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HONOLULU — It is commonly assumed that the first Japanese students to study in the United States arrived during Japan’s dash toward modernization in the early years of the Meiji Period (1868-1912) but, in fact, a number of these young men arrived during the latter years of the long Tokugawa Period (1600-1867). Indeed, the oldest Japanese-American academic connection, that of Echizen (now Fukui) and Rutgers University (New Jersey), was established during that period.

A visitor to Rutgers who exhibits an interest in Japan will probably be taken to the adjoining town of Willow Grove to visit a cemetery with close ties to the Rutgers community. It is here that the graves of nine of the young men to study in the U.S. may be found. While pursuing their studies over 125 years ago, they died of various illnesses.

Among the graves in Willow Grove is that of an outstanding young man from Fukui. Carved on the face of his tombstone are the words “Taro Kusakabe, born in Echizen, Japan, died April 13, 1870, aged 25.” Echizen, or Fukui as it is called today, lies along the west coast.

Kusakabe was sent to the U.S. in 1867 by the Echizen government. He was 22 years old when he arrived, and he diligently pursued his studies in English, mathematics and related subjects. His three years at Rutgers were years of academic distinction, but a mere two months before graduation he contracted tuberculosis and died.

The authorities at Rutgers handled Kusakabe’s untimely death with uncommon tact and sensitivity. His name was placed on the list with the other graduates of the class of 1870 and the university awarded him a richly deserved Phi Beta Kappa Award. At commencement the university arranged for his gold Phi Beta Kappa key to be placed before his tomb. It seems highly likely that had Kusakabe not been cut down at an early age he would have been destined to serve as one of the leaders of Japan’s successful push toward modernity.

Although Kusakabe was perhaps the most outstanding Japanese student at Rutgers at the time, there are a number of others who also merit our attention. Kozo Sugiura, a graduate of the class of 1871, became secretary general of Tokyo Imperial University. Junzo, Matsumura also class of 1871, became an admiral in the Japanese Imperial Navy. Ichizo Hattori, class of 1875, became vice president of Tokyo Imperial University, as well as a senator in the Japanese Diet. Shuma Shirane, also of the class of 1875, became a well-known naval engineer.

Why did so many talented Japanese students enroll at Rutgers at the time? The answer is that serving in Nagasaki at the time was the Rev. Guido F. Verbeck, a missionary and member of the Dutch Reform church, which operated a theological school at Rutgers. At the time, Nagasaki was the largest of the five ports in Japan that were open to the ships of foreign nations. If, therefore, people wanted to leave Japan to go overseas (which was as illegal at the time), they had to go through Nagasaki, Hakodate or one of the three other ports open to foreign ships. Since Nagasaki was a major port, it was here that many people learned of Rutgers through Verbeck.

After the Tokugawa government removed its prohibition on overseas travel in 1866, Kusakabe was the first person to be given formal approval to study abroad by the Echizen authorities. There had been, however, students who prior to 1866 had challenged the laws that prohibited such ventures and left illegally. They traveled to the more advanced countries in Europe and the U.S. For example, Niijima Jo, and the Ise brothers (who took assumed names), traveled to the U.S. in order to pursue their Western studies, even though they understood that such actions were explicitly prohibited by the Tokugawa Shogunate. Niijima (subsequently the founder of Kyoto’s Doshisha University) secretly left from Hakodate in 1864 to study at Amherst College in western Massachusetts. The Ise brothers made their illegal passage to New York, and hence to Rutgers, from Nagasaki the following year.

The irony of the Tokugawa restrictions was that the government sent students to the West despite its prohibition on overseas travel. The unwillingness, or inability of the Tokugawa authorities to enforce the prohibition on overseas travel is illustrated by the action of the strong, anti-Tokugawa government of Choshu, which in 1863 sent five students to England despite the prohibition. Among these students were Ito Hirobumi and Kaoru Inoue, who were destined to play a major role in the politics of the Meiji era. In 1865, Satsuma (currently Kagoshima Prefecture) sent 15 students to England, including a future minister of education, Arinori Mori. Although accurate figures are difficult, it is estimated that between 1854 and 1868, approximately 600 young men were known to have studied in the U.S., France, England and Russia.

In addition, prior to the arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry’s “Black Ships” in 1854, there were some special cases of Japanese sailors and fishermen who had been shipwrecked and rescued by American whalers. These young men were brought back to the U.S., where they attended schools. One such man was Nakahama Manjiro, or John Manjiro as he was called in the U.S., who was shipwrecked in the Pacific in 1841. Rescued by an American whaler, he was brought to the U.S., where he studied before returning to Japan in 1851.

Although such cases should have fallen into the category of “illegal passages” under Tokugawa law, those who studied overseas were not punished when they returned before 1866 because they were remarkably useful as translators to the Tokugawa authorities for use in the rapidly increasing international negotiations of the time.

During the closing days of the Tokugawa shogunate, overseas travel restrictions began to grow looser. While the formal policy of rigid isolation continued, the reality was the increasing power of the various domains that began to send their students abroad despite the Tokugawa restrictions.

There were at least five ways in which Japanese went abroad. First, there was the early students who were aware that travel overseas violated the law, but were willing to take the gamble. The second way was to be taken overseas involuntarily. This was the case with the shipwrecked fishermen who were plunked from the sea by foreign vessels. This was considered illegal prior to 1866. The third type, which occurred before 1866, was considered partially illegal. Although approval was not given by the Tokugawa authorities, passage had been approved by the student’s domain. Fourth, there were those who were able to study abroad with the special approval of the Tokugawa government even before the seclusion restriction was lifted in 1866. This was the only type of passage considered wholly legal prior to 1866. Finally, there were those, like Kusakabe, who studied abroad after 1866, when the prohibition against travel was lifted.

It is clear that Japanese-American cultural relations are a well-established phenomenon and, despite very great differences in culture, society and politics, there has existed over the past 130 years an elite core of Japanese with firsthand experience in the U.S. that enabled them to have a realistic understanding of the U.S. and its people. Unfortunately, the same could not always be said about the U.S.

It is fair to conclude with the thought that the successful modernization of Japan owes a significant intellectual debt to these young men, and the knowledge and skills that they brought back to Japan upon completion of their studies.

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