After more than two centuries of isolation, Japan finally opened its door to the world in 1868. A few years earlier, a young man named Shimeta Neesima, later known as Joseph Hardy Neesima, traveled from Japan to America; by 1867 he had found his way to Amherst College, where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree three years later at the age of twenty-seven. Only by illegally boarding a ship named Berlin bound for China was he able, in 1864, to leave Japan. In Shanghai, Neesima transferred to another boat, the Wild Rover, owned by Alpheus Hardy of Boston, and 13 months later, in July of 1865, a few months after the end of the Civil War, he arrived in Boston Harbor.

Neesima, class of 1870, was the first Japanese ever to graduate from a Western institution. Upon returning to Japan, Neesima founded Doshisha University, one of the oldest and most prestigious of Japan's private universities, in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, in 1875. Having been educated at Amherst, Neesima wished very much to educate the young people of Japan in the same way.

Since then, many Japanese have studied at Amherst, and gone on to become influential figures in Japan. Many Amherst students, in turn, have gone to Japan. The first to do so was one of Neesima's teachers at Amherst , William Clark (himself a graduate of Amherst, class of 1848), who was invited to Japan to help found Hokkaido University, and in doing so he became a hero in Japan. For well over a century now, Amherst and Japan have maintained this special relationship, which continues to grow in vitality and complexity.