Dembei (Japanese: 伝兵衛 Denbei, Russian: Денбей) was a Japanese castaway who, through Vladimir Atlasov, provided Russia with some of its first knowledge of Japan. He was a merchant clerk accompanying a fleet of "thirty transports laden with goods for Edo," who, along with a number of others, had been caught in a storm; they found their way to Kamchatka, where only Dembei survived, to be found by Atlasov in 1701 or 1702. Despite pleading to be brought back to Japan, Dembei was instead brought to St. Petersburg, where he told Peter the Great what he could about Japan; he also began teaching the Japanese language to a few Russians, making him the father of Japanese language education in Russia. He was baptized under the name of Gabriel and spent the rest of his life in St. Petersburg.
As a poor fisherman from Osaka, it is doubtful that he had any inside knowledge of Japan's politics or military organization, or anything else that might prove particularly interesting or important to the Russians. Nevertheless, it whetted their appetite for exploration of Kamchatka and the Kurils, and for attempting to open up trade with Japan.
John Bell, who met him some time between 1714 and 1719 reported as follows: He, his father and several other people finished trading at Nagasaki and were returning to their home ’on the north shore’ when they were caught in a gale and wrecked on the coast of Kamchatka. Despite the assistance of a Russian officer, most of them died. He and another youth, who had since died, were taken to Petersburg. He was described as a young man who could read and write both Russian and Japanese. Note that Bell is often inexact.
- Benson Bobrick, East of the Sun: The Conquest and Settlement of Siberia (Heinemann, 1992: ISBN 0434928895), p. 98.
- John Bell, Travels from St Petersburg in Russia to diverse parts of Asia, Edinburgh, 1806, page 180
- McDougall, Walter (1993). Let the Sea Make a Noise: Four Hundred Years of Cataclysm, Conquest, War and Folly in the North Pacific. New York: Avon Books.
- Sansom, George (1963). A History of Japan: 1615-1867. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- Lensen, George Alexander (1961). "The Russian Push Toward Japan: Russo-Japanese Relations, 1697-1895". American Slavic and East European Review, Vol. 20, pp. 320–321. doi:10.2307/3000924.
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