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Manuscript Records of Traders, Travellers,
Missionaries and Diplomats- 1853-1941

Part 2: Journals and Student Essays
Part 3: Correspondence and Scrapbooks
Part 4: Collected Papers of Brown, Perry and others
Part 5:
Writings by Griffis

Biographical Note

William Elliot Griffis was born on September 17, 1843, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The second son in a large family, early in his life he was exposed to decisive influences of family and culture. His mother, a devout churchgoer, instilled in Griffis a profound faith and confidence in Christianity. His father was a coal-merchant, involved in the rapid expansion of international trade in the burgeoning nineteenth century American economy, travelling as far away as Europe, Africa, China and the Philippines. Among the significant events of his early life, Griffis later recounted with pride his witnessing, from his father's shoulders, the launching in 1850 of the USS Susquehanna, the largest steamship then built, which was soon to be used by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry as flagship on the historic mission to open the far-away island empire of Japan. Again, Griffis recollected, in 1860 he was in the crowd of admirers when the first Japanese embassy to the US toured the city.

Griffis served briefly in the Civil War in Pennsylvania's 44th Regiment. After the war, aware that advancement in his chosen fields of divinity and letters required higher education, Griffis entered Rutgers College in the class of 1869. It was at Rutgers (notwithstanding his earlier brushes with the East) that Griffis first became properly aware of Japan. A classmate and close comrade was Robert Pruyn, Jr., son of Robert H Pruyn, the successor of Townsend Harris as US Minister to Japan from 1861-1865. Among Griffis's and Pruyn's activities at Rutgers, their founding of the Rutgers Targum is memorable. Of much greater significance, however, was the appearance at Rutgers of the first Japanese students to come to the US to learn English and Western sciences.

The first Japanese students in the US were directed to Rutgers through the offices of the Dutch Reformed Church Board of Foreign Missions in New York. They were 'Ise' and 'Numagawa', the assumed names of the Yokoi Brothers, nephews of the reformer Yokoi Heishiro. Soon joined by others, notably the brilliant Kusakabe Taro and the flashy Soogiwoora Ko-Zo (Hatakeyama Yoshinari, briefly to be Superintendant of the Kaisei Gakko in Tokyo), these students formed the nucleus of a thriving community of expatriate Japanese, ambitious and proud young men determined to master Western learning for the benefit of their emerging nation. Not only did Griffis move in the same social circles as the Japanese, but also tutored a number of them, including Kusakabe, in English and Latin.

It was natural, therefore, that Griffis should be offered a position "for a young man single not a minister to go to Japan and teach Nat[ural] Sciences and organize educational work generally". The offer was forwarded by D T Reiley of the Rutgers Grammar School: the applicant was to go to the province of Echizen, whose Daimio, Matsudaira Shungaku, was among the most forward-looking Japanese statesmen of the pre-Meiji period. Griffis, perhaps still unsure of his professional course after a year at the Union Theological Seminary, but undoubtedly fascinated by the possibilities, accepted and sailed for Japan. He arrived in Echizen in early 1871.

Griffis's work in Echizen (renamed Fukui) and, after a year, in Tokyo at the Kaisei Gakko (later to become Tokyo University), and his contributions to educational reform, have been discussed by historians. A number of series in the Griffis Collection, most notably the Student Essays (in which are collected a number of essays written as school assignments by Griffis's Japanese students, and saved by him), represent this work. Of at least equal significance, however, was Griffis's freelance work in Japan. Travelling widely, and moving in social circles with missionaries and other yatoi as well as with the élite of the early Meiji government, Griffis worked from the beginning with awareness that in Japan, he had a subject for which his methods of working were well suited. He immediately began writing for the popular press, both the English-language press in Japan and for American periodicals and reference books. In 1874, he returned to the US where he sensed that his career prospects as a writer were considerably enhanced by his exposure to a field of study still largely open. And this proved to be the case, as was demonstrated by the publication in 1877 of The Mikado's Empire. The book, the first monograph to treat Japanese history and culture systematically for an American and British audience, met with immediate critical and popular success, and eventually went through twelve editions.

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