In the 1870s, when Amherst College first encountered Japan, the Japanese were seeking knowledge from the West and Americans were trying to convert the world to Christianity. A key figure in the early contacts was Julius H. Seelye, professor and president (1876-1890), ordained minister in the Dutch Reform Church and a member of the American Board of Foreign Missions. In 1871 he welcomed to Amherst members of Japan’s Iwakura diplomatic mission, who were seeking a system of education to support the building a modern nation. One member of the mission, Tanaka Fujimaro, later vice-minister of education, sought Seelye’s advice on several occasions.

When, for example, the Japanese government wanted to create a school to encourage modern agriculture, it turned to Seelye for help. Fortunately, Seelye could recommend his friend William S. Clark (Class of 1847), a Civil War veteran and president of the new Massachusetts Agricultural College. Clark spent several months in Japan helping to organize a college in Sapporo (now Hokkaido University), proselytizing, and inspiring his young Japanese charges with the cry “Boys, be ambitious!”

On another occasion, Tanaka asked Seelye to recommend a physical education instructor for Japanese schools. Tanaka, it seems, admired Amherst’s style of “gymnastics,” which he had observed during a visit to Barrett Gymnasium in 1873. Pioneered by Edward Hitchcock, professor of hygiene and physical health, the exercises involved group calisthenics with bar bells and Indian clubs, accompanied by piano music. Seelye chose a newly minted Harvard M.D., George Leland (Class of 1874), who, with his family, spent three years in Japan teaching Hitchcock’s method of physical education. The results were impressive. Years later, an Amherst observer thought “the remarkable fighting power of the Japanese army in the Chinese and Russo-Japanese wars resulted from required physical exercise in the government schools; and some of the glory of the achievement reflects back to Barrett Gymnasium and the College upon the Hill.” These exercises, with piano music playing in the background, are still practiced today in Japanese schools and government and corporate offices, and a national radio program calls on the elderly early every morning to pick up their bar bells and join the fun. In 1919 the Japanese government decorated Leland “in appreciation of your services rendered to the education of Japan.”

Seelye himself visited Japan in 1872. Accompanied by Edward Hitchcock, he dined with Emperor Meiji. He boasted in his diary that he had also preached the first public sermon in Tokyo after the government had lifted its ban on Christianity. Hitchcock brought back rocks from Japan for the Geology Department’s collection.


Julius Seelye offered inspiration and guidance to several Japanese students who studied at Amherst. The first of these was Niijima Jo (Joseph Hardy Neesima), a young samurai trained in navigation, who fled from Japan as a stowaway on an American ship, traded his sword for a New Testament in Shanghai and, in 1865, arrived in Boston aboard the Wild Rover, a ship owned by Amherst trustee Alpheus Hardy. Aided by Seelye, Niijima, a Christian convert, graduated from Amherst in 1870, returned to Japan and, in 1875, and founded a small school in Kyoto. By the time of his early death in 1889, he had developed this school, Doshisha, into a center for Christian education. Doshisha achieved the status of a college in the early twentieth century. Today, Doshisha is a complex of educational institutions on nine campuses, ranging from graduate school to kindergarten. In 1901, Niijima’s classmates commissioned a portrait of him, which hangs in Johnson Chapel today.

Other adventurous young Japanese followed Niijima to Amherst. Kanda Naibu (Class of 1879), aided by the new Japanese government, arrived in Amherst in 1871, at the tender age of fourteen. Seelye arranged for him to stay with an Amherst family and attend the local high school until he entered the College. Like Niijima, Kanda embraced Christianity and devoted his life to the new education in Japan. He became Japan’s preeminent authority on English and Latin and president of Japan’s English Speaking Society. He helped to make the study of English an essential part of Japan’s national education. After succeeding his father as Baron Kanda in 1910, he served in the House of Peers and as a delegate to numerous international conferences. During the Washington Conference in 1921, his alma mater invited him back to Amherst and awarded him an honorary degree. One of Kanda’s sons would hold the first chair in American civilization at Tokyo Imperial University.

Another Seelye disciple, Uchimura Kanzo (Class of 1887), became the founder of Japanese Christianity. Uchimura had been influenced by William S. Clark in Hokkaido in the 1870s and was recommended to Seelye by Niijima. Although an ardent Christian even before he reached American shores, Uchimura experienced a second conversion at Amherst. One day while carrying buckets of coal up to his third floor dormitory room in North College, he suddenly realized, he wrote, “the meaning of the Trinity.” Frequently asked by Americans about his conversion to Christianity, he published a book soon after graduation titled How I Became a Christian. Back in Japan, he came to resent the influence of foreign missionaries. He wrote that Christianity was originally an Asian religion. Why should Japanese put up with Western missionaries squabbling about European and American sectarian differences? He thus founded the “No Church” (mukyokai) movement, the first Japanese Christian sect. As a writer, editor and popular lecturer, Uchimura advocated scholarly study of the Bible rather than the usual church services. He emerged in the 1920s as a sharp critic of the American government’s exclusion policy, which barred Japanese immigration. Among his followers were leading Japanese Christian intellectuals, including Tanaka Kotaro, a postwar minister of education and chief justice of the Japan’s Supreme Court, and Nambara Shigeru, an influential president of Tokyo University.

