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By Shawn McHale

We live in an age of globalization, where societies are increasingly interconnected. Thus it is no surprise that more than 3,000 George Washington University alumni call Asia their home. Few realize however, that GW’s founder, Luther Rice, traveled to Asia over two centuries ago, and that Asian students started coming to GW at the end of the 19th century.

As a professor of Asian history at GW, I have dimly been aware of the University’s long connection to Asia. Rice had traveled to India as a missionary in 1812. Henry Willard Denison, who attended the Columbian University School of Law in the 1860s, worked for the Meiji government of Japan from 1880 to 1914 and played an important role, behind the scenes, in the formulation of Japanese foreign policy.

But I wanted to discover more, especially about the Asian students who chose to study at a University almost halfway around the world. I dug into the University’s records and was taken aback by what I found. By the end of the 1880s, trailblazing Asian students had arrived at Columbian College (the precursor to GW) ready to learn. Even more surprising, I found that more than 90 Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, and Koreans attended the University before 1930, at a time when segregation shaped the daily life of the nation’s capital. Some of these alumni, armed with a new perspective on the world, went on to lead remarkable lives.

The History

By the end of the 19th century, America’s reputation as a modernizing and increasingly powerful nation began to attract Asian students. Their choice to study in America also reflected Asia’s turbulent transformation, a transformation accelerated by the impact of Western imperial powers on the region. During this period, Asians refashioned existing worldviews and experimented with new ideas and practices, including Western ones. In this process, the United States began to play a modest but growing role in Asian affairs.

GW’s location in the nation’s capital was undoubtedly a key reason why some Asians decided to matriculate at the University, and the school’s growing reputation in law and diplomacy attracted many of the earliest graduates. The first students, who were overwhelmingly male, tended to study law, diplomacy, and politics. As time moved on, Asian students also entered the medical, dental, and engineering schools, as well as Columbian College.

Japanese students were the first to arrive. At the end of the 19th century, the Meiji government in Japan pursued a policy of sending highly qualified students abroad for advanced training. The Japanese government expected these students to return home to help modernize Japan. Not surprisingly, many pursued their studies in the Law School, of course, but also in the School of Comparative Jurisprudence and Diplomacy (the forerunner of today’s Elliott School of International Affairs).

Filipinos soon arrived at the University through an accident of empire. In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain and, as a consequence, “won” the Philippine Islands from Spain. But Filipinos refused to accept their cession to the United States. One future graduate of GW, José Abreu, militated for independence from Spain in the columns of the famous Filipino newspaper La Independencia. When the United States entered the Philippines, Abreu became an officer in the Filipino forces and briefly took up arms against the United States. The bloody war that broke out in the Philippines dragged on from 1898 to 1902.

Abreu, who received a master’s and doctoral degree from GW, may have been the first Filipino to study in an American university. To help win over the Filipino elite, the United States government created the pensionado program, which provided fellowships for Filipinos to study in the United States. Starting in 1903, a small stream of Filipino pensionados began to attend GW. At first, they focused their studies on law, politics, and diplomacy, but they gradually expanded into other fields. They didn’t just work; they also had fun. Filipinos formed the first known Asian student group on campus, the Philippinesian Club, which was in existence by 1922.

Soon after the first Filipinos arrived, so did the Chinese. The first known Chinese student was Franklin Fong Hoh, who was a candidate in 1905 for a master’s degree in diplomacy. From this time onward a small but steady flow of Chinese came to the University to study in a wide variety of fields. The 1911 Cherry Tree noted that Hsen Shuen Foo of Shanghai was the first person from China to receive a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University. The 1918 Cherry Tree wrote that student Sum Nung Au Young “is one of our illustrious students from the Far East who has absorbed all the knowledge in the Political Science Courses and is going back to China to run the country.” Later in his life, Au Young also translated the Daoist classic, the Daodejing, into English.

Hard times still existed for these Asian pioneers in the nation’s capital. Okinawan immigrant Shokan Shima noted in “My Sixty Years in Washington, D.C.” from the book History of the Okinawans in North America that racial discrimination of African Americans and Asians in 1920s Washington was “terrible.”

“Whenever I saw a sign saying ‘Room Available’ or ‘Room for Rent’ and went to inquire, the white owner would come out, take one look, and flatly refuse me, saying ‘You’re Chinese. The room’s not for rent,’” he wrote. “If I replied ‘I am not Chinese, I’m Japanese,’ they would answer, ‘It doesn’t matter. I can’t rent to you anyway.’”

In 1919, the capital was also riveted by a triple murder at the Chinese Educational Mission. Two of the victims attended GW.

