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In our 120th anniversary year, Matt Wilce takes a look at the origins of ASIJ and the remarkable women responsible for founding the Tokyo School for Foreign Children.
It is Saturday, September 23, 1877 and Nora is on her way to a third floor recitation room in Middle Hall at Rockford Womens’ Seminary to sit a teaching exam. Examinations are stressful at the best of times, but even more so when you don’t have the paper needed to complete them, so when Nora encounters another flustered young woman she offers her help. Laura Jane had just arrived—paperless—from Cedarville, but had found the school’s office closed. Nora, a small 17-year-old from Manchester, Iowa, handed her some of her own papers and the two went into the exam room to try their fate together. Mrs Carpenter, the County Superintendent of Schools, had no mercy on prospective teachers and Nora found the exam full of difficult problems. Both Nora and Laura Jane sat with worried expressions as they worked their way through them. Neither needed to worry as both would pass and become students of the Class of 1881.
Described as vivacious, a brilliant student and steadfast friend by her contemporaries, Nora received excellent grades and progressed quickly both in and out of class. Her Latin was strong, she was active in the Vesperian Society, secretary of the Society of Mission Inquiry for 1879–80, and by her senior year she was president of the Presbyterian Branch of Foreign Missions. She was also known for her rebellious antics and sense of humor. Her friend, who was simply known as Jane, was no academic slouch either and equally liked a bit of fun. Late at night the girls would gather for clandestine parties in her room after carefully covering the transom with a blanket as a blackout. While they read each other Romeo and Juliet or debated Darwinism, they used the dorm wood stove to boil candy, popcorn and even cook oysters. Oil lamps were used to fry eggs in buttered paper boxes, which turned out not to be the most dangerous activity they’d attempt.
Jane convinced her friends to experiment with drugs and four girls joined her in swallowing crushed opium pills. Her hope was that they’d induce hallucinations and insight into the work of the essayist DeQuincey, whose Dreams they planned to read. “We solemnly consumed small white powders at intervals during an entire long holiday, but no mental reorientation took place, and the suspense and excitement did not even permit us to grow sleepy,” Jane wrote in her memoir. “About four o’clock on the weird afternoon, the young teacher whom we had been obliged to take into our confidence, grew alarmed over the whole performance, took away our De Quincey and all the remaining powders.” It is unclear whether Eleanor was one of the girls the teacher administered the emetic ipecac to and sent them to their rooms to recover. Had the foreboding Headmistress Anna Peck Sill found them, the outcome would have undoubtedly been much worse.
Hijinks aside, Nora and Jane were both accomplished serious women—at their graduation Nora was the Salutatorian and Jane the Valedictorian. Miss Sill wrote in the school catalog that her purpose was to “develop moral and religious character in accordance with right principles, that it may send out cultivated Christian women in the various fields of usefulness.” The Class of 1881 did not disappoint in that regard. Jane Addams would go on to become the first female American Nobel Prize winner for her work at Hull House in Chicago. Nora, known now as Eleanor Frothingham, would go on to be one of ASIJ’s founders and first administrators, missionary, and professor of modern languages at Westfield College, Illinois.
Eleanor didn’t head off to Japan immediately on graduating. She instead returned to Manchester to begin her career teaching German and music, before moving on to schools in Morrison, Wisconsin and Corning, Iowa. At the Corning Presbyterian Academy, Eleanor Frothingham taught academic courses such as Latin, English, and history and served as Vice Principal for the 1886–87 school year. Religion was taught by Rev. Barnabas C. Haworth, a bachelor five-years Eleanor’s elder who also acted as the school’s pastor. By the end of her tenure, Eleanor became Mrs Haworth after marrying Barnabas on September 24, 1887, shortly before their departure to become missionaries in Japan on October 20. Jane Addams described Barnabas as “a very pleasant gentleman with no trace of the missionary cant about him” who ”talks very intelligently upon Japanese prospects and affairs.”
The Haworths arrived in Japan in the fall of 1887 and lived first in Kanazawa, Kobe, and Osaka while conducting their missionary work. Eleanor makes it clear in one missive written in 1898 that she was too busy with duties at home and educating her children to write descriptive letters about Japan, as had been suggested by the head of her mission. Instead of writing about Japan herself, she sent along several letters that Mr Haworth had written to her and to three of their older children Wallace, Chloe and Porter while on his trip around southern Japan. Around 1900, the Haworths moved to Tokyo’s foreign settlement in Tsukiji, occupying a home owned by the Presbyterian Mission. It is there that Eleanor first heard of another missionary wife Agnes Coates’ efforts to consolidate three already existing home schools.
