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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 747


This is the grave of Kanichi Asakawa.

Born in 1873 in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima, Japan, Asakawa grew up in the newly transformed western-facing Japan. His father was a former samurai who was teaching elementary school after the samurai were disbanded in 1868. Asaklawa attended Waseda University in Tokyo before moving to the United States to study at Dartmouth College. He graduated from there with his B.A. in 1899 and then went to Yale for a Ph.D. that he completed in 1902. This was the era when Japan and the United States were developing close ties that included quite a bit of intellectual and military cross-fertilization.

Asakawa taught at Dartmouth for a bit and then went back to Tokyo, where he was a professor at Waseda in 1906 and 1907. But he wasn’t fully welcome in Japan at that point. A strong believer in peace and an opponent of militarism, Asakawa publicly criticized the growth of Japanese militarism in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War. He was already a rising historian of Japan, publishing The Early Institutional Life of Japan in 1903 and then The Russo-Japanese Conflict: Its Causes and Issues in 1905. In 1907, Asakawa returned to the U.S., becoming a professor at Yale. He was the first professor from Japan in the history of American universities. He continued as a specialist in medieval Japan for his long career. He was also the curator of the East Asian Collection in the Yale libraries and worked closely with the Library of Congress to build its Japanese collection.. He published The Origin of Feudal Land-Tenure in Japan in 1914. Other books included The Documents of Iriki and The Land and Society in Medieval Japan, a collection of essays published in 1965, well after his death. Unfortunately, Yale did not follow through with a real program in Japanese Studies and Asakawa never trained any Ph.D. students of his own. What interest that did exist in Japanese Studies in the U.S. during these years was at west coast universities, particularly Stanford.

As U.S.-Japanese relations began collapsing in the late 1930s, Asakawa was besides himself. A proud immigrant to the United States and a deep opponent of what had happened to his home nation, he was horrified. He did try to reach out to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, asking to contact Emperor Hirohito by telegram in order to avert war. In fact, Roosevelt actually did send a letter after reading Asakawa’s note, but by the time it reached Japan, the attack on Pearl Harbor had already happened. As a Japanese immigrant, Asakawa was in physical danger during World War II. But the Yale community gathered around him in support and Japanese immigrants east of the Cascades/Sierra Nevada were not subject to the American concentration camps anyway. Asakawa seems to have lived a quiet life during the war, dying in Vermont in 1948. He was 74 years old.

Kanichi Asakawa is partially buried at Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut. However, some of his remains are Kanairo Cemetery, Nihonmatsu, Japan.

If you would like this series to visit other Japanese-Americans, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. The great historian Ronald Takaki is in El Cerrito, California and the writer John Okada is in Seattle. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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