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Three Jesuit priests arrive at the port of Yokohama

Three Jesuit priests arrive at the port of Yokohama

On October 18th 1908, the three Jesuits who would be the founders of Sophia University arrived at the port of Yokohama aboard the German steamship Princess Alice. These three Jesuits were: first, the German priest, Rev. Joseph Dahlmann; next the French priest, Rev. Henri Boucher, who had worked in China for many years; and finally the English priest, Rev. James Rockliff, who had worked in America. Shortly later, two other Jesuits joined them. One was Rev. Hermann Hoffmann, a scholar of philosophy, who became the first president of Sophia University. The other was Rev. Yachita Tsuchihashi, a Japanese who had graduated from the Sorbonne in Paris and was well versed in astronomy, mathematics and Chinese literature (he was to be the third president of Sophia University).

As one can see from this lineup of founders, Dahlmann himself well understood the deep relationships among Japanese culture, Indian culture, and Chinese culture. As he proceeded with the foundation of the university, he requested that the Jesuit headquarters in Rome assign to Japan Jesuits who had backgrounds in various areas of Western learning and those who understood Eastern thought. Currently Sophia University puts strong emphasis on its internationality. One can see how deeply rooted such internationality is from the very beginnings of the university when one considers the academic backgrounds of the founders of the university.

The three founders rented living quarters in Myogadani in the section of Tokyo then called Koishikawa-Ku and started to look for a suitable site for a university. From time to time, they sent reports to the Jesuit headquarters in Rome. In one letter, they describe one Protestant university in Tokyo, Meiji Gakuin University, as having three thousand students. One can infer that they were planning a university on a similar scale.

Soon they received from the Jesuit headquarters some money for purchasing a site and constructing university buildings. With this $215,000 (\430000), they were able to acquire the current university site in the Kojimachi section of Chiyoda-Ku. The area of the site purchased was 4300 tsubo (note: a tsubo is about two square meters). The original area purchased now includes part of Building 3, all of Building 1, and the site of SJ House. The cost of the land alone, however, was \100 per tsubo, so all of the money from Jesuit headquarters was used up in purchasing the land and there was none left for building any school buildings. At this point Rev. Dahlmann contacted the German bishops with a request for funds, and thanks to the generous donations of the Catholics in Germany the funds to construct the school buildings were acquired.

After that, the permission to found a university was received from the Ministry of Education of Japan. Sophia University was thus born under the law for special schools with faculties of commerce and of literature. Because the newspaper advertisement that announced the details of university admission could only be placed on March 31st, there were only fifteen students when the university opened on April 21st. Since the school building was still under construction, the first classes were held in the building that is now called the Kulturheim, in a building called the Oshima-kan that was later torn down and in some nearby wooden residences. Construction of a three-story redbrick school building was completed the following year (1914) on a site where part of the current Building 3 now stands.

During the ten years that followed, Sophia University was going to have to walk along a road of thorns. First, Sophia University had been placed under the sponsorship of the North German province of the Society of Jesus. During the First World War, all donations from Germany were cut off. Since Germany was an enemy of Japan during that war, President Hoffmann and the other German Jesuit professors were all put under house arrest. The inflation that followed the war reduced the value of contributions from Germany to practically nothing.

In 1918, many of the private universities in Japan, such as Waseda University and Keio Gijutsu University, moved up from the status of being under the law of special schools to that of being under the law of universities. Because of an inability to deposit the required amount of money with the Japanese government, Sophia University could not move up to university status until 1928. Even worse, during the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923, the three-story redbrick school building was damaged. The second and third stories of the building financed by the generous contributions of the Catholics of Germany collapsed in an instant. The remaining first story was repaired and the second floor was replaced by a temporary wooden structure.

Sophia University made good use of the terrible experience of the collapse of the school building during the Great Kanto Earthquake when the time came in 1932 to build the very strong building now called Building 1. However, in the autumn of that year, some Sophia students who were involved in on-campus military training refused to bow in the direction of the Yasukuni Shrine. The military authorities pressured the university in return. Thanks to the unfavorable reports in the newspapers, the number of applicants for admission dropped precipitously. Simultaneously, Germany passed a law that imposed very severe restrictions on overseas financial transfers, with the result that sending funds to Sophia from Germany became impossible.

With the onset of the Second World War, Sophia became the target of increased military pressure because it was based on Christian educational principles. At one time, the government tried to force a merger between Sophia and then-Kooa Institute of Technology (the present Chiba Institute of Technology), but fortunately the war ended before that plan could be realized. During the war, in June 1943, the mobilization of college students started with the announcement of the cancellation of the law that allowed for delays in conscription. College students who passed the conscription medical examination were inducted into the military. Most Sophia students thus entered the student corps of the military. Even worse, during the air raid bombing of greater Tokyo on the 13th and 14th of April, 1945, fire destroyed the wooden addition to the redbrick school building completely. One might be thankful that the damage was not greater. The author of this historical description (Klaus Luhmer, professor emeritus) was at that same time in the Novitiate buildings of the Society of Jesus in Hiroshima, a city that was soon to experience an atomic bombing.


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