In three days they had not caught a single fish. Their families would go hungry. Manjiro swallowed hard when he thought of the empty rice bin at home. (1.1.4)
This is going to be a recurring thing—the whole connection between his family back home and food (or lack thereof).
He had hoped this fishing trip would be a way to redeem himself after his dismal failure in his job husking rice for Imasu-san. (1.1.34)
Being Manjiro seems kind of rough—he's all about guilt-tripping over his inability to provide for his family. You have to wonder if his obligation to his family just stresses him out more than anything else.
The ache he had felt when his father died had been a sharp pain at first, but had dulled over time until he hardly noticed it. But now, like a sore muscle, the pain flared up again. He longed for his mother, and for his dead father, too. Imagining himself dead in one of those graves made him even miss himself! (1.2.65)
Manjiro's in the middle of contemplating life without his family because he's just seen a few gravestones on the secluded island. What's interesting is who he imagines dying. You'd think that the gravestones make him imagine himself dying—and they do—but they also make him think of his mother and dead father.
His imagination makes the pain of losing a parent "flare up again," which—if you think about it—is a way of making him feel more alive. Sure, he's thinking seriously morbid thoughts, but if you're feeling pain, then it must mean that you're alive and kicking, right? So maybe thinking these depressing thoughts about his family makes Manjiro almost more alive and closer to his dead father and remaining family.
"You have childrens?" Manjiro asked.
The captain shook his head, coughed, and said, "No." He paused. "No," he said again.
"You have no childrens; I have no father." Manjiro said, and their eyes met for a moment. When Manjiro left the room soon after, he tried to identify what he was feeling. He was no longer afraid. He was no longer angry. He was, perhaps, a little amazed. A little surprised. And maybe even a little bit happy. (2.6.50-52)
This is the first father-son bonding experience Manjiro has with Captain Whitfield. It almost sounds like first love, doesn't it? And it is—just of the familial sort.
"I have three sister and one brother. I have no mother, no father. My one brother older but he weak. I take care family." He stared down at his teacup, tears trembling in his eyes. Of course, he was not taking care of his family. (2.6.33)
Here's the reason why Manjiro is so concerned about his family. Not that he doesn't have a cultural reason for his familial ties, but it's clear that there's a practical reason, too: He's the only one who can work.
"You miss your wife," Manjiro said.
Captain Whitfield nodded. "And you miss your mother. But you and I, we are a family now." (3.15.17-18)
Family doesn't have to be made out of blood. Sometimes it's a matter of connection and opportunity.
"It's all right," Manjiro said. "You and me, we family now."
Captain Whitfield's dark look blew away like a squall's black clouds. He smiled. "That's exactly right," he said. "We've got each other now. We may have had our sails knocked back, but only for a moment, for there's Mr. and Mrs. Aken's house—you know their son Isaachar, who you called Itchy. Why, and there's Eben himself."
A man had come out on the stoop of the house. He looked their way and shouted, "Is that my good friend William Whitfield sitting there looking so forlorn? Please come out of the damp and the cold. There's supper and a bed here!" (3.15.42-44)
The captain and Manjiro have just returned to the captain's house in Fairhaven, and the house looks completely abandoned. Ugh. What's neat is how familial the captain's neighbor is, though. Family is super-important, but family is also what (or who) you decide to define it as.
"I used to be afraid of blue eyes," Manjiro whispered to William. "But how could anyone be afraid of you?"
The baby gazed up at him, his face like a polished jewel.
"Someday, when you are grown, you will come and visit me in Japan," Manjiro said. "You will be the captain of a big, three-masted barque and you will sail proudly into Urado Bay. You will walk the road to my home and no one will run away, afraid you are a devil. Everyone will greet you as my brother." (3.23.10-12)
Leave it to a baby to make everything better. They're like little tiny blank slates. What's more telling here, though, is how Manjiro still sees himself in Japan in the future and apart from his adopted American family.
He longed for Mrs. Whitfield's warm, fresh-baked bread and thick jam. He yearned to hear William Henry's happy babble and to be able to chat with Captain Whitfield again. At the same time, he began to be homesick for Japan: He missed the foods of his old country; he missed his mother; he even found himself missing things he didn't think he liked! He felt torn about where, exactly, he wanted to be. He just knew it wasn't Mr. Hussey's! (3.25.1)
Nothing makes you more aware of whom you love and who you count as family than being at a place you don't want to be.
"I wish they were precious stones, but they are only shells," he sighed, "shells that I collected in places where I traveled."
His mother held out her hands to show the shells—small and curved, frilled and ruffled, or smooth as teardrops. They were pink as cats' tongues, shiny brown and speckled, iridescent black, or creamy white.
"Kirei!" she said. So beautiful! (5.40.31-33)
For all of Manjiro's worries early in the novel about not providing for his family, you'd think that his mother would be one of those mothers who might complain about Manjiro's gift of shells, or at the least, pressure Manjiro for something more valuable than shells. But nope—this scene is heartwarming because his mother recognizes Manjiro's gift for what it is: shells collected for their uniqueness and natural beauty. Yay.