by Margaret DeRitter
Just after the turn of the 20th century, when America was enthralled by all things Japanese, a young writer from Japan spent nearly a year studying French at Kalamazoo College.
Sokichi Nagai’s college experiences would provide the inspiration for two short stories in his book American Stories (published in Japan in 1908 and America in 2000).
Nagai, who used the pen name Kafu Nagai, returned to Japan in 1908 and became one of the most prominent writers there by the 1920s and ’30s.
His “ home” in Kalamazoo (127 Elm Street, where he lived during his year at “K”) may get a historical marker. Jeffrey Angles, an associate professor of Japanese at Western Michigan University, plans to file an application with the state. He also has worked with WMU’s Soga Japan Center and WMU and “K” alumni in Japan to raise funds for the sign.
But Nagai (1879-1959) was not the only Japanese student at “K” in 1904-05. Katsuji Kato (1885-1961), the first Japanese graduate, was a freshman then. And it was Kato, Angles believes, who formed the basis for the main character in Nagai’s story “Atop the Hill.”
Angles did research on Nagai and Kato for a 2006 article in the Japanese journal Mita Bungaku, relying on information from Professor Emeritus of History David Strauss, the College archives and the Kalamazoo Gazette. His research shines a light on these two figures and their college connections and gives a glimpse into American attitudes toward the Japanese at the time.
In reading “Atop the Hill,” Angles said, he was struck by how the narrator describes a setting that’s “dead-on” in its similarities to “K.” The story is set at a small-town, denominational college “situated among leafy trees atop a small hill.” The narrator arrives by train and is surprised to find another Japanese student, Mr. Watano, “leading a strangely anguished life.”
Watano’s struggles over religion and sexual desire seem to mirror to some extent the experiences of Kato, a Japanese Christian. During graduate studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Kato wrote an M.A. thesis “The Psychology of Sin: Its Significance to Religious Education” and a Ph.D. dissertation, “The Psychology of Oriental Religious Experience: A Study of Some Typical Experiences of Japanese Converts to Christianity.”
The other Nagai story set at Kalamazoo College, “Spring and Autumn,” features entangled relationships among three Japanese students.
Arriving in Kalamazoo
How Nagai ended up at “K” is a bit of a mystery. He came to the U.S. in 1903 after his father discouraged him from traveling to France. He lived in Tacoma, Washington, and interacted with working-class Japanese. “All of his stories written about that time were about these Japanese laborers and the unsavory characters of the Japanese underworld,” Angles said.
In 1904, Nagai went to the St. Louis World’s Fair and was considering heading to Louisiana but was persuaded the climate would be bad for his health, according to his diary. On Nov. 16, he wrote, “Upon people’s recommendation I have decided to enter a school in a small town named Kalamazoo in Michigan.”
Angles said those people may have been Baptist missionaries in Nagai’s hometown of Tokyo, since three of their children were attending the College. Nagai’s mother was a Christian, and his adopted brother was a Protestant minister, according to a 1985 article by Strauss. Kato, a native of Osaka, likely also heard about “K” from the missionaries, Strauss wrote.
Nagai arrived in Kalamazoo by train in late November. On Nov. 22, he wrote, “The nights are so cold in this place you feel it’s going to freeze you to the bone.” But he later came to treasure winter in Kalamazoo. On Dec. 16, he wrote, “My heart is especially charmed when I hear the bells of a sleigh that is rushing through the quiet, snowy city …. When I hear the sleigh bells, I feel just like I am a character in a Russian novel.”
Nagai liked Kalamazoo’s rural aspects and welcomed racial attitudes that he saw as better than those in Tacoma. He wrote to his younger brother on Dec. 24, 1904, “I am very happy here in Kalamazoo, as everybody is very kind to me. I’m no longer treated like a Jap.”
Sharing their Culture
At “K,” Kato created Japanese-style illustrations for the student publication Index. He also participated with Nagai in the Century Forum, which offered a Japanese program on May 5, 1905. “The music consisting of a Japanese song by Mr. Kato and a bamboo flute song by Mr. Nagai were exceedingly characteristic and such as one would hear in any Japanese city to-day,” said the Index.
In town, Kato talked to the Twentieth Century Club about Japanese literature and to the Ladies Library Association about “The Etiquette of Japan.” During the same programs, missionary daughter Ora Scott discussed the clothing and customs of Japanese women and children.
Nagai shared copies of Japanese newspapers and magazines for a program on Japanese journalism and spoke to the group on another occasion about how Japanese celebrate the new year.
In a Gazette interview published July 11, 1905, Nagai revealed his attitude toward U.S. women: “No American girl can be the one that I shall marry. American girls know too much: they have too much education.” Yet, after he moved to New York City to work at a bank, he fell in love with an American prostitute named Edyth.
Much has been written about Nagai’s life after college, including his fascination with geishas, prostitutes, and female entertainers.
