Japanese Students Abroad and the Building of America's First Japanese Library Collection, 1869-1878.


This article had its origins in a chance encounter with an undated manuscript in the Japanese Special Collection of Yale University's Sterling Memorial Library. Titled simply Goshoseki mokuroku [phrase omitted] (Catalog of Books), the hundred or so leaves, whose string binding vanished long ago, list nearly 600 titles along with the number of volumes and price of each (Fig. 1); the total cost amounts to just over 433 yen. The front cover bears the signature of Suwaraya Mohei [phrase omitted], the name of generations of proprietors of one of the great publishing houses and bookstores of Edo and early Tokyo. (1) No dates appear anywhere in the manuscript, but the great majority of the titles date from the mid to late Edo period, with the latest published in 1874. Given the scale of the catalog, its apparent early Meiji origins, and the fact that many of the titles corresponded to works in Sterling's Japanese Special Collection, it quickly became apparent that this was a record related to Yale's first large-scale acquisition of Japanese books--the earliest such purchase by any American library.

The basic facts of this acquisition are already known, having been outlined in the annual university reports of the period and touched upon in histories of the Yale library. (2) In 1873, paleontology professor Othniel Charles Marsh made a donation of 500 dollars for the express purpose of building a Japanese collection. (3) Three years later, nearly 2,700 Japanese volumes in a diverse range of fields--including histories, biographies, classical literature, poetry, popular fiction, reference works, scholarly treatises, religious texts, and more--were accessioned by the library and given nameplates recognizing Marsh's gift (Fig. 2). Not suspecting that much work would be involved in filling in the details, but thinking the catalog contents of considerable interest for the information they contain about prices and the book market at the dawn of the Meiji period, I began the laborious process of transcribing and organizing the manuscript's entries, written in hasty and at times nearly indecipherable cursive script. (4)

In investigating the story surrounding the catalog, however, the scope of the project expanded considerably. The starting point and only significant clue in the manuscript itself was a dedication in English at the top of the first page: "To Mr. Van Name From Z. Hidaka." Van Name presented little difficulty. Addison Van Name (Fig. 3), Yale's librarian from 1865 to 1904, is a familiar figure to those versed in the history of the Yale library. After graduating from the college in 1858 having won several prizes and delivered his class's valedictory address, he studied in Europe for several years before returning to teach Hebrew in the Divinity School. An accomplished philologist, he continued to teach and research Oriental languages even after becoming university librarian. He also served as treasurer and librarian of the American Oriental Society (AOS) for many years and had close personal and professional relationships with many of the society's members.

Van Name was a prolific and savvy collector of books who donated to the Yale library many items from his extensive personal collection (including Goshoseki mokuroku itself), with particularly significant donations in 1891 and 1920. One faculty colleague went so far as to declare him "probably the most skillful buyer of books on earth." (5) These talents benefitted the university's library collections enormously, and Van Name's successor, Andrew Keogh, marveled at his accomplishments in this area--holdings increased from 44,500 volumes when Van Name assumed his position to 375,000 upon his retirement forty years later--all the more so given the little support and limited budget the university gave him. Keogh noted, moreover, the high quality of the materials that were assembled. (6) In like fashion, the citation recorded on the occasion of Van Name's retirement in 1904 praised his "rare judgment in purchasing, so that the slender income of past years yielded results far beyond reasonable expectations." (7)

Unfortunately, Van Name's organizational skills received less praise. In 1890, when the university's collections were moved to a new building, he developed a classification system that, in modified form, continued to be used for Yale collections after his retirement (and survives in some sections of Sterling Memorial Library even today). This system was roundly criticized by Melvil Dewey, and the deficiencies in his organization of the Japanese collection and the recordkeeping pertaining to it presented substantial challenges in researching the Marsh accession. (8) Another obstacle was the general paucity of materials related to Van Name himself. By the end of his life, his obituary noted, there were few at the university who remembered him or his contributions to the library. Although the library records in the Yale archives contain a substantial amount of material from his tenure, little by way of his personal papers or correspondence survives. Nevertheless, as the scope of inquiry expanded outward from the center, drawing in the letters and papers of a diverse group of scholars, family members, and others around Van Name, as well as archival materials on the Japanese side, the broader story surrounding the Japanese collection slowly came into focus.

Who, then, is the Z. Hidaka who presented him the catalog? The story that emerged in investigating this question involves many prominent individuals from Japan and the United States--leading scholars, educators, statesmen, and businessmen--as well as many others who slipped into obscurity long ago. At its center is a series of Japanese students who passed through New Haven in the early 1870s. Some of these students pursued their studies at Yale, of whom a few are fairly well known. Others have had their stories told in bits and pieces here and there. Still others went to New Haven to study in local schools or with local teachers, and their stories have been all but forgotten. These students, of whom Hidaka was one, are the central figures in this article.

Van Name, it turns out, played an enormous role in the lives of these Japanese students in America, with his house serving as a sort of headquarters. The connections he cultivated in New Haven spurred an interest in Japan and its language, led him to teach the first Japanese language course at an American university, and allowed him to build the country's first major Japanese collection without ever traveling to Japan himself. It was one thing to receive 500 dollars for the purpose of collection-building, but converting the sum into a 3,000-volume research library was quite another. Much of the legwork was carried out on the ground in Japan by students who had once lived in the university librarian's home. In illuminating their forgotten place in the early development of Japanese studies in the United States, this article restores a level of agency to the Japanese students who traveled to the West in the early Meiji period. Much has been written about the knowledge, customs, and institutions they took back to Japan. Yet they were also active transmitters of knowledge in their own right, not merely fostering popular curiosity about their home country, but inspiring the serious scholarly study of Japan and East Asia as a whole, helping redefine the mission of the American university research library, and broadening the scope of humanistic inquiry in the United States.


In early October 1866, newspapers throughout the United States carried a report from San Francisco of a "Japanese prince" freshly arrived in the city and on his way to study at Yale College. The story was picked up by The Yale Courant, the student weekly, under the headline "A Japanese Prince for a Freshman." The author of this short notice speculated on the warm welcomes the prince would receive as he traversed the country by train, and on what mischief the sophomore class might have in store for him. The news also prompted reflection on the university's stature: "How can we judge Yale to be other than a big institution, when princes from the gorgeous oriental lands deem it an honor to be enrolled even among the humble Freshman class?" (9) The following February a second flurry of articles, including in New Haven papers, revived the story that this student was on his way to Yale. (10) It is unclear who this prince might have been. His name, given variously as Ay Tung and Ay Hung, does not match those of any of the Japanese known to have arrived in the country that year, even allowing for the irregularities and idiosyncrasies of spelling common in early newspaper accounts. Whoever he was, and whatever his plan, he never reached New Haven. It was to be a few more years before the first Japanese student entered Yale.

Among the first of those known to have visited the college was one whose name is still widely remembered today: Niijima Jo [phrase omitted], Joseph Hardy Neesima. After leaving Japan in secret in 1864, Niijima went on to complete degrees at Phillips Academy Andover and Amherst College before returning to Japan and founding Doshisha University. In the summer of 1869, he hiked nearly thirty miles through rural farmland and forest from a friend's house at Haddam, on the Connecticut River--stopping for the night at a farmhouse along the way--in order to fulfill a desire to observe Yale's commencement ceremonies. Niijima, who converted to Christianity during his time in the United States, proved disappointed with the lack of "Christian element" in the exercises, which were held at Central Church on the New Haven Green. He was also unimpressed by the dirty glasses and wine bottles strewn about the secret society to which a group of undergraduates invited him afterward. (11)

Niijima was not the only Japanese student...

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