In the early hours of April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic, a marvel of modern engineering, met with catastrophe in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Among its passengers was Masabumi Hosono, a Japanese civil servant, whose survival would become a source of national controversy and personal disgrace.
Born in 1870, Hosono was an employee of the Japanese Ministry of Transport. In 1910, he was sent to Russia to study the country’s railway system, and it was on his return journey to Japan that he boarded the Titanic at Southampton as a second-class passenger.
The sinking of the Titanic was a disaster of monumental proportions, claiming over 1,500 lives. As the ship foundered, Hosono found himself in a moral quandary that would haunt him for the rest of his life. He had a chance to save himself by boarding Lifeboat 10, one of the last to leave the doomed vessel. In a letter to his wife, he wrote of his turmoil and shame at surviving when so many others perished.
Upon his return to Japan, the narrative of Hosono’s survival was initially met with interest and relief. However, the mood swiftly changed as reports emerged from Western media, painting him as a coward who had dishonored his country by not going down with the ship. The prevailing Western ethos of the time, influenced by notions of chivalry and sacrifice, expected men to forfeit their lives for women and children in such disasters. Hosono’s actions were seen as a violation of these principles.
The Japanese media and public, influenced by these reports and the prevailing sentiment of the era, turned against Hosono. He was vilified and ostracized, accused of bringing shame to Japan. His employment with the Ministry of Transport was terminated, and he found himself a pariah in his own land.
The stigma of survival weighed heavily on Hosono. He was labeled a “stowaway” into the lifeboat, despite there being available space and no policy against men boarding if no women or children were in the vicinity. His narrative was largely ignored, and the complexity of the situation was overshadowed by a simplistic condemnation.
It was not until decades later that Hosono’s story was re-examined, and the cultural and historical context of his actions was considered. The Western-centric view of the Titanic’s tragedy had failed to consider the different cultural norms and expectations that Hosono faced. In Japan, the concept of “shame” is deeply ingrained, and Hosono’s survival was seen through this lens, rather than the instinct for self-preservation.
Modern perspectives have been kinder to Hosono, recognizing the unfairness of the scorn he endured. His family has worked to clear his name, and historians have argued that his treatment was a result of xenophobia and a misunderstanding of the chaotic circumstances under which he survived.
Masabumi Hosono’s story is a poignant reminder of the complexities of human behavior in the face of disaster. It also serves as a cautionary tale about the rush to judgment and the power of public opinion to shape, and sometimes distort, the legacy of individuals. His experience underscores the importance of empathy and understanding in the historical narrative, acknowledging that the line between heroism and disgrace is often drawn by the subjective pen of societal norms.
Masabumi Hosono’s full letter translated:
April 14-15 (April 14-15)
The weather was fine. I got up at 7 a.m., had breakfast at 8 a.m., lunch at 2 p.m., and dinner at 6 p.m., and spent the day reading, exercising, or lying flat in my own room. I went to bed at 10 p.m., started to feel a little sleepy while reading, and suddenly felt as if the ship had hit something. However, I didn’t pay much attention to it and the ship came to a halt in no time.
I thought it was strange, and while I was still asleep, unaware that a major incident had occurred, the steward knocked on the door around 11 p.m. When I opened it, he told me to get up and go to the deck. When I asked what had happened, he didn’t answer, but threw me a lifebuoy and hurried away. I quickly got dressed without even putting on a white shirt or collar, hurriedly dressed and ran to the deck, where I saw passengers running around in all directions, all wearing lifebuoys.
I was curious and asked what had happened, but no one knew. On the deck, a sailor told me to go down to the third deck. Although I did as he said, I saw no sign of many people going down, so I went back up again. I told him that I was a second class passenger, and he let me go. I quickly returned to my room, picked up my purse, forgot to take my watch, foreign coins, glasses, etc., grabbed a blanket and hurriedly climbed to the upper deck. On the way, a sailor told me to stay on the lower deck, but I ignored him and reached the upper deck where boats were being lowered.