Agnes Coates was born Sarah Agnes Wintemute on September 9,1864 on a farm near Port Stanley, Ontario. The eldest of eight children and daughter of a sawmill and factory owner, she had a respectable middle-class, protestant upbringing. Agnes obtained her Mistress of Liberal Arts degree from Alma College, a Methodist academy in St Thomas, Ontario. The principal of the college, Benjamin Fish Austin, encouraged his female students to think of themselves as “man’s peers in rights, privileges and duties.” For Agnes, who had ambition and an appetite for adventure, this meant the unusual step of taking on mission work as a single woman. After graduation, she was selected by the Woman’s Missionary Society (WMS) to go to Japan, making her only the third woman they had sent to the country. Turning down a teaching position at Alma College, Agnes set out for Tokyo at the age of 21.
She began her new life in September 1886 working at the Toyo Eiwa Jo Gakko, a boarding school run by the WMS, and thrived despite a busy teaching schedule. Impressed by her performance, the WMS sent Agnes to establish a new school in Kofu in 1889, making her the only non-Japanese in the area at the time. Japan was considered to be much safer than China for women and female missionaries were much more likely to work alone than in other parts of Asia. With Agnes as principal the school quickly flourished to the point new buildings were required and by the time she left for Canada on furlough in 1892, it was well-established.
When she returned to Japan after a year at home, she did so as Mrs Harper Havelock Coates. She wrote that while she did not find Harper, a fellow missionary who had first gone to Japan in 1890, particularly good looking, she had decided that “he would probably be a comfortable man to live with.” The marriage meant that due to regulations Agnes had to resign from her previous duties and perform more informal duties in support of her husband’s missionary work. In addition to teaching Sunday School, writing articles for Motoko Hani’s pioneering women’s magazine, and running a myriad of meetings, Agnes was also raising her children—all six being born between 1895 and 1906. Although she had the help of four servants at home, Agnes described herself as “the busiest woman in Tokyo.” With the schooling of her own children, and those of the other missionaries, becoming more pressing, Agnes began to consider what educational options were available.
Probably the most advanced of the small schools operating in Tokyo at the time was Miss Fannie McCrae’s School in Tsukiji. Established by its eponymous headmistress in the Foreign Concession, the school was well-established and probably a decade old by the time Agnes became familiar with it. Miss McCrae, as she was simply known, had some considerable success, attributed to her “extra-ordinary [sic] personality” by the Japan Christian Yearbook. In 1894, a letter to the Japan Weekly Mail from RJ Kirby notes that in addition to Miss McCrae, who had obtained her bachelor’s degree in London, the school had three other well-qualified teachers—Miss Dawson and Miss Wallace from the United States and a German teacher Miss Zitelmann. “Two boys, last summer, passed the matriculation examination for Harvard,” a 1897 letter to the same newspaper comments before continuing to give examples of other students who transitioned to well-known institutions in their home countries. Agnes herself noted the school’s academic reputation and tight organization in her letters.
A handwritten note in the school archive mentions that several children had previously attended a small school in the German Mission compound operated by the Bridel sisters. Louis Adolphe Bridel, a renowned Swiss lawyer, abolitionist, and early champion of women’s rights, taught at Imperial University at the time and it is likely that the note refers to Amelie and Marguerite Bridel, two of his five children.
Mrs Myrtle Hagin also operated a home school from her residence in Koishikawa. Myrtle and her husband Fred Hagin met while they were both attending college in Eureka, and arrived in Tokyo in 1900 as missionaries with Fred taking oversight of the work of Hongo Church near to the Imperial University (now Tokyo University). Myrtle described those years as “mainly teaching and caring for the children” referring to Edith (Class of 1913), Dan (Class of 1917) and Fanny (Class of 1919). In addition to her home school, Myrtle also taught Bible classes for young Japanese men and women and ran a Sunday school.
