One of the earliest surviving photographic likenesses of a Japanese sitter, predating the opening of Japan to the outside world by at least two years, and one of only fifteen known daguerreotype portraits of Japanese. Four other companion pieces of the same date are recorded, each now in Japanese institutional collections.
Sentaro (circa 1831-1874) was one of seventeen crew of the Japanese vessel, the Eiriki-Maru, who were shipwrecked in 1851. They were rescued by an American whaler and taken to San Francisco. It was not unheard of for American ships to rescue Japanese victims in the Pacific, but the castaways were normally taken only as far as Hawaii.
From 1639 until the conclusion of the first treaty with the United States in 1854, contact between Japan and the outside world was strictly prohibited, and there were no official visitors to the United States from Japan until 1860, when a group of seventy-seven Japanese visited on a diplomatic mission. It was previously thought that this portrait represented one of the members of this mission, however the sitter is shown wearing simple clothing and without any sword, a sign that he was almost certainly of lower social rank than that of diplomat. Identification of the sitter became possible when an article from the New York periodical Illustrated News (22 January 1853) came to light, illustrating in woodblock reproductions eighteen portraits of the captain and crew of the Eiriki-Maru taken during their stay in San Francisco. From this, and a comparison with four other similar daguerreotypes from the same group, it has been possible to identify the sitter as the ship's cook, Sentaro. The article suggests Harvey R. Marks from Baltimore as the photographer, but any attribution remains somewhat inconclusive as the castaways were apparently photographed by at least one other (unknown) photographer during their stay in California.
Sentaro sailed back to Japan in 1852 as a third-class seaman in the United States Navy on the USS Susquehana, one of the vessels of Commodore Perry's fleet, and, as the sole Japanese participant in the expedition, he was expected to serve as an interpreter in the subsequent negotiations with the Japanese authorities. However, mindful of the death penalty that awaited any unauthorised traveller who returned to Japan, Sentaro never went ashore, despite reassurances that he would come to no harm, and returned to America, finally settling again in Japan in 1860.