At the French port of Marseille 140 years ago, a lone young German woman boarded a ship for a month-long journey that would take her far away from her home and family to Tokyo and her betrothed. Her courage may have been the only sign of the key role she was poised to play in establishing early childhood education here as the first head teacher at what is Japan’s oldest surviving kindergarten.

Eight years after the Meiji Restoration put an end to the long reign of the Tokugawa shogunate, but still 13 years until Japan’s first constitution would be enacted, it was a time of change as the nation raced to catch up to the social and economic advances of the West. For Clara and her fiance, it was a time of opportunity.

Clara Zitelmann met Hazama Matsuno in Berlin, where she lived with her family and where he was attending the Eberswalde Forestry Academy. His study of German and fortuitous contacts from his upbringing in what is now Yamaguchi Prefecture led to his inclusion in the party that accompanied Prince Kitashirakawanomiya on his studies abroad. Hazama became the first Japanese person to study forestry and his consequent work in that field, including the establishment of forester training, led to him today being referred to as the father of modern Japanese forestry.

Clara landed in Yokohama in August 1876, a year after Hazama had already returned and started work in the forestry division of the Department of Internal Affairs. She was met with the news that their marriage would be delayed. There was some difficulty with the paperwork. The legal framework officially allowing marriage between Japanese and foreign nationals had only been established three years earlier.

Registering their marriage required the submission of around 20 documents, including written permission from Clara’s parents. Their wedding reception was held on Dec. 17, 1876, at Seiyoken in Ueno. People close to the couple, including Takayoshi Kido — a key figure in both the Meiji Restoration and the new government — described it as the first officially recognized marriage between a Japanese and a foreigner.

A quick surf through history shows that there were a number of international marriages that preceded that of the Matsunos’, but that they were registered with foreign authorities and later approved by Japan. In his diary, Kido described the fastidious efforts of the bureaucrat in charge of registering the union as one reason for the approval taking so long. In terms of setting the Japanese procedural standards for registering an international marriage, it was likely the first of its kind.

On Nov. 16, 1876, the kindergarten attached to the Tokyo Women’s Normal School — today’s Ochanomizu University — opened its doors, with Clara as the head teacher. She had studied early childhood education in Germany, where Friedrich Froebel had founded the world’s first kindergarten in 1837.

Recent research has found that Hazama had suggested to Clara that she train as a kindergarten teacher. Hazama was studying in Berlin when Kido and other government representatives toured Europe and the U.S. on the Iwakura Mission, the diplomatic survey that observed a broad range of Western social and economic systems, including schools, factories, mines, libraries and concerts. He likely either heard or deduced that Japan was considering founding a kindergarten. At a time when it was rare for women of some social standing to work, his advice hints at the ambition he had for his wife, but moreover, perhaps, for his country. Clara’s study commitments are the likely reason for her not being able to travel to Japan together with Hazama.

The first two Japanese kindergarten instructors were Fuyu Toyoda and Hama Kondo, who worked together with Clara and followed her guidance. Since Clara could not speak Japanese, the kindergarten principal, Shinzo Seki, translated her English for them. That language barrier likely limited Clara’s daily contact with the kindergarten students, but as the only experienced instructor, she was indispensable in performing key elements of Froebel-method education, such as song play and the puzzle-like Froebel “gifts.”

Clara was also the only one at the kindergarten who was able to play the piano, and it surely served her as a welcome means of expression and direct communication with the children, who greatly looked forward to her playing. At the kindergarten’s opening ceremony — held 10 days after lessons had begun — Clara played the piano while the children sang a song. This is believed to have been the first public performance in Japan of singing accompanied by the piano.

Clara’s teaching methods became the foundation of Japanese early childhood education. The notes that Toyoda took of Clara’s instruction were published and widely read and applied throughout Japan. Both Konda and Toyoda passed on what they had learned from Clara in their training of other kindergarten teachers. In 1878, when a department of early childhood education was established at the Tokyo Women’s Normal School, Clara taught kindergarten methodology there, too.

“Early childhood education began in Japan by imitating that of the West, so having a woman from Germany — the birthplace of the kindergarten — in Japan when the kindergarten attached to the Tokyo Women’s Normal School opened, and to have her directly introduce to Japan the Froebel kindergarten method as head teacher was very significant for Japanese early childhood education,” says Michiko Ijuin, the vice principal of Ochanomizu University Kindergarten.

As early childhood education here matured, it developed its own methods and character, particular under the direction of Sozo Kurahashi, a three-time principal of the Ochanomizu University Kindergarten (between 1917 and 1949) and the “father” of Japanese kindergarten education. Although he ended the Froebel-style practice of holding a morning class gathering and repurposed one block-style set of Froebel gifts by mixing it into a box of building blocks, key principles of Froebel’s philosophy are included in Kurahashi’s approach and are still practiced at the kindergarten today, Ijuin says. Those aspects include respect for children’s expressive and constructive play and their social relationships, as well as regard for the aesthetic elements and joy of education.

Clara’s own teaching style valued outdoor play, appreciation of nature and self-directed play born out of daily activities. What was a radical move back in Clara’s day of growing soy beans with the kids in the kindergarten grounds and then eating them is continued today with a range of vegetables, both at Ochanomizu University Kindergarten and most preschools throughout Japan.

In historical documents, everyone who knew Clara describes her as kind. In an anecdote from 1877 that suggests both strength and generosity, as well as a commitment to the principle of kindergartens, an eight-month-pregnant Clara accepted an invitation to visit Gunma Prefecture to plead the case for the establishment of kindergartens there. In an era when transport was either rickshaw or horse-drawn carriage, or possibly riverboat, the 100-kilometer journey must have been hard for her.

Seki’s death in 1880 triggered a natural change in the guard at the kindergarten. Clara quit as head teacher the following year but stayed on as an external employee. She had already been working as a piano teacher to four musicians within the Imperial Household Agency staff, during which time she greatly advanced Western music education here by teaching the 12-tone musical scale. Hazama also attended these classes to act as a translator. In addition, Clara taught piano for many years at the predecessor to today’s Gakushuin Girls High School, the Kazoku Joshi Gakko.

A year after their wedding, Clara and Hazama had been blessed with the birth of a daughter they named Frieda Fumi. Frieda Fumi eventually married and had two children but passed away in 1901 at the age of 24. Clara took her young grandchildren under her care. Seven years later Hazama died and Clara eventually took her grandchildren with her to Germany, where she passed away in 1931, aged 77. To this day, Clara’s achievements are little known in her homeland.

In 2008, Keiko Kobayashi, a professor emeritus at the Kunitachi College of Music, was visiting Tokyo’s Aoyama cemetery when she came upon the graves of Hazama Matsuno and Frieda and a plaque erected to him that detailed his achievements as a pioneer of modern Japanese forestry. She was deeply saddened to see not one mention of his wife’s comparable achievements.

Kobayashi proposed that something be done and gathered help to raise funds for a plaque to Clara that was erected in the cemetery in November 2011. The monument celebrates Clara’s achievements in helping to modernize Japan both through her work in kindergarten education and her pioneering role in teaching piano playing, and features a reproduction of a painting of Clara, Kondo and Toyoda playing the Pigeon’s Nest song game with kindergarten children.

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