There was a large crowd of men and women in front of me. Seeing this, I knew without a doubt that a major incident had occurred, and I prepared myself to end my life that day, without panic. I was also constantly concerned about not bringing shame upon the Japanese people, and kept waiting for an opportunity. During this time, distress flares were constantly being shot from the ship, their colors blue and their sound terrifying.
I couldn’t help but feel a chilling sense of dread. The passengers were remarkably calm, not a single person shouting. Women and children were the first to board the lifeboats. Because there were so many of them, the four boats on the starboard side were already full with just women. During this time, there were many men who also tried to get on board, but the sailors refused them, threatening with guns. At this time, the ship was already tilting at a 45-degree angle.
Afterwards, the boat also finished boarding and had already descended by a few feet. At that time, the conductor counted the people and shouted “now two more”. At the same time, a man jumped in. I was resigned to sharing the fate with the ship and couldn’t see my beloved wife anymore. I saw a man jumping in, blaming him, and jumped onto the ship a few feet below with the readiness to be shot with a pistol.
Fortunately, the conductor and others were distracted by other matters, and it was dark, so the situation of men and women was not clear. As soon as I jumped in, the boat slowly descended and floated on the sea. After rowing for about ten steps, I looked back at the ship and saw many passengers still wandering on the deck. Inside the boat, there were sounds of crying women and children screaming. Probably, until they got on the boat, they were just worried about their lives and didn’t have time to cry.
The ship was still launching signals. I saw the three-level deck was already submerged in water and tilted by about 60 degrees. People from the first boat were moved to other boats. It must be to gather people and empty one boat to take more people. But when I looked carefully, it seemed that this was done by the crew to save their colleagues, not to save passengers, as evidenced by the fact that a relatively large number of crew members were rescued.
In our boat, there were only two men, one Armenian and me. We were asked to help row, which was annoying. Fortunately, the sea waves were not high, and the weather was clear, which was indeed fortunate. At this point, the passengers on the ship who were still on board started to yell for rescue. It was horrible to see that only the top deck was visible above the water surface. It was really an amazing scene.
At the time when it seemed close, a very loud explosion occurred three or four times. Without any gap, the huge ship that had stood tall disappeared completely with a strange noise. After it sank, the screams of people who were about to drown were truly terrifying. Inside the boat, the cries of women who were worried about their husbands and fathers also became louder. When I thought about what would happen to me, I felt depressed.
After that, we were drifting among the many floating ship’s items, wandering around, worrying about our fate, and feeling helpless. Around 3 a.m., the waves gradually became higher, and the boat’s rocking became more intense, causing some people to vomit. Fortunately, I felt not too bad as I had been used to it for three or four days.
Around 4 a.m., the eastern direction became brighter. Looking around, various floating items were clearly visible, which gave me an even more chilling feeling. But by this time, the human voices that had been screaming gradually disappeared, and I feared that due to the cold, they weakened and sank to the bottom of the sea. Looking at this, when would we be rescued, if we were still in this state for a day, we would be hungry and attacked by the cold, so I was worrying about our lives. But no one said that they saw a ship in the distance.
In this way, we drifted until about 6 a.m., and finally saw the smoke of a ship coming from a distance. I thought that we might be saved and felt a bit relieved. At 7 a.m., the ship completely arrived at the accident site and stopped. From then on, we were gradually rescued and brought onto the main ship. The boat I was on was the last one. As usual, the women were first, and I was the very last.
When we all got on the main ship, it was exactly 8 a.m. At this moment, a feeling of relief and gratitude welled up, and tears gushed out. This ship is called Carpathia, a 14,000-ton ship, quite large, and was heading to Naples, Italy. I heard later that it had received a wireless message from our ship and came to rescue us in a hurry from about 100 miles away. The number of people rescued by this Carpathia was over 700, so the ship was filled. Around 7 a.m., another ship called California also came to help and saved about 70 people drifting in the sea. The total number of passengers on the ship was about 3,000. If so, more than 2,000 people should have drowned. It was a blessing in disguise.
Now, when compared to the Titanic, this ship is smaller in tonnage, the rooms are narrower, and it is somewhat rough. Especially due to the large number of people, it is quite crowded. I don’t know where to put my only belongings like a blanket. Just when I boarded the ship, others came after me and it became like this. This should give you a sense of how crowded it was. They reluctantly served us coffee and soon provided breakfast, though the food was inferior.
