While getting to the bottom of the story, I discovered Rutgers' little-known contribution to the modernization of Japan in the mid 19th century. I also came upon an interesting American "first" attributed to the university.
|The Japanese section at Willow Grove Cemetery today.|
|Kusakabe Taro, Rutgers graduate, |
first Phi Beta Kappa from Japan.
Courtesy Rutgers University
Originally founded by leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church in America, Rutgers held tenuous links to the religious institution well into the 19th century. Church missionary James Ballagh and Rutgers alumnus Robert Pruyn traveled to Japan to establish contact and encourage young samurai to come to New Brunswick as part of an exchange program. They believed, quite astutely, that the best way to strengthen relations between the two nations was to expose their future leaders to both cultures. Their plan eventually led to two brothers, Yokoi Sahaida and Yokoi Daihei, attending the Grammar School to learn English and learn about American culture. The pair apparently returned to Japan after several years of study in the U.S. but both died at young ages from diseases they had contracted while living here. Coming from a place where Western contact had been limited, they'd had no immunity to illnesses that Americans had built resistance to.
|Japanese students attend Kusakabe's funeral.|
Courtesy Rutgers University Libraries.
A native of Fukui, Japan, Kusakabe Taro came to Rutgers on the recommendation of alumnus William Griffis, who'd traveled East to teach science and build on interests sparked by his friendships with Japanese students in New Brunswick. Kusakabe soon distinguished himself as an outstanding student in both mathematics and sciences, eventually becoming the first Japanese to gain acceptance to Phi Beta Kappa. Sadly, just a few weeks before his scheduled 1870 graduation, he died from tuberculosis. His degree was awarded posthumously, and the Japanese Consulate arranged for his burial at Willow Grove.
Between 1870 and 1886, the cemetery section received seven other Japanese who lived in New Jersey or New York. It's unclear how many attended Rutgers College or the Grammar School, but one in particular is known to be a small child whose parents were Japanese.
Today, the gravesites are well tended, but they were once victim to the same vandalism suffered by many of the others around the cemetery, obelisks broken and knocked over. The citizens of Fukui, now sister city to New Brunswick, contributed funds to restore the monuments and purchase a headstone for the buried child.
While the preservation of the Japanese section is important and worthwhile, the lasting friendship between Rutgers, New Brunswick and the people of Japan is even more notable. Educational programs continue to foster understanding and offer priceless opportunities for students. The world is a lot smaller than it was when the Yokoi brothers first arrived On the Banks, but the lessons learned from cultural immersion are no less valuable.