Rutgers Meets Japan

The planned exhibit was converted to a digital exhibit, which will be mounted on the course website.

In 1867, Kusakabe Tarō (1844-1870), a samurai from Fukui in the remote west of the country, left Japan to study at Rutgers. After his untimely death in 1870, his mentor and friend, William E. Griffis (1843-1928) of the Rutgers Class of 1869, was invited to teach Western-style education in rapidly modernizing Japan. Griffis would spend his life writing and speaking about Japan and collecting books and archival material. His collection came to Rutgers Special Collections and University Archives (SC/UA) after his death. This spring, Haruko Wakabayashi of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, is teaching “Rutgers Meets Japan: Revisiting Early U.S.-Japan Encounters,” an interdisciplinary honors seminar based on the Griffis Collection. This seminar examines this crucial moment of early U.S.-Japan relationship and cultural exchange as we commemorate the 150th year since William E. Griffis left for Japan. As curator of the William Elliot Griffis Collection at SC/UA, I am supporting the class through helping them access books, documents, and images from the collection. Assignments are based on primary sources and prints from the Griffis Collection and the Zimmerli Art Museum, which are posted on the course website. For the final project, students planned to curate an exhibition at the Alexander Library using materials from the Griffis Collection. The culmination of the course was meant to be a two-week field trip, “The Japan that Griffis Saw,” where the students along with Professor Wakabayashi and myself would visit in Fukui, Yokohama, and Tokyo.

On March 10, the class visited SC/UA to use maps and city directories to try to envision what New Brunswick was like at the time Griffis and Kusakabe were students. When we learned the next day that all Rutgers courses were going online after spring break, we had to adapt quickly. The planned exhibit was converted to a digital exhibit, which will be mounted on the course website ( The trip to Japan was postponed until January.

Access to the Griffis Collection was an even more difficult problem. In 2000, the Griffis Collection was microfilmed through an agreement with Adam Matthew, a company in the U.K. In 2017, Rutgers contracted with Adam Matthew to digitize this material, with a stipulation that Rutgers would get free access. When it became apparent that we would have no physical access to the Libraries for the rest of the semester, I followed up with Adam Matthew Digital regarding the status of the project. Thanks to Jeff Carroll, Elizabeth York, and their teams, the digital version of the Griffis Collection is now available through the database Area Studies: Japan, enabling students to access digitized primary source documents from the collection. Class discussion now takes place on the Canvas site. According to student Raj Malhotra, SAS ’22, “The transition to this digital classroom environment has come with its expected difficulties, but has shown us how to stay connected through the vast digital libraries and resources available for class meetings and teachings.” All are looking forward to the trip, which we hope will still take place.

Fernanda Perrone