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University and City Celebrate 150 Years of Friendship with Fukui, Japan

October 4, 2017
Kusakabe Taro

Kusakabe Taro's Rutgers class photo, 1867.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a young samurai from the province of Echizen (today Fukui prefecture) in the far west of Japan came to New Brunswick with the goal of entering Rutgers College. Kusakabe Taro arrived fired with the desire to “fulfill my duty to the Imperial realm by clarifying the defects in the relations between us Japanese and the foreigners in the light of the international law of all nations and universal principles.” Ranked number one in his class, Kusakabe became the first Japanese student to graduate from Rutgers College, the first to become a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and, along with Niijima Jo at Amherst, the first to graduate from an American college. Tragically, Kusakabe died of tuberculosis on April 13, 1870, only weeks before commencement. He is buried in the Willow Grove Cemetery in New Brunswick along with seven other young Japanese. The following year, Kusakabe’s friend and classmate William Elliot Griffis traveled to Fukui to introduce Western-style educational methods into the local school system. Griffis would spend four years in Japan and a lifetime writing, teaching, and collecting information about Japan. His collection was bequeathed to Rutgers University Libraries in 1928.

Indeed Rutgers was an important destination for international students from Japan during the 19th century. Many of those who studied at Rutgers returned to Japan to become leaders in education, industry, and commerce. Although the last of this early group of Japanese students attended Rutgers in the 1920s, the relationship between the university and Fukui was rediscovered in the late 1950s by Rutgers administrator and professor of political science Ardath Burks. Working closely with the city of New Brunswick, programs and exchanges were initiated, and the William Elliot Griffis collection was organized and made available to the public. Rutgers and Fukui Universities became sister universities in 1981, and in 1982 New Brunswick and Fukui became sister cities. As well as the 150th anniversary of Kusakabe’s arrival, 2017 marks the 35th anniversary of the sister cities relationship.

From October 4 to 7, New Brunswick will welcome a large delegation from the city of Fukui including the mayor and members of the City Council, members of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and members of the Fukui International Citizens Association. Among the events planned are a Buddhist ceremony at Kusakabe’s grave on Thursday, October 5 and a lecture on “Kusakabe and His Friends,” which will held at Alexander Library on Friday, October 6. The delegation will also visit the Zimmerli Art Museum and the new Johnson and Johnson Museum and be entertained by the Rutgers Centers for Global Advancement and International Affairs, Rutgers Community Affairs, and Rutgers University Libraries at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. The Fukui Junior Chamber of Commerce will accompany two middle-school students who have written the best essays of the year about Kusakabe Taro. These children will have a chance to visit the New Brunswick Middle School and meet with their contemporaries there.

In November 2017, New Brunswick mayor James Cahill will lead a delegation from New Brunswick to visit Fukui. For more information about any of these events or joining New Brunswick Sister Cities, please contact Michael Tublin, director of international relations for the City of New Brunswick at 732-745-5174 or