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When Rutgers Met Japan: The Start of an Enduring Friendship

Conference on March 5 is part of 150th Anniversary Celebration 

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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.  A conference this Friday, March 5, will shed new light on that history, and is part of a continuing series of programs commemorating the 150th anniversary of the historic connection. 

13 Kusakabe Taro with Yokoi Brothers ca1867 edited webThe story of Rutgers and Japan centers on the tragic tale of how the first of the Japanese 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.

Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the University of Fukui have been marking the 150th anniversary of Kusakabe’s death and Griffis’ journey with various programs, including an honors seminar in the School of Arts and Sciences. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has halted many of the plans for in-person events, the celebration is still continuing virtually.

Friday's conference is titled Rutgers Meets Japan: Foreign Teachers, Missionaries, and Overseas Students in the Early Meiji Era and will feature scholars from schools in the U.S., Canada, and Japan. The conference begins at 7:00 pm. EST. For more information and registration, go to the webpage.

The speakers will examine the Rutgers-Japan connection from three angles: the Rutgers alumni who went to Japan as missionaries and teachers; the Japanese students who came to Rutgers in 1870, and the female missionaries from the Dutch Reformed Church who played a modernizing role in Japan's education. 

"By looking at these different aspects of the relationship, you get a fuller picture of what was going on in the 19th century between Rutgers and Japan," says Haruko Wakabayashi, a professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. "There is a human, personal interaction that goes deeper than the interaction at the national or institutional level." 

it started with that early welcoming spirit at Rutgers

Wakabayashi said the story of Rutgers’ early encounters with Japan offers enduring lessons for the university community and the public. She also noted that the conference comes at a time of heightened concern over racism in America, a scourge that has also targeted Asians over the course of generations, and as recently as 2020 during the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

“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 Wakabayashi, who organized many of the events around the 150th anniversary. “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.

"This is history that as members of the Rutgers community, we should be proud of."

The anniversary is also being observed in Japan. 

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

KD20 Japan Encounters 5237Last spring, students in the SAS seminar discussed the historic events during a joint video conference with students at Fukui who are also learning about the legacy of Griffis.

“We are breaking new ground here,” Hosoya told both groups of students. “The first joint class here online between the two universities.”

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 February 2020 session of the seminar. “Which is really amazing.”

Griffis, meanwhile54 Griffis and Boys from Fukui Tokyo ca1873 edited web, 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.

There is a wealth of university resources documenting those connections, including The William E. Griffis Collection in the Special Collections and University Archives, Alexander Library.

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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