Still, many Asian students assimilated well to their new environment. At least two of the early Asian graduates married white women, which is notable because many states prohibited so-called “Mongoloids” from marrying whites. And two individuals, Philip Jaisohn and Masuji Miyakawa, became American citizens—another highly unusual development during that time as so-called “Mongoloids” born abroad were legally barred from citizenship. The 1920 U.S. Census offers one clue as to how Asian immigrants could evade such legal restrictions: Philip Jaisohn, native of Korea, is listed as white.

The Pioneers

So who are these early pioneers? They were intellectuals, entrepreneurs, civil rights advocates, authors, and politicians. While they came from different nations across Asia, they shared one important characteristic: They thirsted for knowledge. Here are a few examples of these accomplished Asian trailblazers who attended GW:

This stamp marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Tongnip Shinmun (The Indepent), Korea`s first privately published newspaper launched by Philip Jaisohn, MD ’82, in 1896.

Philip Jaisohn, MD 1892

Philip Jaisohn was a Korean nationalist who holds a secure place in history. Jaisohn (who changed his name from So Chae-p’il while in the United States) was born in the mid-1860s to a well-known Korean aristocratic family. As a teenager, Jaisohn traveled to Japan for further education and, upon his return, took part in a coup against the Korean monarchy. The coup was crushed, and Jaisohn fled to Japan and then to the United States.

After attending school in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Jaisohn moved to Washington, D.C. He became an American citizen in 1890 and later married a white woman, Muriel Armstrong. Jaisohn came to the University somewhat by happenstance. His interest in medicine was piqued through his job at the Army Medical Library translating Japanese medical texts. While working full time during the day, he attended GW’s medical school at night and received his degree in 1892. He was the first Korean to receive a medical degree in the United States.

Jaisohn spent a good part of his life fighting for Korean causes. In 1896, he returned to Korea and established the first Korean newspaper using the Korean alphabet (as opposed to Chinese characters). He also set up the Independence Club, which hosted lectures and group discussions on such topics as democracy and modernization. These actions are widely recognized as key developments in the Korean reform movement. But the Korean monarchy eventually struck back, accusing Jaisohn and others of wanting to overthrow the monarchy. Jaisohn, fearing arrest, fled the country once more and did not return to Korea until 1947. From the Korean diaspora, Jaisohn played a key role in militating for Korean independence. He died in 1951.

Showing the esteem in which he was held in Korea, his remains were transferred from the United States to Korea in 1994. In a ceremony attended by the South Korean President, Jaisohn was reburied in Seoul’s National Cemetery.

Kenkichi Kodera, BL 1900, LLM 1900, Doctorate in Civil Laws 1901

Kenkichi Kodera, who was born in 1877, came to GW at the very end of the 19th century. He earned three degrees from the University, which formed the foundation for his extensive understanding of international relations, politics, history, and law.

On returning to Japan, Kodera assumed a variety of roles. He was an entrepreneur, a millionaire, and a politician who later established a school. He occupied a seat in the Imperial Japanese Diet until 1926 but apparently left politics in that year after becoming tired of the “Fascist” tendencies of the military. From 1947 until his death in 1949, he served as mayor of Kobe.

Kodera has left an important intellectual legacy to Japan and was a key figure in pan-Asianism. The historian Sven Saaler notes that Kodera’s Treatise on Greater Asianism (1916) was “a central work in the history of the ideology of Asianism in modern Japan.” In Kodera’s view, Japan needed to adopt a “defensive” pan-Asianism, one that saw Sino-Japanese collaboration as essential. In this collaboration, Japan would take the leading role. Kodera articulated his views in racial terms. Faced with Western calls to stop the “yellow peril,” Kodera countered that the threat to Asia was from the “white peril.”

Kodera saw Western imperialism and racism as a threat that Japan and Asia would have to confront. But Kodera did not see his version of pan-Asianism as an excuse to conquer China or Southeast Asia, nor was he hostile to Western ideas and institutions. He was actually an avid reader of Western works and selectively embraced some Western legal institutions. Ultimately, Kodera seemed to believe that Asianism was a defensive response, one in which Asian integration would protect Asian countries from threats abroad. However, such a vision of a collaborative Asianism was pushed aside, only to be replaced in the 1930s by an Asianism in the service of Japanese militarism.

Masuji Miyakawa, LLM 1903

Masuji Miyakawa, a civil rights pioneer, was the first known Japanese student to be admitted to the bar in the United States, and he crusaded for better understanding between the United States and Japan.

Miyakawa was born in Fukushima prefecture, Japan, in 1870. From an early age he showed an aptitude for English, and he served as a translator for Japan’s War Department before traveling to the United States. After completing a bachelor’s degree at St. Joseph’s College, he came to GW and graduated with a Master of Laws degree in 1903.