Looking around from the ship, one side is white and icy, and there are many ship-like structures that seem to be the icebergs that caused our ship to sink. It was these icebergs that our ship hit, creating a large hole and causing the water to flood in. Eventually, the two million pound ship sank to the bottom of the sea after two hours.
The ship started moving at nine o’clock. There are many icebergs, and I was worried that we might collide again, but it seems that it was just my fear. Far offshore, we saw a whale blowing water, which was quite interesting. At two o’clock lunch, my mind was slightly at ease. Gradually, I began to miss the things I had forgotten. Especially, the various foreign coins of about 70 yen in total, farewell watches, souvenir watches, new western clothes, hats, shirts, memorial name tags with friends’ pictures, ink, etc. Losing my notes and diary during my study abroad is an irreplaceable loss. It’s strange how human desires work, until now I was only concerned about the safety of my life, but now that my life is secure, I started to miss my possessions.
Dinner at six in the evening. The ship is heading west. Apparently, the ship is deliberately returning to New York to drop off the many survivors first. At first, I thought I had to go all the way to Italy, but this is also a blessing in disguise. As the day grew dark, all the bedrooms were occupied by women first, so we had no rooms for men. We slept in the smoking room, wearing clothes and shoes, covered with two blankets from the ship. Surprisingly, I was not haunted by nightmares.
I woke up at six in the morning. Breakfast at eight, but I could hardly eat. Due to the heavy fog, the ship sounded its whistle every few minutes as a caution while progressing. I felt somewhat uneasy. From the afternoon, the wind grew stronger and the waves higher, causing the ship to sway greatly, making me feel uncomfortable. Despite being served three meals, the food was bad, and the combination of seasickness and fatigue did not help to increase my appetite.
I was greatly relieved when I found the blanket I had lost that day. Up until then, I had been walking around aimlessly looking for it and had even notified the office, and had asked a steward to look for it with a reward. When I went to check upon his notice, among the many lost and found items, there was my blanket. I immediately gave him 2 shillings and 6 pence as a token of thanks.
That night, the place I had claimed in the smoking room was taken by others, so I had to go to the dining room in another room. I laid out a cushion on the floor, spread a blanket over it, and covered myself with my own blanket to sleep. I slept as I was dressed. All in all, it was a hard journey.
Several times during the night, there was a loud thunderclap that startled everyone, making us jump out of our beds. I woke up at six in the morning, and there was heavy rain and dense fog. The ship was blowing its whistle just like the day before. The fog had cleared in the afternoon on the previous day, but today it was dense all day long. However, the rain did stop for a while, and it was cold.
I haven’t seen the icy sea that I saw on the 15th since the 16th. I went to sleep at 10 p.m., just like the previous day. If it had been a regular voyage, we should have arrived in New York today, but due to the unfortunate circumstances, we did not. This ship was originally scheduled to arrive on the 18th, but according to what I heard, it seemed we will arrive on the morning of the 19th.
On this day, there was a roll-call for the survivors and collection of personal details, and I received a name tag. At 10 p.m., I tried to sleep in the dining room like yesterday, but they only allowed women, and men were not allowed. With no choice, I went to the smoking room, but it was full, and there was absolutely no place to sleep. I spent the night half-asleep, leaning on a chair. It was indeed a tough journey.
It was foggy, followed by rain, and cold. The fog made everything look hazy all around. I woke up at 5 a.m. from my half-asleep state and tried to sleep on a bench on the deck, but couldn’t, so I got up and started moving around. I washed my face and started exercising on the deck. In the smoking room, I was overwhelmed by the crowd, and I really felt cornered. I heard about some accident involving the sailors, but I didn’t pay any attention to it.
I had breakfast at 8 o’clock, shaved after the meal, and took a little nap. I had lunch at noon, and passed the time without much to talk about after the meal. I was feeling very languid. In the smoking room, I talked a little about myself, and they showed me some respect, almost like I was bullying them. From the 15th to this day, I’ve spent about six and a half shillings. Including what I spent on the ship before, the total is about twelve shillings.