Monday, October 14, 2013

The Japanese at Willow Grove Cemetery: revealing New Jersey's role in modernizing a nation

Last week's visit to New Brunswick's Willow Grove Cemetery brought to mind a legend I had heard about seven Japanese citizens who were buried there. According to random scuttlebutt around Rutgers, the unfortunate dead were exchange students who had fallen ill during an epidemic. Thing was, a marker in the Japanese section notes that one of the deceased was living in Brooklyn at the time of his death. Another was a child. I think it's pretty safe to assume that they weren't commuter students. Who, then, were these people, and what was their relationship to New Brunswick?

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.
One question is easy to answer: only one of the buried people, Kusakabe Taro, attended Rutgers College, though a few of the others had attended Rutgers Grammar School (now known as Rutgers Preparatory School, no longer affiliated with the University). The students were among the first to travel to the United States to gain a Western Civilization-style education. How all of them got here is a little more complicated, as are the reasons why so many lay in rest at Willow Grove.

Kusakabe Taro, Rutgers graduate,
first Phi Beta Kappa from Japan.
Courtesy Rutgers University
The admission of Japanese students to Rutgers has its roots in the opening of relations between the island nation and the United States in the mid 1800s. Commodore Matthew Perry's historic visit to the island country marked the beginning of the end of Japan's isolation from the western world. More than 200 years earlier, however, the Netherlands and Portuguese had established relations with Japan, and while the Portuguese were eventually told to leave, a small Dutch contingent was allowed to stay on a separate island as a trading outpost. That Dutch influence eventually played a large part in Rutgers and New Brunswick establishing enduring relationships within Japan.

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.
Several other Japanese followed the Yokoi brothers to Rutgers in the years following the Civil War, with four graduating between 1866 and 1876. An informative article published by the Rutgers Libraries notes that it's not clear exactly how many Japanese studied there at a given time, but it's quite evident that at least some of them blended well into campus life. For example, Matsukata Kojiro is seen in a photo of the 1885 football team.

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.


  1. Thank you for this nice report. I was born in Fukui, Japan same as Kusakabe Taro. I visited Rutgers college and this cemetery on October 18, 2013.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to write us a note! Glad you enjoyed our story, and I hope you enjoyed your time in New Brunswick, too.

  2. Sue, thank you for responding to my comment. I would like to know the names of the four students on the Kusakabe's funeral picture.

    1. I could only find two names: Kozo Soogiwoora (second from the left), and Saburo Takaki (standing to the right, on the opposite side of the monument from the others). Both were Japanese students at Rutgers. Unfortunately I have no other information to identify the other two men in the picture. My apologies.

    2. Thank you, Sue.


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