Another Amherst graduate who made a lasting impact in Japan was Kabayama Aisuke, Class of 1889. The son of Admiral and Count Kabayama Sukenori, he served briefly in the government before pursuing a highly successful business career. During the 1930s, he was president of the Japan-U.S. Friendship Society in Tokyo and a close friend of U.S. Ambassador Joseph Grew. After the war, Kabayama, with assistance from Grew and John D. Rockefeller, established the International House of Japan to encourage intellectual exchange between nations and the Grew Foundation, which provides fellowships to Japanese students who study at American colleges. When Amherst president Charles Cole visited Japan in 1953, Kabayama welcomed him to Tokyo and arranged his lectures at major universities.


Amherst ties with Doshisha from the 1890s to the 1940s were strengthened by a few Amherst alumni who served as American Board missionaries at this Japanese Christian institution, and by Amherst student representatives at Doshisha. Steward Burton Nichols was the first of the latter, serving from 1922 to 1924, the standard two-year term. The last student representative of the prewar period was John Whitney Hall (Class of 1939), who became, after the war, a leader in the development of Japanese studies in the U.S. He held professorships at the University of Michigan and Yale University. In 1932, Amherst House was built on Doshisha University campus as a memorial to Niijima and Nichols, who died at a young age. After the war, the College added a guest house with quarters for the Amherst representative, three guest rooms and dining facilities for resident students and guests. Amherst House, a registered Tangible Cultural Property, was renovated in 2009.

In the early 1920s, Japan’s Foreign Ministry approached Amherst and other liberal arts colleges with a proposal: allow young Japanese diplomats to study for a year or two as undergraduates. Amherst agreed, admitting many Japanese diplomats, most of them after the war.

In the small prewar group were Kase Toshikazu (1927), Takeuchi Harumi (1940) and Sunobe Ryozo (1942). Kase was destined for a remarkable career. After Amherst, he earned a graduate degree at Harvard, and began his active service as secretary to the Japanese ambassador in Washington. He attended the London Naval Limitations conference in 1930, and accompanied Foreign Minister Matsuoka Yosuke to the League of Nations session in 1933, when Japan withdrew from that body on being censured for aggression in Manchuria. During the war, Kase served as secretary to two foreign ministers and participated in the negotiations leading to Japan’s surrender in August 1945. On September 2, he accompanied Foreign Minister Shigemitsu to the surrender signing ceremony on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Kase left the Foreign Ministry in 1946, but returned in 1953, at the end of the U.S. occupation, when his mentor, Shigemitsu, again headed the ministry. He represented Japan at the 1955 Bangkok Conference and served as Japan’s first ambassador to the United Nations. Amherst awarded him an honorary degree in 1982.


Amherst-Doshisha relations, interrupted by the war, were restored during the American military occupation of Japan. As the Cold War developed, both sides focused more on the value of studying American civilization than the promotion of Christianity. In 1947, President Charles Cole appointed Otis Cary (Class of 1943) to represent Amherst at Doshisha. Professor Cary served in this capacity and taught American history at the university until his retirement in 1992.

Reflecting his strong interest in Amherst’s ties with Doshisha, Cole in 1953 made an extended lecture tour in Japan at the invitation of the Rockefeller Foundation. As an economist, he noted strong Marxist influence in Japanese universities, despite seven years of political and economic reforms by American occupation authorities. At the end of his three months in Japan, Cole recommended to the Rockefeller Foundation additional funds for educational exchange. He also won support of the Trustees for the new Neesima and Uchimura fellowships for Japanese students to study at Amherst. In 1958, the College instituted the Amherst-Doshisha Fellowship for a recent graduate to spend a year at Doshisha University as a visiting researcher.

Partly as a result of Cole’s and Cary’s efforts, American studies began to flourish at Doshisha in the 1950s. Outstanding Japanese students arrived on the Amherst campus during this period. Two of them--Homma Nagayo and Sakakibara Yasuo--were awarded M.A. degrees and became leading academics and presidents of the American Studies Association of Japan.

The Foreign Ministry resumed its relations with the College in 1953 and sent some of its brightest young diplomats to study at Amherst. These included Mizoguchi Michio (1955), Kuriyama Takekazu (1956), Fujii Hiroaki (1958), Asomura Kuniaki (1962), Asakai Kazuo (1967), Nogami Yoshiji (1968), and Abe Nobuyasu, (1969). All of them later held major ambassadorships and other top positions in the ministry in Tokyo. At one point in the 1990s, Amherst alumni held the posts of Japanese ambassador in London, Ottawa and Washington, D.C.


By the late 1960s, Japan studies had come to be accepted in American liberal arts colleges. As part of this movement, Amherst began to see its historic ties with Doshisha in a different light. In the past, the College had thought of Doshisha as a place where its graduates could promote the study of Christianity and American civilization. Now it would also be seen as a place where Amherst students could study Japanese language, history and culture. In September 1968, Amherst proposed to Doshisha a faculty and student exchange and other forms of cooperation. This led, in 1971, to the organizing of the Associated Kyoto Program (AKP), a junior-year program at Doshisha University for Amherst students, and others, who wish to study Japanese. With offices on Doshisha’s main campus, the AKP, now sponsored by thirteen private colleges, hosts American undergraduates for a semester to a year of study in Kyoto.

An agreement in 1976 made it possible for Doshisha faculty members to spend their leave at Amherst. Revised in 2000, this agreement now also provides for faculty exchange of shorter durations for purposes of public lectures and seminars in both American and Japanese studies.

Written by Ray Moore; Updated by the Department

Tags:  Japan  languages  asian