Portraits of Early Graduates | A Reflection on Hope’s Japanese Heritage

Konnichiwa! My name is Andy Nakajima. I teach Japanese at Hope College.

Did you know that the 1/3 of the graduating class of 1879 was Japanese? You may not be able to believe it, but it is true. (Hope College had 6 graduates of that year and 2 of them were Japanese, so technically 1/3!

Hope College has a long history with Japan. Hope’s religious affiliation, the RCA (Reformed Church in America) was the first Protestant denomination which sent missionaries to Japan. Because of the long-standing relationship, Hope has been blessed with many presences of Japanese students since the 1800’s. At one point in the 1800’s, Hope had 12 Japanese students. Historically speaking, that means that Hope College had the highest numbers of Japanese students among liberal arts colleges in the States at that time. Here is the excerpt from the Portraits of Early Graduates about the first two Japanese students, Kimura Kumaji and Oghimi Motoichiro.

Hope’s first two Japanese students: Oghimi Motoichiro (left) and Kimura Kumaji (right)

“Kumaji Kimura was born in 1845 in Kyoto, Japan, and came to the United States to pursue his education after the fall of Tokugawa Shogunate. He arrived in San Francisco in late 1870 and made his way to New York, where he was introduced to Hope’s first president, Dr. Philip Phelps, who was on the East Coast to raise funds. Upon learning that Kimura had no sponsors or means of staying in the United States, Phelps offered to take responsibility for him.

Motoichiro Oghimi, born in Tokyo, Japan, also sought to acquire an education with Kimura, traveling in the same boat from Yokohama. Like Kimura, he had no firm plans or funding. Phelps, Kimura, and Oghimi took the train to Albany, and from there, the two Japanese students traveled to Holland. The two Japanese men lived with Phelps and his family in Van Vleck Hall while polishing their English skills. By the fall of that year, their language acquisition was sufficient enough that both were enrolled in the preparatory school and were later promoted to the college.

The influence of Dr. Phelps and his family went beyond providing a home and securing an education for the students. In a letter to Phelps’ daughter some years later, Oghimi wrote, “My sole object of going to America was to study something that would give me distinction and honor in my future career. This worldly ambition made me decidedly disinclined towards religion, but, since I came to Holland, I was struck with the happy state of the Christian homes, something I had never found in Japan. At last, I came to the conclusion that Christianity was what made them so different from others. I began to study the Bible more earnestly.”

On June 1, 1872, both Oghimi and Kimura were baptized at Hope Church by the Rev. Abel Scott.

The conversion to Christianity and the influence of a Christian education impacted the work of both men. Following their 1879 graduation from Hope (both delivered addresses during the graduation ceremony), they went to New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey and graduated in 1882. Following ordination to the ministry, both returned to Japan to serve the church there, first as missionaries, and later as pastors of the indigenous church.

Kimura served local congregations, including the church in Nagano. He and his wife and brother founded Meiji Women’s School, a school for women in Tokyo, with funds raised among Japanese Christians. Kimura also founded Komoro Gijuku School in Nagano. He died in 1927.

Oghimi served as a pastor and teacher, as well as a lecturer at Union Seminary and the principal of Steele Academy in Nagasaki. He taught at the Methodist Protestant Theological Seminary in Nagoya and was the author of the first Greek-Japanese lexicon. He died in December of 1941 at the age of 97.”

In the Martha Miller Center rotunda, the portraits of Kimura and Ogimi hang on the wall. I hope you have a chance to see them and think about the journey they took 150 years ago! (Attached is the picture of Kimura and Oghimi.)

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