A century and a half ago, when Japan shifted its course toward modernization, Japanese students who went abroad and returned with knowledge and skills of Western civilization played crucial roles in the country’s transformation, as new ideas and technologies took root.
Hundreds of them were studying in the United States in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912) thanks to the practice of sending students overseas that began in the final years of the Edo Period (1603-1868), according to Satoshi Shiozaki, a professor with Takushoku University’s Faculty of Foreign Languages.
Brooklyn, annexed by New York City in 1898, was the third-largest U.S. city by 1860. It was one of the most popular destinations for young Japanese, along with New Brunswick in New Jersey, and Boston.
“Students who returned to Japan succeeded the role of hired foreigners in introducing Western culture and technology, and then the torch got passed to the Japanese who were educated by them,” Shiozaki said in an interview.
Japan quickly adopted Western political, social and economic institutions after the Tokugawa shogunate, the last ruler of feudal Japan, was ousted, and the emperor’s power was restored through the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
“Without those students who went abroad, I think it would have taken longer to modernize Japan,” said Shiozaki.
According to the professor, the names of six Japanese students were registered in the Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute’s annual catalog of the officers and students who were enrolled from September 1870 to June 1871, when the Meiji Era was just getting started. They were Takahiko Azuma (Prince Kacho Hirotsune), Shuichiro Fujimori, Motoi Ikagawa, Tamesuke Magome, Shoji Takato and Naotaro Yanagimoto.
In the academic year from September 1871 to June 1872, the number rose to 15, before climbing to 22 the following year.
Shoji Takato’s interview with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, published on Jan. 22, 1872, described the eagerness and purpose of the students studying in America as well as the public’s impression of the Japanese.
The reporter described Takato as “a very bright looking young fellow” who “was dressed with scrupulous neatness, and betrayed no uneasiness whatever at being ‘interviewed.’ “
Asked his reason for coming to the United States, Takato said, “I came to acquaint myself with your manners, customs, language, and laws,” adding that international laws and laws in Western countries were little known in Japan.
“I am learning all I can of the existing laws of the world, and hope, on my return to Japan, to be enabled to make suggestions which will lead to the proper alteration and amendment of our laws, which are now very defective,” he said.
Takato eventually graduated from Columbia University’s law school and became a diplomat.
During their time in the U.S., the Japanese students seemed to have laid the groundwork for good relations between the two nations’ citizens, ties that have held to this day despite ups and downs, including World War II and reconciliation, Shiozaki added.
He said the students gave the impression that Japanese are “hardworking” and “polite” people with “everlasting patience,” amid the derogatory stereotypes of Asians that prevailed at the time.
Another article by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle titled “Our Japanese Students,” on March 15, 1871, offered a glimpse of the difficulties students faced in their daily lives and English classes by describing the peculiarities of the Japanese language.
“They talk Japanese with their mouths almost closed. The stress of work in teaching them to read English is in getting their mouths open, and in making flexile the lips and tongue.”
“They cannot perfectly make our l — it is almost our r, and their en and in long for a g at the end,” it said. “Little by little, however, their patience and zeal are getting the better of these troubles — they toil like Germans.”
Shiozaki said he found it interesting that the difficulties the Japanese still experience in pronouncing English words have not changed for around 150 years.
The March 1871 article also revealed that the presence of Japan’s first Imperial family member studying abroad attracted the attention of Americans and influenced their views toward the Japanese.
“One of these six is of the Royal Family of Japan, so that we have a real live prince among us,” it reported.
“(A)bout 10 years ago, he was publicly accepted and adopted as the Brother of His Royal Highness, so that he stands nearer to the throne and crown than any other Japanese living,” it said.
Prince Kacho, an adopted son of Emperor Komei, the father of Emperor Meiji, landed in San Francisco on Oct. 15, 1870, after leaving Yokohama aboard the American clipper ship Great Republic. He arrived in New York via Chicago on Oct. 29 by train, Shiozaki said.
Just like many other Japanese students in the United States, Prince Kacho came with a recommendation letter by Guido Verbeck, a missionary for the Dutch Reformed Church working in Japan.
Verbeck introduced students to John Mason Ferris, secretary of the missionary society of the Dutch Reformed Church in New York, and usually Ferris connected them with schools, according to Shiozaki.
“Brooklyn, with good transport access, was very close to New York and if something came up, Ferris was able to give his advice,” Shiozaki said. “There was a navy yard as well, and the polytechnic had a great reputation.”
The institute used to offer preparatory and collegiate programs, but they were separated into two schools, with one being affiliated with New York University and becoming the Polytechnic Institute of NYU, according to the Brooklyn Historical Society.
In addition to language and practical skills, Japanese students learned and experienced the fundamental elements of democracy, including the principle of equality.
The March 1871 article said some of the students were what, in English parlance, “would be the nobility nearest the royal family, and almost all of the others are of the rank which corresponds to that of lords, or, perhaps, knights.”
“But there is no parade of this, they exact nothing even from each other in deference to their position at home.”
As the reporter saw no behavior revealing rank among them, Shiozaki assumed the prince must have set an example and instructed others to treat him equally.
In fact, Prince Kacho seemed to have continued his commoner-like lifestyle based on what he learned and experienced in the United States until his death in 1876 in Japan.
The Yokohama Mainichi, Japan’s first daily in its own language, ran a story on Aug. 21, 1873, about his simple way of living, saying it was a result of studying in the U.S.
It could be seen as an irony of history that many of the Japanese students, including Prince Kacho, who later attended the U.S. Naval Academy and became a rear admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy, studied in the hometown of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the famous USS Arizona was built and christened.
Sunk in 1941 during Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Arizona continued to inspire men and women at the yard throughout World War II, according to the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center.