On Ben's Farm

His Splendid Present
A Japanese student set an early example of how to study abroad

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Splendid Present
Tomokichi Hirokawa '[18]99 was the second international student to attend New Hampshire College; the first was a Bulgarian, Belezar Ruvesky '[18]86.

In Yokohama, Japan, on Dec. 7, 1895, Tomokichi Hirokawa, age 24, set sail for San Francisco aboard the immigrant ship SS China. After the 19-day ocean crossing, he took a seven-day train ride to Boston. His ultimate destination was Durham, where he would study electrical engineering at the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts. It was the beginning of a four-year cultural exchange between two countries half a world apart.

In Japan, Hirokawa had attended Doshisha College, founded by a former samurai who had left feudal Japan in 1864 to study in Boston. Perhaps the founder's example inspired Hirokawa; possibly the American missionaries he later tutored in Japanese encouraged him to apply to a tiny college in New Hampshire. Japan itself was undergoing a remarkable transformation at the time, and going abroad was no longer illegal. For Hirokawa, the opportunity to study in the "Land of Liberty" was, he later wrote, a "splendid present God gave to me."

Hirokawa threw himself into the college experience. Writing for the New Hampshire College Monthly, he described his train trip across the country for his classmates, few of whom had probably ever traveled that far in their own land. "I rather wished, if I had time to waste, to go more slowly, on foot, that I might better observe the country I crossed," he wrote. He also provided a hint of what it is like to be a foreigner in a white world. Many people, he said, "probably out of curiosity," engaged him in conversation. "Most of them were polite and kind." He described meeting a young Indian boy at a train station. "I have read and often heard of them and their great resemblance in many respects to our Aborigines, 'Aino,' who live now in the Northern Island. They are both very honest and brave people, but unfortunate in their destiny. I, having seen the descendants of Hiawatha for the first time, felt, in some way, sympathy with them."

Splendid Present

In another article, he wrote about his years at Doshisha College, reminiscing about the students' leisure activities. The New Hampshire students could relate to many of these—hunting, hiking, boating—but one was uniquely Japanese. "We were very fond of dancing, not with girls, but with long swords, while we sang poems written by our patriots." He treated the students to a demonstration of Japanese sword dancing at a QTV fraternity party. When the senior class went to Dover to have photos taken, Hirokawa proudly wore his kimono.

After graduation, he went on to study electrical engineering at MIT, graduating in 1900. Returning to Japan in 1901, he sent notes to friends at the college once or twice a year updating them on his activities. The first, arriving in November 1902, was written in Japanese with a postscript explaining that this was his wedding announcement. Future letters followed his career path from physics teacher at Doshisha College to chair of the Kyoto Electric Light and Power Plant. In 1905 he mentioned that health problems were preventing him from taking a tour of the world offered to him by his company. Finally, in 1909, the college received a letter saying that Mr. Tomokichi Hirokawa had died on Feb. 10. He was 38.

In Japan, Hirokawa left a small fortune to his wife and four children. In the United States, he left friends and colleagues whose world views were larger and richer for having known him.

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