Miyakawa continued his education at Indiana University School of Law, where he became a lecturer, and later became known as a noted author and prolific speaker. He wrote books in English on the American constitution and on Japanese affairs. But perhaps his most significant achievement, one that has been overlooked in the scholarship on Asian American history, was his pivotal role in fighting against the racial segregation of Japanese in America. He was a key player in a pioneering 1906 civil rights case in which Japanese in San Francisco were forced to attend segregated schools. Acting as an attorney for some of the excluded students, Miyakawa filed a petition in the U.S. Circuit Court for a writ of mandamus against the San Francisco School Board on behalf of an expelled pupil, I. Yasubara.

Miyakawa and the Japanese community mobilized opinion in the United States and Japan. Soon Japanese newspapers were pressuring the Japanese government to defend their compatriots in San Francisco, and the school board action soon became an international cause celebre. President Theodore Roosevelt, not wanting to antagonize the Japanese government, became involved in the issue and brokered the ultimate resolution in what has since become known as the 1907 “Gentleman’s Agreement.” Roosevelt agreed to stop further immigration of Japanese laborers into the mainland United States. In return, the San Francisco school board agreed to let Japanese back into white schools. The resolution of this dispute was a Pyrrhic victory. Nonetheless, Miyakawa and the Japanese community had won a historic victory against racial discrimination.

After another decade of writing, lecturing, and acting for greater understanding between the United States and Japan, Miyakawa died in 1916.

José Abad Santos, LLM 1909

José Abad Santos was one of the earliest Filipino students to come to GW. He eventually became chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court under American rule, and he is remembered in the Philippines as a martyr who was executed by the Japanese military on May 7, 1942. But the reason his death seemed so poignant, perhaps, was the way that he lived his life: He was a person of high intellect, deep faith, modesty, and honesty.

Abad Santos was born in 1886 in the town of San Fernando, Pampanga Province, the Philippines. In 1904, the Philippine government awarded him a fellowship to study in the United States. He studied briefly at Santa Clara College (San José) and the University of Illinois before completing his Bachelor of Laws degree at Northwestern. He then continued his education at GW, where he earned a Master of Laws degree in 1909.

José Abad Santos, LLM 1909 (upper far left), is comemmorated on this Philippine currency.

Once Abad Santos returned to the Philippines, he rapidly ascended to higher office. In 1919, he joined the first Independence Mission from the Philippines to the United States, whose task was to accelerate the ultimate transfer of sovereignty to the Filipinos themselves. By 1922, he had been appointed secretary of justice, which was equivalent to the position of attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice. He held this position twice. In 1932, Abad Santos was appointed as an associate justice to the Philippines Supreme Court, and on Dec. 24, 1941, after the Japanese military had invaded the Philippines, President Manuel L. Quezon named him chief justice. Finally, on leaving the country, Quezon designated Abad Santos as the de facto head of the Philippine government.

This list of impressive positions does not capture why Filipinos respected Abad Santos so deeply. Despite his high profile, he always maintained a concern for the poor and the dispossessed. Tributes to him refer to his high integrity, his concern for the common good, and his modesty.

The Japanese military arrested Abad Santos in April 1942 while he was traveling with his son and charged him with a trumped up crime. They sentenced him to execution. Roman Ozaeta of the Philippine Supreme Court recounted the story in José Abad Santos: Patriot and Martyr: [Abad Santos said:]

“ ‘This is a rare opportunity for me to die for our country: not everybody is given that chance.’ He enjoined his children to live up to his name. Then father and son knelt down together and said a short prayer, after which they embraced one another and separated forever.”

It is perhaps no surprise that Filipinos often refer to Abad Santos with such phrases as “national hero” or “martyr.” Today his image adorns the Philippine 100 peso bill, and GW honored him in 1958 with a special citation.

Abad Santos and the other Asian pioneers led extraordinary lives after receiving their GW education. Their accomplishments are many, but they should also be remembered for leaving this University a remarkable legacy.

Shawn McHale, formerly the director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies in GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs, is an associate professor of history and international affairs. He is currently a Fulbright-Hays fellow pursuing research in Vietnam on the decolonization and social upheaval during the first Indochina War. His work is affiliated with the Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City.

Other Notable Early Asian Students

• Syngman Rhee, the former president of South Korea

• Ayako Ishigaki, a Japanese feminist who wrote the memoir Restless Wave under the pen name Haru Matsui

• King Chu (Chu Ching-nung), an educational reformer and the former president of China’s Kuang-hua University

• Maximo Kalaw, a well known nationalist leader, helped to found the discipline of political science in the Philippines and was a novelist

• Masaichi Noma, the first known Asian graduate of GW, who received a Master of Laws degree
in 1890