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Rutgers and Japan Celebrate a 150-Year Partnership

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August 11

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Tuesday, June 2nd

The year 2020 marks the anniversary of an early and important U.S.-Japan cultural exchange: the 150-year partnership between Rutgers University and Fukui. The story starts with an extraordinary young samurai named Kusakabe Taro, the first international student to study at Rutgers in 1867, who tragically died from tuberculosis right before his graduation. Enter William Elliot Griffis, a fellow Rutgers student (Class of 1869) and friend and tutor to Kusakabe, who was invited to his home province of Fukui in 1870 to teach English and science to students in Japan. Griffis had a significant impact, becoming one of the oyatoi, or American teachers known for their contributions to the modernization of Japan at the time.

There were multiple celebrations and events planned in New Jersey and in Japan at the University of Fukui to commemorate this special partnership, but they have been postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Fortunately, faculty and students from both universities are finding ways to continue to connect via technology and to mark this anniversary, including the first-ever online joint class between students at Rutgers and Fukui, and the launch of a new website. The website, “Rutgers Meets Japan,” is organized in collaboration with Professor Haruko Wakabayashi from the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures based on the spring 2020 interdisciplinary Honors Seminar of the same name, and contains a wealth of information about the history of the relationship between Rutgers and Fukui. (For more on this fascinating project, visit the website and see this article featured in Rutgers Today.) 

In February, University of Fukui Professor Ryuhei Hosoya visited Professor’s Wakabayashi’s Honors Seminar as well as the offices of Rutgers Global with student Takuma Funakoshi, who won a contest for his essay about William Griffis, resulting in his first trip to the U.S. On hand to meet with Professor Hosoya and Takuma were Eric Garfunkel, Vice President for Global Affairs and Kim Pernice, Assistant Director of Partnerships at Rutgers Global. 

Ms. Pernice noted that her office has been working closely with Professor Hosoya and the University of Fukui for many years now. “In 2018 some of us had the opportunity to accompany him and the former President of the University of Fukui on a visit to the gravesite of Kusakabe Taro at the Willow Grove Cemetery in New Brunswick, where a traditional Buddhist ceremony was held in his honor,” she said. 

In fact, it was William Griffis who helped arrange a funeral for Kusakabe at the First Reform Church on Albany St. and George St., and later burial at the Willow Grove Cemetery. 

In the fall, Rutgers student Benjamin Yang, who is majoring in East Asian Languages and Area Studies, worked with the Rutgers Global--Study Abroad office to participate in an exchange program at the University of Fukui. 

Benjamin described his four months in Fukui as “a mixed bag of wild experiences.” He recounted: “The first challenge I faced was making it to Fukui Station all by myself, which was an adventure. My first flight to Hong Kong lasted a whopping 15 hours (yikes!), and by the time I reached Fukui, I was ready to call it a day. The following night of sleep was the best I'd gotten in a long time.” Benjamin enjoyed discovering an environment that was more peaceful than what he had experienced at home. He experienced many aspects of Japanese culture like sampling the delicious cuisine, singing karaoke, and visiting Kyoto and Nagoya. 

Benjamin remembered: “Those 4 months truly were an unforgettable experience. The program has been a catalyst for both self-discovery and maturity, and has enabled me to experience another culture and society besides my own.”

This fall (or possibly in the spring of 2021, which will be determined by any remaining international travel restrictions), Junyao Hu from the University of Fukui will come to Rutgers as an exchange student. Rutgers students from Professor Wakabayashi’s Honors Seminar were able to meet her via the online class in May and look forward to connecting in person. In addition, there are still plans for Rutgers students to journey to the University of Fukui in January 2021 to take part in their postponed joint class with students in Japan. 

Professor Wakabayashi noted, “Rutgers was, in fact, one of the first American universities to open its doors to foreign students, and I think we should be proud of this.” She added, “In the Honors Seminar, we explored how this initial engagement with Japanese students led to the important role Griffis and other members of the Rutgers community—including Professor David Murray, who went to Japan to serve as the Superintendent of Education, Martin Wycoff, who taught in Fukui after Griffis left for Tokyo, and the many Japanese students who came after Kusakabe—played in the modernization of Japan in the late 19th century.” 

Of the important and ongoing relationship between Rutgers and Fukui, Kim Pernice noted, “To be able to witness and support the ongoing and blossoming relationship between our institutions has been very special and rewarding.”

After 150 years, the deep and rich relationship between Rutgers University and Fukui University remains stronger than ever.