Rutgers commemorates first encounter between New Brunswick and Fukui, Japan

Rutgers commemorates first encounter between New Brunswick and Fukui, Japan

Symposium celebrates life of Rutgers’ first Japanese student who died of TB a week before graduation
Rutgers commemorates first encounter between New Brunswick and Fukui, Japan

Credit: Nick Romanenko
William Gillette, professor of history at Rutgers, and Juri Abe, professor of sociology at Rikkyo University, Tokyo, spoke at the symposium commemorating Sister Cities New Brunswick and Fukui, Japan.

In 1867, Kusakabe Taro, a samurai from Fukui, Japan, came to Rutgers to study mathematics and science. Taro was a brilliant student, the first Japanese national to graduate from Rutgers College, the first to be admitted to Phi Beta Kappa, and, along with a Japanese student at Amherst, the first to graduate from an American college. Tragically, these honors were awarded posthumously. Taro died of tuberculosis at age 25 on April 13, 1870, weeks before he could accept his bachelor’s degree or Phi Beta Kappa key.

“He studied himself to death,” said Juri Abe, professor of sociology at Rikkyo University, Tokyo, in a lecture October 4 at the Scholarly Communication Center of the Archibald S. Alexander Library. Abe spoke at a symposium honoring the 25th anniversary of the New Brunswick and Fukui Sister City relationship.

Taro was one of the first Japanese students to come to America during the Meiji era of modernization and reform. From 1868 to 1912, as many as 200 Japanese students emigrated, most of them to Rutgers Elementary School (later Rutgers Preparatory School), and, if successful, to Rutgers College. Rutgers’ connection to Japan was primarily the result of the college’s roots in the Dutch Reformed Church, whose missionaries in Fukui encouraged Japanese students to study at Rutgers.

Rutgers and New Brunswick, then, have a long history of academic exchanges with Fukui, and in 1982 the two cities formalized the connection. The 25th anniversary of the Sister Cities project was celebrated with a lecture by Abe on Taro’s life and another by William Gillette, professor of history at the School of Arts and Sciences in New Brunswick, who placed Taro in historical context by describing New Jersey during the American Gilded Age, from 1870 to 1900.

Abe’s talk drew heavily from the papers of William Elliot Griffis, Taro’s tutor and friend and, coincidentally, a founder of The Daily Targum, Rutgers’ student newspaper. After organizing a large funeral for Taro at the First Reform Church on Albany and George streets (the site is now a Starbucks) and burial in the Willow Grove Cemetery in New Brunswick, Griffis graduated from Rutgers College and went on to have a distinguished career, preaching, lecturing, and writing in Japan and the United States.

Photo of Kusakabe Taro, from the William Elliot Griffis Collection in Special Collections and University Archives.

Griffis’ papers, which were donated to the University Archives by his family after his death in 1928, document a rich connection between Fukui, Rutgers, and New Brunswick that continues today. Griffis himself wrote “the most penetrating history of Japan in the 19th century,” Gillette said in his lecture. David Murray, the mathematics professor for whom Murray Hall at Rutgers was later named, worked and taught for Japan’s education ministry in the early 1870’s.

In 1871, the year after Taro died, there were 18 Japanese students at Rutgers Elementary School or Rutgers College. They had left their quiet town in the Western coastal Chubu region and come to New Brunswick, a small but rapidly growing city helping to lead New Jersey’s post-reconstruction transformation from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Taro died of consumption in his boardinghouse room on French Street, a 15-minute walk from the relatively bucolic Old Queen’s Campus. He could not have benefited from breathing the air in such a rapidly industrializing city, Abe said.

Fortunately, his countrymen did not prove so frail. In just the past 25 years since 1982, New Brunswick and Fukui have sponsored dozens of academic, scientific, and cultural exchanges that have placed Rutgers in the middle of a rich and mutually beneficial partnership.

“This is an example of the wonderful relationship we have between ‘town and gown,’ " said Ruth J. Simmons, curator emerita of the William Elliot Griffis collection at the library. “While Sister Cities itself has been the moving force, we couldn’t have done it without the help of the university community and the state.”

President Richard L. McCormick, in greeting about 60 officials from both cities and the university who gathered for the symposium, said: “Rutgers cherishes its place in the special Sister City relationship between Fukui and New Brunswick … Fukui will always be a part of the history of Rutgers University. I hope that Rutgers will always be celebrated by the people of Fukui as well.”