Rutgers University has had a long and important history of interaction with Japan, which began soon after the establishment of official relations between Japan and the U.S. in the middle of the nineteenth century. From 1867-70, Kusakabe Tarô, a samurai from Fukui, attended Rutgers College to study mathematics and science, becoming one of the very first Japanese to attend an American university. His tutor and fellow student at the college, William Griffis, traveled to Japan in 1870. Griffis went on to become a professor at Rutgers, and an early Japan expert, writing a ground-breaking monograph on Japanese history and culture in 1876 titled The Mikado’s Empire. Between 1867 and 1912, approximately 200 Japanese studied at Rutgers Preparatory School and Rutgers College, many of them going on to become leaders in science and industry, spearheading Japan’s rapid modernization.
Reflecting Rutgers’ rich heritage of cultural interactions with Japan, the university currently offers wide-ranging courses related to Japan, both within and outside the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. The faculty includes experts in Japanese linguistics, modern and classical literature, film, history, and popular culture. A vibrant Japanese language program enrolls over a hundred students each year, many of whom participate in study abroad programs at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, the International Christian University (ICU) in Tokyo, and Asia Pacific University in Kyushu. These exchange programs enable Rutgers students to experience life in Japan and to gain a better understanding of its language and culture. A favorite destination for Rutgers graduates majoring in Japan has been the Japan Exchange Teachers program (JET) run by the Japanese government, in which they assist with English language education for one-year or two-year terms. For many, the JET program is the perfect stepping stone into business opportunities in Japan or further graduate study.
Rutgers University also houses rare resources related to Japan that are not available elsewhere. The William Elliot Griffis Collection housed in the Special Collections and University Archives at Archibald S. Alexander Library preserves the entire range of Griffis’s work relating to Japanese history, religion, and U.S.-Japan relations, as well as materials - including numerous early photographs of Japan and Korea - he gathered during his stay in Japan and in later years. Another important collection at the university is the world famous Japonisme Collection housed at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum. Composed of French, American, and British works on paper and ceramics as well as related Japanese art from the turn of the twentieth century, this collection highlights the strong influence of Japanese art on that of the West.
Rutgers’ diverse student body has shown keen interest in Japan as reflected in its student-run organizations. The Rutgers Organization of Nippon Students (RONS) promotes the understanding of traditional Japanese culture through its regular meetings and its annual Sakura Festival, which introduces traditional Japanese dance and food to the campus community and beyond. The Japanese Visual Cultural Association (JVCA) studies Japanese anime through its regular screenings and discussions, and reflects the overwhelming interest in Japanese popular culture, which is becoming more and more a part of American youth culture.