It seems to have been during the time that Agnes volunteered her teaching skills at the Koishikawa school that she and the other women there conceived of the idea to bring the three home schools together under one roof. “During the past year a school for a limited number of children has been conducted by two ladies at Koishikawa, the results of which have been such as to lead to larger plans for the ensuing year,” the Japan Weekly Mail wrote on July 18, 1903. “Last June Mrs Coates of the Canadian Methodist Mission called a number of the missionary mothers together to see what could be done in the way of establishing a school for our children,” Eleanor wrote home to her Mission Board in 1903. It was felt by those women involved that a proper school would allow mothers to do direct mission work and their children would be better educated. Eleanor assured Mr Speer that this was not just women’s ideas, for there were also “consultations with leading men of several missions” which finally led to the Prospectus, a small pamphlet which she enclosed.
Agnes was already known for her “good business head” having established the Yamanashi Eiwa Jo Gakko. When it came to founding a school for the international community, outside of the framework of any single entity, she was savvy enough to ensure that prominent men from the community were asked for their input about the idea of the Tokyo School for Foreign Children. On July 1st, the “committee of ladies”— presumably Agnes, Eleanor, Myrtle, and others—met with Bishop William Awdry, Professor John Trumball Swift (from Imperial University and correspondent of the New York Sun), Richard J Kirby (a British merchant and Consul for Chile), who had some involvement with Miss McRae’s school in Tsukiji, and Agnes’ husband Rev Harper Coates.
Daniel Crosby Greene, was also no doubt also consulted about the plans to open a school. Greene—who had experienced the challenges of raising his eight children in Tokyo first hand—was a luminary of the missionary world and was one of a three-man team charged with the responsibility of first translating the New Testament into Japanese. Greene was immediately and deeply interested in the idea of a good school in Tokyo that would be open to all, regardless of nationality, religion, or class. Greene would later Chair the School’s Board between 1904–12, and advocate for funding from philanthropists back in the States such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.
The Japan Weekly Mail reported that plans “to immediately start an intermediate department and a primary department, including a kindergarten for children from 4 to 12 years of age were formally approved” at the meeting. The committee also decided to organize an academic course to prepare older children for entrance into college. Following the meeting Eleanor wrote that, “It fell to my share to make out the Course of Study which ... will show you the kind and amount of work we hope to do.” The committee also asked Eleanor to take charge of the school as the principal for the coming year—something she wrote she “was happy to do having had six years experience in teaching before coming to Japan, tho it is considerable of a responsibility when so many nationalities are concerned.”
Following the meeting a group of Patrons was established, which in addition to the men who had attended, included the great and good of Tokyo: Rev Dr Daniel Crosby Greene, Sir Claude MacDonald (British Ambassador to Japan), Lloyd C Griscom (United States Minister to Japan and newspaper publisher), Bishop John McKim (Anglican Bishop of Tokyo and Chancellor of Rikkyo University), Captain Francis Brinkley (Anglo-Irish owner of The Japan Mail and scholar), Rev Benjamin Chappell (Dean of the School of Theology Aoyama Gakuin), Rev Harvey Hugo Guy (professor of Greek and philosophy and Dean of Sei Gakuin), Rev Samuel Willis Hamblen (American Baptist Mission), Rev Henry M Landis (American Presbyterian Mission) and Dr Ludwig Hermann Loenholm (German professor of law at Imperial University).
In addition to this powerhouse board of patrons a Committee of Management was also established, which included: Ransford S Miller (who acted as treasurer) and his wife Lily from the American Legation, Emily Pengeley Buncombe (whose husband William was with the Christian Missionary Society), Myrtle Hagin, and the wives of some of the Patrons: Alice Hamblen, Joanna Kirby and Isabel Swift. Agnes Coates was appointed as the Chairman of the Committee and Business Manager of the school with Eleanor Haworth installed as Principal.
Time was of the essence as the school was slated to open just a month later in September. The committee had agreed that tuition revenue would be enough to allow them to hire Miss Carrie Newman from Vancouver, as the Superintendent of the Primary and Kindergarten Departments. The other grades would need to initially be staffed by the trained teachers already in the community such as Mary Chappell, who had taught at Ingleside Seminary, and specialist teachers such as Mary E Lloyd, graduate of South Kensington School of Art, French teacher Emily Pengeley Buncombe, who graduated from Rouen Academy, and German teacher Emma Landis who graduated from the Royal Normal School for Women in Dresden. Classics would be taught by Prof Takizo Takasugi from Waseda University who had previously taught at DePauw University in Indiana, while the Ueno Academy of Art would supply someone to teach wood carving and clay modeling. The school’s Prospectus was quickly put together and published—it remains the oldest surviving document in ASIJ’s archive.