“His novels were mostly about men who go to the pleasure quarters of Tokyo and meet geisha, especially ruined, tragic geisha who had no choice but to turn to prostitution,” Angles said. “He was very much fascinated with the old, decaying world of Tokyo, those elements of its old quarters that were being wiped out by the refashioning of Tokyo into a modern city.”
In 1965, Edward Seidensticker wrote a biography of Nagai called “Kafu the Scribbler.” In the 1970s, Katsuhiko Takeda tried to retrace Nagai’s life in America. His book, “Kafu’s Youth,” was never translated into English, but in 1987 Takeda gave a lecture at Kalamazoo College on American literature’s influence on Nagai.
Nagai’s adopted son still lives in Tokyo, and Angles met him once. The son has written about Nagai but cannot speak now because of throat cancer, Angles said.
Nagai’s popularity in Japan is evidenced by the fact that every year several Japanese stop to see the house on Elm Street where he lived. But until recent years, Nagai’s admirers were looking at the wrong house. They did not know that in the mid-1920s his residence was renumbered from 121 to 127, the number it retains today. Angles set the record straight in 2006.
“I was really impressed with Jeffrey’s research,” Strauss said. “It was a revelation when I read that. There had been talk previously about the College buying the house. It would have been unfortunate if we had bought the wrong house,” he said, laughing.
Strauss would like to see greater awareness of Nagai’s connection to Kalamazoo College. “I found it just astonishing when I first heard about it,” he said. “How unlikely that a major Japanese writer would have spent a year in Kalamazoo.”
"Every year Japanese stop to see the house on Elm Street..."
Kato After ‘K’
As for Kato, Angles was able to learn much about his life through correspondence with his daughter Kimiko Mochida of Yokohama, Japan.
Kato graduated from “K” in 1909 and attended Rush Medical College in Chicago. He married and had six children before his wife died in 1930. He practiced medicine in Chicago until 1942, becoming an assistant professor of pediatrics. He also edited The Japan Review, a journal for Japanese students in the U.S.
“Then World War II comes along, and it’s suddenly really bad to be Japanese in America,” Angles said. “The governments of the United States and Japan agreed to send boats to repatriate Americans living in Japan to America and Japanese living in America to Japan.”
Kato returned to Japan reluctantly, along with at least some of his children. “America was now his home, and his kids were American,” Angles said. “I get the impression that this was quite a traumatic experience.”
Kato remarried in Japan and had more children, including Mochida. He became a professor at a Tokyo medical school, then head of an Osaka hospital. When Americans started shutting down schools that had been nationalistic, Kato was able to save the medical school, Angles said.
Mochida told Angles her father had a hard time becoming accustomed again to Japanese life, especially the “closed and feudal world” of the medical establishment. She speculated that this difficulty was the reason he focused for 10 years on creating an English-Japanese medical dictionary. “The year after he completed the dictionary he died, as if he had burned himself out,” she wrote.
Toward the end of his life, he liked to study Noh drama. He also had a rose garden and would spend hours out there smoking his pipe.
Kato’s Integrated English-Japanese Medical Dictionary has been updated many times and is still widely used in Japan, though his name no longer remains in the title, Angles said.
A Different Era
Although many of today’s K-College students may not know of Nagai and Kato, the language, history, and culture of Japan are a significant part of the curriculum, which they were not in Kato and Nagai’s day.
The East Asian Studies program includes a minor in Japanese, and each year about 50 students take Japan-related classes. Nine students are planning to study in Japan this year, and five Japanese students were enrolled on campus last year.
A campus lecture series named after Nagai is an ongoing reminder of the young writer from Japan who once spent a few seasons in Kalamazoo. His sadness upon leaving was expressed in a diary entry from Dec. 3, 1905: “In tears, I kissed the snows of Michigan good-bye.”
Photo 1 - Katsuji Kato, Class of 1909 (Photo courtesy of Kato’s daughter, Kimiko Mochida)
Photo 2 - The Century Forum at Kalamazoo College, with Katsuji Kato in the back row, far right.
Photo 3 - The cover of the January, 1905, College Index features illustrations by Katsuji Kato.
Photo 4 - Kafu Nagai lived at 127 Elm St. in Kalamazoo while he attended Kalamazoo College. (Photo by Margaret DeRitter)
Photo 5 - Kafu Nagai looks out from the house in present-day Roppongi, Tokyo, where he lived from 1920-45. (Kyodo photo)
Photo 6 - Kafu Nagai sports the Order of Culture after the award ceremony on Nov. 3, 1952. The Order is conferred annually by the emperor of Japan to men and women for contributions to Japan’s art, literature or culture. The citation accompanying the award referred to “his many works replete with a warmly elegant poetic spirit, with an elevated form of social criticism, and with a penetrating appreciation of reality.” (Kyodo Photo)