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A Tragic Death and a Fateful Journey – How Rutgers and Japan Forged an Enduring Connection

Seminars, samurai, and t-shirts will mark a milestone year

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Rutgers is known as a diverse place.

But not everyone knows that the university’s inclusive, globally-engaged culture was developing as early as the 1860s, when Rutgers became one of the first American colleges to enroll Japanese nationals.

13 Kusakabe Taro with Yokoi Brothers ca1867 edited webAnd few today know the tragic tale of how the first of those students—a brilliant samurai named Kusakabe Taro—died from tuberculosis weeks before his graduation in 1870 and was buried in New Brunswick after a funeral service hosted by the Rutgers president.

Later that same year, Kusakabe’s fellow Rutgers student, friend, and tutor—William E. Griffis—accepted an offer to teach in what is now Fukui, Japan. He went on to become an influential figure in Japan’s modernization, and a renowned writer, lecturer, and scholar of Japan.

The Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences this year is marking the 150th anniversary of Kusakabe’s death and Griffis’ journey with programs aimed at educating the university community and the public about Rutgers’ early encounters with Japan, and the wealth of university resources documenting those connections, including The William E. Griffis Collection in the Special Collections and University Archives, Alexander Library.

“The story of Kusakabe and Griffis is a great example of how people from very different cultures met and learned to appreciate each other,” says Haruko Wakabayashi, a professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures who is organizing the events. “And it’s worth remembering that just a few years after the Civil War, Rutgers is accepting Japanese students, and in fact, educating the future leaders of Japan.”

The anniversary is also being commemorated at the University of Fukui, where the legacy of Griffis still looms large.

“He laid the foundations of education in Fukui as well as for the whole of Japan,” says Ryuhei Hosoya, a professor at Fukui.

To mark the anniversary at Rutgers, Wakabayshi is teaching an undergraduate honors seminar this semester—“Rutgers Meets Japan: Revisiting Early U.S.-Japan Encounters.”

54 Griffis and Boys from Fukui Tokyo ca1873 edited webThe seminar includes a two-week visit to Japan in May after the end of the semester that’s timed to coincide with a symposium at the University of Fukui titled: “Griffis’ Fukui: 150 Years On.” Wakabayashi and others at Rutgers are closely monitoring the coronavirus outbreak and will decide later this month whether to continue with the trip or to postpone it.

Students taking the honors seminar say they’re fascinated by the Rutgers-Japan connection.

“Once I realized Rutgers had such a long relationship with Japan, I just had to take this class,” says Evan Feldman, a sophomore in the SAS Honors Program majoring in computer science and economics. “This is very outside of my main fields of study and it’s like a breath of fresh air.”

Aishwarya Sridhar, an honors program junior majoring in cell biology and neuroscience, hopes one day to go to medical school and work in another country.

“I really wanted to learn about another culture,” she said. “And this class is completely eye-opening!”

Other events include a symposium titled “Rutgers Meets Japan: Foreign Teachers, Missionaries, and Overseas Students in the Early Meiji Era” that will feature presentations from renowned scholars in the field. The conference has been postponed until fall 2020. 

KD20 Japan Encounters 5237The Zimmerli Art Museum, meanwhile, has opened a new exhibition, Japan that Griffis Saw: Prints and Photographs from Meiji Japan, which displays items from the late 19th century, just around the time that Griffis arrived in Japan.

And to commemorate the anniversary with Rutgers spirit, SAS will be producing special commemorative t-shirts that will be available universitywide and beyond.

“It’s important, especially for students, to know the history of your own institution,” says Wakabayashi. “It’s important to recognize the role that Rutgers played and to celebrate that.”

The connection between what was then Rutgers College and Japan goes back to the college’s roots in the Reformed Church in America. Christian missionaries in Japan encouraged Japanese students to study at Rutgers.

From the late 1860s to 1912, as many as 200 Japanese students came to New Brunswick, most of them to Rutgers Grammar School (later Rutgers Preparatory School), and, if successful, to Rutgers College. The students came during what is known as the Meiji era in Japan when the country began moving from an isolated feudal society to a modern industrialized nation.

Kusakabe Taro became the first to attend Rutgers College. He studied mathematics and physics as well as humanities subjects such as Latin and English. He excelled in all. He died on April 13, 1870 and is buried in Willow Grove Cemetery. He was 25, and posthumously awarded his bachelor’s degree and Phi Beta Kappa key.

“He was number one in the Class of 1870,” Fernanda Perrone, curator of the Griffis collection, Special Collections and University Archives, told students during a recent session of the seminar. “Which is really amazing.”

Griffis, meanwhile, arrived in Japan in early 1871, teaching English and science at a local school and later relocated to Tokyo. He visited Kusakabe’s father, and presented the deceased student’s Phi Betta Kappa key. Griffis returned to the U. S. in 1874 and embarked on a 50-year career preaching, lecturing, and writing.

In the following decades, a number of Rutgers graduates as well as a professor, David Murray, visited Japan and exerted a modernizing influence on the educational system. Some came as missionaries and started schools. Murray served as an advisor to the Japanese government.

“There are so many dimensions to this,” says Paul Schalow, Chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. “And it started with that early welcoming spirit at Rutgers.”

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