TOKYO -- The Titanic was sinking fast. Horrified passengers rushed onto lifeboats being lowered into the dark, icy sea. Desperate men were stopped at gunpoint so women and children could escape first.

Masabumi Hosono stood on the deck, torn between the fear of shame and the instinct for survival.

Then the 42-year-old Japanese bureaucrat found himself in the right place at the right moment. There were two spots open in a lifeboat. Hosono hesitated, but when he saw a man next to him jump in, he swallowed his fear and followed.

Hosono's decision saved his life -- yet it brought him decades of shame in Japan. He was branded a coward, fired from his job and spent the rest of his days embittered.

The reputation of the only Japanese aboard the Titanic may find some salvation, however, with the recent discovery of his handwritten account of the 1912 disaster, an American researcher says.

The letter written by Hosono to his wife in the days after the tragedy reveals that he was urged into the lifeboat by a ship's officer, and that he helped save the lives of fellow survivors by helping row the craft away from the pull of the sinking Titanic.

Also, it refutes Japanese press accounts of the time that had identified Hosono as an Asian man aboard a different lifeboat, No. 13, who was said to have acted ignobly in his rush to escape. Hosono, it turned out, had been on lifeboat No. 10.

"It's a very sad thing that it took us 85 years to be able to put this piece together," said Matt Taylor, who is organizing a Titanic exhibition in Japan.

Hosono had just completed a tour of Europe, where he had studied railway systems for Japan's Transportation Ministry, and was heading home on the luxurious ship.

On April 15, 1912, the "unsinkable" Titanic ran into an iceberg and sank off the coast of Nova Scotia. The disaster claimed more than 1,500 lives and etched in Europe and America's psyche the awful power of nature over industrial society's grandest creations.

Hosono was among only 700 or so people to live.

Like many men who survived, he returned home to meet a stream of press accounts of the bravery of those who died and the cowardice of those who lived.

"They were really publicizing the number of women and children who were lost," said Michael Findlay, co-founder of the Titanic International Society in New Jersey.

The pressure was especially harsh in Japan, where tradition prized a noble death over survival and a man could rectify shameful behavior with ritual suicide.

News reports were particularly critical of the man aboard lifeboat No. 13. After newspapers named Hosono as that man, he was ostracized.

He lost his job in 1914 and spent the next nine years working part-time in the ministry. Until his death in 1939, mention of the Titanic was forbidden in his home.

Hosono's letter shows, however, that he escaped on lifeboat No. 10, Taylor said. "This fact alone restores his honor and credibility," he said.

Taylor discovered the letter last summer while researching Japanese links to the tragedy for Exhibition Titanic Japan, a show to open in July. He found the letter in Hosono's belongings and persuaded the family to allow its translation and public release.

The tragedy continues to fascinate. A Broadway musical about the sinking won five 1997 Tony Awards this year, and director James Cameron's $200 million epic film "Titanic" -- the most expensive movie ever -- just opened in American and Japanese theaters.

Hosono's account, written on Titanic stationery as he steamed toward New York on the ocean liner Carpathia, is considered to be among the most expressive and detailed renderings of the panic aboard the ill-fated ship.

"All the emotions of what he has witnessed ... just culminated in this letter to his wife," Findlay said. "I've read hundreds of survivor accounts, and nothing has hit me as much as the story of Mr. Hosono."

He writes of the wordless panic on the deck as women and children were rushed silently onto lifeboats -- and of the later screams of those who went down with the great oceanliner.

"What had been a tangible, graceful sight was now reduced to a mere void," he wrote. "And how I thought about the inevitable vicissitudes of life!"

The letter also reveals the unseemly side of the evacuation. Twice Hosono was instructed to go to the lower levels: Taylor says other accounts show white passengers were sent to the deck. Hosono had to brush pass one officer to get to the top.

"I tried to prepare myself for the last moment with no agitation, making up my mind not to leave anything disgraceful as a Japanese," Hosono wrote.

During the frantic escape, Hosono recalled, he gave no thought to the gold European coins or travel notes left behind. Later though, when he was safe, he regretted their loss.

"After all," he wrote, "the human mind is a strange and unaccountable affair."