In the early hours of April 15, 1912, Masabumi Hosono was awoken in his cabin to alarming news: the ship he was travelling on had hit an iceberg—and the situation was critical. The Titanic was sinking. As a foreigner and second-class passenger he was ordered downstairs, away from the lifeboats; but amid the turmoil on board he managed to sneak onto the deck. In a letter titled “On Board R.M.S. Titanic” that he frantically penned to his wife as the tragedy unfolded, he describes the sight that greeted him there. Orienting himself by the glow of flares in the air, Hosono found his way to Lifeboat 13, the only rescue boat yet to launch. Under instructions from the crew, the men present were guiding the women and children onto the vessel. When the order arrived to lower the craft into the sea, there were two seats left. A man leapt past Hosono and claimed one of them, leaving the Japanese man with the last empty seat—and a choice to make.
Faced with this textbook moral dilemma, Hosono chose life, and lived to regret it. Whereas Brits fortunate enough to survive returned home as heroes, he had a different fate in store. Both the Japanese government and the general public found his survival intensely embarrassing. After all, he hadn’t done anything spectacular or noteworthy, he had simply survived—and apparently at the expense of one of the 162 women and children who died. The Japanese media initially centered their coverage on his emotional reunion with his family, but they soon changed tack and began publishing critical articles in which he was accused of cowardice. The US papers joined in the attack. Hosono’s course of action was compared with the noble self-sacrifice of such passengers as the American Benjamin Guggenheim, who famously changed into his best evening wear and prepared to drown alongside his manservant, rather than take the place of a woman or child in a lifeboat.