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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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A Japanese Pioneer in Alaska

Midori Aoki

Nov. 17, 2016

Jujiro Wada, who lived about a century ago, made his way to the wilds of Alaska as a young man and eventually became a local hero there.

The annual Iditarod race in Alaska is called "the last great race on Earth." It's a famous international dog-sled race along a trail that was established by Wada, who was an explorer.

A life-size bronze statue of Wada was unveiled this September at a ceremony honoring his life, after local residents raised the needed funds.

"Beautiful job, very nice -- and it's a great testimony to a famous man," said one woman at the event.

Wada was born in 1875, in a poor farming village. He desperately wanted to explore the world and, as a 17-year-old boy, smuggled himself onto a ship bound for Alaska where he eventually became a respected figure among locals.

"Jujiro Wada had a key importance as far as the history of this community," says Dan Seavey, a veteran dog handler, or "musher," who considers Wada an Alaskan hero.

A century ago, Alaska was still a frontier where dog sleds were the only means of transportation. After arriving there, Wada quickly learned mushing techniques from the locals.

He was said to be physically strong and had the spirit of never giving up. People started calling him the "King of mushers" and private commerce groups started asking him to find the best trail routes.

Seavey has written a book about the history of the Iditarod race, and highlighted Wada's achievements.

"He showed his endurance, he showed his tenacity, perseverance, and even, he was quite an enterpriser as well," Seavey says. "Learn the history, that's what I would like from future people. There's just so much to be learned from history.

Wada's trails helped boost development in Alaska. One of the trails he established was vital for supplying food, medicine and mail at that time. Completed in 1910, the trail connected the port city of Seward to Iditarod, 800 kilometers inland.

They needed the trail because gold mines were being discovered in Iditarod, and Wada's trail played a role in bringing about the gold rush there.

Launching expeditions in the cold tundra wasn't easy. Wada suffered from snow blindness, and once had to feed his dogs with his trousers dipped in whale oil, because they had no food left.

The founding of the trail made headlines in Alaska.

"Literally millions of dollars of gold came over that trail to Seward to be shipped outside," says historian Lee Poleske. "The Iditarod was a last great gold rush in Alaska, and Wada was an important part of that gold rush helping develop the Iditarod trail."

A century later, people in Alaska still admire Wada's achievements.

A recently discovered map is said to have been created by Wada. It shows the locations of gold lode in minute detail.

"This map is really fascinating. Having grown up in Alaska and done a lot of fishing, hunting, snow machining, the land is hard. And to do what he did back is really something that I can appreciate," says Tim Kanady, the map's owner. "I would have loved to have met him."

After establishing many trails, Wada became an entrepreneur. But his business failed, and he died in San Diego when he was 62.

But the life of the Japanese adventurer is still remembered here in Alaska. People from Wada's hometown in Japan were also invited to the statue's unveiling.

"I have seen how people in Alaska are proud of Wada. They are trying to learn more and are teaching their children about him. Thanks to Alaskan people, Wada's achievements can be remembered. It's as if Wada is still on his dog sled on an expedition," says Mikio Ueoka.

Veteran musher Dan Seavey says he wants to make sure Wada's legacy will be passed down through the generations.

"We can assume that the statue will be making a statement for, we hope, 100 years, 200 years," Seavey says.

Jujiro Wada touched the hearts of many people who lived thousands of kilometers away from his homeland, and his trail of life lives on.


NHK World's Midori Aoki joins anchor Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: I was surprised to learn of a Japanese man whose story has been handed down through several generations in faraway Alaska.

Aoki: A movement to recognize Wada’s achievements is currently spreading throughout the state. In another city in Alaska that I visited, people there told me they plan to erect a monument next year to honor dog-sled drivers. And at the very top of the monument will be Wada’s name and portrait. He is known mostly among those who have some connection to dog sledding. I was impressed by the passion of Alaskan people trying to make sure Wada is not forgotten.

Shibuya: What happened to Wada after his various achievements in Alaska?

Aoki: He came back to Japan only once and never returned again. When World War I was breaking out, he was suspected of being a Japanese spy, and he vanished from Alaska. But we know that he continued his explorations in Canada. There are still many things we don’t know about his life, and I hope some new leads in his story will turn up.

Shibuya: Is he well-known in his hometown in Japan?

Aoki: Yes, locally, but not nationally. That's in Ehime prefecture in western Japan, where he is from. I can say that he is known there. People there set up a memorial association about 10 years ago. When I visited there, I was impressed that local people are trying to spread his name throughout Japan. It's notable that he continuously sent money, letters and pictures back to his mother there. The association has been holding exhibitions, introducing not only his expeditions, but also highlighting his devotion to his mother. Last year they staged a musical about his life in Alaska, and this performance gave people there the impetus to build a statue of him.

Shibuya: So moves to honor him are widespread in both Alaska and Japan.

Aoki: Yes, and I'm sure his adventurous spirit will continue to appeal to people both in Japan and his adopted homeland. I hope this interest in him will further strengthen ties between Japan and Alaska. I think this strong friendship is a gift from Wada to us.