Did you know that Benjamin Franklin has Japanese descendants? What about that the only Quaker school in Japan was founded by Philadelphia’s long-standing Quaker community? Or how about that the tiny locomotive that kicked off Japan’s legendary railway developments was built here in Philadelphia?
Philadelphia has always been central in American history. As one of the oldest cities in the nation, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a spot where something important happened. Blue signs mark historic businesses and residences across Center City, showing a who’s who of Founding Fathers among the city’s preeminent early population. You may also be surprised to know that Philadelphia also has a long history with Japan and the Japanese people.
Philadelphia’s lengthy relationship with Japan is documented in a book published by the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia in 1999, the Phila-Nipponica. As part of the 20th Year celebrations at JASGP, it was decided to substantially update the volume in a second edition. Now, after a lot of hard work from all the contributors, the second edition is ready. The Phila-Nipponica is a wonderful guide to the ties connecting Philadelphia to Japan. This unique book is written in Japanese and English, both contained in the same volume. The facts mentioned earlier are just a small part of what one can learn from this informative book.
The descendants of Benjamin Franklin, the Irwin family, became linked with Japan in 1866, when Robert Irwin took a job with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and was posted to Japan. Later, Irwin and his wife, Takechi Iki, became the first couple to be married based on formal legal arrangements between the United States and Japan. Irwin’s daughter, Sophia Arabella, would later go on to found Irwin Gakuen, a Kindergarten teacher training school in 1916, furthering both Benjamin Franklin’s and the Irwin family’s dedication to the field of education.
Philadelphia has always been the center of America’s Quaker community, dating back to Pennsylvania’s founding as a colony. It is only fitting then, that Furendo Gakuen, was founded by the Women’s Foreign Missionary Association of Friends of Philadelphia in 1887. Like many missionary schools of the time, Friends Girls School, as it was then known, depended on the financial support of Philadelphia’s Quaker community. Teachers from Philadelphia were a hallmark of the school’s staff for a number of years.
Perry’s pint-sized locomotive was built by Richard Norris and Company in 1853. The following year, it went to Japan on board one of Commodore Perry’s “black ships.” Upon arrival in Japan, the miniature locomotive on a circular track near Yokohama delighted the assembled Japanese crowd, who later displayed the engine in the Naval Academy in Tokyo. This locomotive was Japan’s first exposure to railways, which contributed to Japan’s development in the early Meiji period, and which Japan would later bring to new heights, becoming known globally for a religious adherence to timetables, and building the world’s first dedicated high-speed rail network, the Shinkansen.
The authorship of entries in the book span a wide range of backgrounds, including area professors and archivists, local Japanese residents, and native Philadelphians with a strong connection to the Japanese community. While a book full of information about historic Philadelphia and Japan might seem a bit intimidating, all the entries are written in a casual prose, often accompanied by primary source excerpts and many photographs. In addition, the book also serves as a practical guide to Philadelphia’s historic areas. Each anecdote in the book gives the address and location of Philadelphia’s and Japan’s relevant landmarks.
The Phila-Nipponica is a wonderful resource for both Japanese and American lovers of Philadelphia. As a book, it illuminates a relatively unexplored area of local history. The Phila-Nipponica: An Historic Guide to Philadelphia & Japan is available for purchase on Amazon, for $24.99.