bringing home. She’s hoping it exists in an archive.
On previous trips, Sakamoto had returned with elegant Western furniture for his family, Nishio said.
THE SEARCH FOR ANSWERS
When a week had passed after the Seiko Maru’s expected arrival in Yokohama, officials with the OSK line sent a cable to the United States, asking for information.
A newspaper item from April 1916 carries the headline, “Fear Felt For Seiko Maru.”
“The Seiko Maru is out 32 days and is seven days overdue, which is sufficient to cause grave concern, say shipping men,” the story reads. “It is believed the Seiko Maru may have become damaged or foundered in heavy weather. She is practically a new boat and a large carrier.”
Nishio learned about her great-grandfather’s disappearance when she was a teenager. Her grandmother was reluctant to speak of it at first.
Nishio thinks she has a connection with her great-grandfather.
“I have a sixth sense,” she said. “I always avoided heavy rain or storms as a child. Maybe I take over from him.”
Her theory is that the Seiko Maru sunk after encountering a devastating storm in the Pacific.
“Our family believes that my great-grandfather must have been brave trying to save his ship and crew until it sank,” Nishio said.
OSK filed an insurance claim in May 1916, and that was the last documentation Nishio has been able to find of the Seiko Maru.
Nishio started her research in 2013 and had made one previous trip to Seattle and Tacoma. The Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington found the ship’s alien crew list and the manifest for her.
“The signatures on the crew list and the letter were exactly the same,” Nishio said.
In Tacoma last week, Nishio began her sleuthing in the office of Tacoma’s historic preservation coordinator, Lauren Hoogkamer.
Hoogkamer told Nishio the city had no relevant records but gave her a list of local resources that might. Later than day, Nishio visited the Northwest Room at the Tacoma Public Library, the Tacoma Buddhist Temple and the World Trade Center.
“It’s very important to know his life in Tacoma and Kobe as well,” Nishio said as she looked over old newspapers at the library.
The clues found on this trip were few. But Northwest Room librarian Brian Kamens was able to find additional information.
Until this trip Nishio did not know the Seiko Maru had visited Port Townsend. She didn’t have time to visit there but will on her next trip.
“I’m so curious what kind of person he was,” Nishio said of her great-grandfather.
Nishio believes he saw one other landmark on his voyage out of Tacoma. If the weather was good, he would have spotted Mount Rainier, or as she calls it, Tacoma Fuji.
It would have guided him home.
“I believe that my great-grandfather is still on the voyage in the world with me and my family,” she said.