Few Alaskans know the name Jujiro Wada now, but that should change this weekend. A big musical production about his life will come to the Atwood Concert Hall stage on Friday, May 1, hosted by the Asian Alaskan Cultural Center, and go to Fairbanks on Sunday, May 3.
"Chasing the Aurora: The Samurai Musher" recounts the life of Wada, described in a paper by Edgar Blatchford of University of Alaska Anchorage and Tony Nakazawa of University of Alaska Fairbanks as "an All-Alaskan personality" and "a true icon of Alaska's early pioneer period." Stories of his physical accomplishments made headlines in the gold rush era. Modern Alaskans will note his role in the party that blazed the Iditarod Trail.
But behind the tales of adventure and glory was a flesh-and-blood human, determined to advance himself, concerned about his family, admired by his contemporaries but abused by discrimination and, above all, a traveler who fell in love with Alaska. It's these aspects of Wada that form the most dramatic and emotional parts of the musical.
The record of his life isn't always easy to follow. Blatchford and Nakazawa admit that historical documentation is "thin" in many places. But the basic outline can be determined by letters, newspaper stories and interviews.
He was born in western Japan in the Ehime Prefecture of Shikoku Island on Jan. 6, 1875. Friends recalled that he spoke of going to America and making money. In 1891, at age 16, he caught a ship to San Francisco. Historian R.N. DeArmond has written that he was on his way to study at Harvard, with thousands of dollars in cash. The version in the musical may be more likely -- that he was a stowaway.
Both versions recount that he was kidnapped, drugged by presumed companions who sold him to a whaling ship en route to the Arctic. When he explained the situation to the captain, H.H. Norwood -- Wada later described him as "a good man in a hard job" -- the captain expressed sympathy but said the ship couldn't turn around for one individual and made him his cabin boy.
The ship, the Balaena, was a state-of-the-art vessel, built to overwinter in the ice and take advantage of whale harvests at times when other ships would have to head south. It had "an exceptionally fine library," Wada recalled. "In the three years I was on the ship I read every book we had and learned to keep the ship's log and accounts. By the end of the three years, I had a fair English education," which included the skills of navigation, surveying, geology, meteorology and biology that would serve him well in years to come.
Arriving in the Arctic Ocean, Wada was welcomed by Inupiat villagers, who suspected he must be a relative. He quickly learned the language and survival skills of his new friends.
It was four years before he could return to Japan, and he didn't stay long. The world was talking about a big gold strike in the Klondike, and Alaska was the place to be. Wada returned, prospecting and working odd jobs. He was involved with E.T. Barnette and Felix Pedro when gold was found in the vicinity of modern Fairbanks and, it's said, ran all the way to Dawson, where the big pay streaks were starting to play out, announcing the news and setting off a stampede.
His prowess as a musher made him famous. He carried the mail and freight, trapped and traded furs. But his speed as a runner made him rich. He won a 50-mile marathon in Nome worth $500 and a 35-mile race that earned him $2,800.
By 1909 another bonanza was in the headlines, in a nearly inaccessible place called Iditarod. The Seward Chamber of Commerce sought out Wada to scout a route to the gold fields and mark the trail. Working with companion Alfred Lowell, he accomplished this in in a matter of weeks, setting off another stampede. The southern portion of the modern Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race follows the course Wada pioneered.
One member of the Iditarod party was reporter Frank Cotter, a lifelong friend. He remembered how one night, Wada looked out at the view and said, "This is my country, Frank. I hope to live and die here."
Cotter called Wada "the most indefatigable musher I have ever known and the peer of any man who ever wore a snowshoe in Alaska."
Much of the musical is informed by letters Wada wrote to his mother, which usually included money. "One of Wada's endearing legacies was his devotion to his mother," Blatchford and Nakazawa write.
He also showed concern for his adopted family. He is said to have helped stem a measles outbreak that threatened to wipe out Inupiat communities. He took charge of negotiations between tribal members and fur traders and wrangled better prices from them. The newspapers called him "King of the Eskimos," a colorful but fanciful designation that Wada himself never seems to have used.
He prospected in the vicinity of Aniak and the Tuluksak River, having some notable success. But there were clouds on the horizon. As World War I began, America grew xenophobic. Although Japan was allied with France, Britain and, ultimately, the United States, Wada was called a "spy" by the Cordova Daily Times. The evidence was detailed maps of the territory showing practical routes and gold fields. The charges were never taken seriously by Alaskans, DeArmond writes, and there was never any official investigation or action. But the rumors proved persistent, popping up years later, and may have been enough to begin the process of diminishing his reputation, the mechanism that turned him from Alaska hero to nonperson over the next several decades.
The 1920s found Wada in Canada, exploring the Mackenzie River area and, some say, scouting the area that would become the Norman Wells oil fields. In 1937 he went to California seeking backers for a new venture in northern Alaska. He never came back. He contracted pneumonia and died destitute in San Diego on March 5, 1937.
According to DeArmond, he was buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego County.
Reporter Cotter, working in Seattle by the time, wrote a powerful obituary recounting some of his friend's achievements and his spirit.
What prayers might be said for Wada, Cotter asked rhetorically. American prayers or Japanese prayers? Cotter said he didn't know which deities Wada prayed to, but "whatever gods Wada had, if he had any, they were the gods of real men."
The musical has a cast list of 33 actors, singers and dancers with the Mikan Ichiza Playgroup of Japan. The Alaska performances mark the American premiere of the show. It uses Japanese music for the Japanese scenes and Western music for some of the Alaska parts, a big "wa-hoo" barn-dance tune for the gold rush, for instance. The lead character is Wada's mother, who recounts much of the story from letters. Their relationship supplies the most emotional moments of the story.
The idea of re-connecting Alaskans with Wada's story has particular meaning for Mikio Ueoka, executive director of the Jujiro Wada Memorial Association of Japan. "Wada arrived here in 1892 and discovered the land of his dreams," he wrote. "Jujiro Wada loved Alaska to the depth of his heart and soul with his Samurai spirit."
Jiro Ueoka, Mikio Ueoka's father, a school principal, was born in Wada's hometown, he said. The elder Ueoka established the association and organized the building of a monument in honor of the musher's memory. He died three weeks after the monument was completed in 2007.
Ueoka said his father hoped to do more than just keep the memory of Wada alive. He wanted to use his legacy to "create rich cultural and educational exchanges in Alaska." "Chasing the Aurora" is a big step in that direction.
"I feel I am carrying out my father's legacy on this mission," Ueoka said.
CHASING THE AURORA: THE SAMURAI MUSHER will be presented at 7 p.m. Friday, May 1, in Atwood Concert Hall and at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 3, in West Valley High School in Fairbanks. Tickets are available at centertix.net.
For more about the musical and Wada's story, including an illustrated novel, visit www.thesamuraimusher.com.