“The school opened the twenty-fourth of last month [September 1903] with an enrollment of fifty-eight. There are others coming soon,” Eleanor wrote home. (She was right and by the 1904–05 school year 122 children were enrolled.) “We have rented rooms in the YMCA Building, but it is a very inconvenient arrangement,” she added, explaining that only one or two rooms were available all day, and others only for an hour or so at a time. The complications of renting a piano that must be kept in one of the classrooms, yet be used for practice by students presented her a puzzle in how to arrange things. Agnes remembered things differently and later wrote that seven classrooms were rented.
No doubt it was Ransford Miller, who had originally come to Japan in 1891 as a secretary of the international committee of the YMCA, who facilitated the use of their building at 3 Mitsohiro-cho, Kanda. The Prospectus describes it as being in “a healthy part of the city on a broad, quiet street.” One advantage to the location was that the new electric tram service stopped right outside. Although the classrooms in the brick building provided a convenient place to begin classes, the need for a permanent facility was evident from the start. The Prospectus noted that: “A building that can be used exclusively for the school, and, if possible more centrally located, will be secured as soon as funds will allow.” In the following year, the school relocated to three buildings in Tsukiji—one formerly used by the Tokyo Union Church, the Parish House of the American Episocopal Mission and a smaller building belonging to the Church Missionary Society—in what was the first of many moves during its first three decades.
Agnes later wrote that “three-fourths of the pupils were from missionary homes at first,” which was not surprising given those involved in its conception. She was clear to point out that other community interests were included, with representation from the business community on the Board as well as an international faculty and student body. “The school has not closed its doors to the Japanese tho we can only take a small proportion. We now have Dr [Inazo] Nitobe’s adopted son [Yoshio Class of 1913],” Eleanor wrote at the time. Nitobe, who had converted to Christianity while at University in Hokkaido and later to Quakerism while studying at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, was an educator, diplomat, and prolific author best known in the West for his book Bushido: The Soul of Japan (1900)—later his portrait graced Japan’s ¥5,000 note between 1984–2004. He and his wife Mary Elkinton, who he had met in Philadelphia, had adopted Yoshio, who attended ASIJ from 1903–06, following the death of their son Thomas.
Despite the fact that the Tokyo School for Foreign Children began classes in September 1903, the official date of the school’s founding would prove to be contentious in the future. Agnes always maintained that school began in 1903 and wrote several times to dispute the 1902 foundation date preferred by later administrations. In 1935, she wrote a three page document on the early history of the school, which she followed up with a further five pages that addressed the date issue and other inaccuracies she had found in a student essay printed in The Japan Times. She wrote that It would not have been possible for the school to open any earlier due to the lack of tram service, referring to the newly formed Tokyo Densha Tetsudo that began operating an electric tram service between Shimbashi and Shinagawa in the summer of 1903.
However, since 1910, references to the school’s beginning had claimed a 1902 starting date, suggesting that the discussion and plans for the Tokyo School for Foreign Children on the part of the Koishikawa teachers, including Agnes, and the establishment of their school in Myogadani was the “real” start of the school. The 1902 date was consistently used thereafter. In both the 1920s and again in 1935, the 1903 start date was brought to the attention of the Board of Trustees as the only possible one, but in both cases the Trustees preferred to use 1902 as the starting date. That date has been used ever since.
Foundation dates aside, what is indisputable is that the school’s existence is due to the determination, experience, and intelligence of the women involved and the support they received from the wider community for their well-considered plan. It is worth remembering how few women received formal education beyond the lower grades at the time and yet the missionary wives involved in ASIJ’s founding held college degrees and were experienced educators themselves. Over the years many have repeated the story of a group of mothers getting together to start a school. While that may be true, it is a little reductive and those involved were qualified beyond just being mothers. Agnes Coates, Eleanor Haworth, Myrtle Hagin and their colleagues were also well-educated, professional teachers who saw the necessity and value that a good school would provide the international community. Although Agnes would not approve of the date, we celebrate our 120th Anniversary this year and recognize that without their work we would not be here today.
Life at school is full of stories and the narrative of where our vision will take us is told each day through the learning our students experience in the classroom and beyond.