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College Ties With Japan Remain Strong

By Elizabeth Vogdes

The College has a long, mutually rewarding history with its Japanese alumni. Many have gone on to impressive careers in international relations and international business and, despite their distance from Pennsylvania, remain connected to their alma mater as boosters for the Swarthmore style of education.
When Ken Matsumoto ’58 first came to Swarthmore, he did not know what to expect. “For any Japanese student to study at an American college for four years … was so attractive in those days, I would have grabbed any such opportunity,” he explains. “I had no idea about the College until I actually arrived at the campus.”

Nearly 15 years later, Hidemichi Tai ’72 came to Swarthmore, and like Matsumoto was sponsored by the Grew Bancroft Foundation (named for two U.S. ambassadors to Japan). Both men are current directors of the organization, which continues to provide financial aid for Japanese students at American liberal arts colleges.

When Makoto Watanabe ’61 arrived at Swarthmore, he already possessed an undergraduate degree from the University of Tokyo and enrolled as a trainee in the Japanese foreign service, another long-term sponsor of Japanese students in the United States. He deliberately sought a small liberal arts college to gain the best understanding of American life, and because Matsumoto, among others, highly recommended it.
All three alumni have had distinguished careers. As a foreign-service officer, Watanabe worked at multiple posts worldwide and later as grand chamberlain to the emperor, a job that he notes is similar to the private secretary of the queen of England. Matsumoto and Tai were businessmen, the former focusing on the steel industry and general trade matters and the latter establishing a Tokyo office for an American financial services firm.

Matsumoto, a longtime admissions interviewer and class agent, has been described by one alumnus as the “mastermind” who organizes gatherings of the 60-plus alumni living in Japan. In 1996, due to Matsumoto’s initiative and Watanabe’s diplomatic skills, Swarthmore’s then-president Alfred H. Bloom signed a student exchange agreement with the University of Tokyo’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Rebecca Chopp’s 2011 visit to Tokyo midway through her second year as president underscores the considerable esteem in which the College holds its graduates in Japan, and that country’s alumni enjoy returning to Swarthmore and following the College’s developing Japanese program.

These alumni pioneers helped pave the way for the current generation of students studying Japanese language and culture. While some students interested in these topics claim Japanese ethnicity, others are of non-Japanese ancestry. During the 2011–2012 academic year, nine Japanese citizens attended the College.
Their predecessors, Matsumoto, Watanabe, and Tai all feel strongly that Swarthmore provided an invaluable foundation for their careers.

“My motto throughout my working years has been, ‘If I survived Swarthmore, I could survive any place and situation,’ ” Tai remarks wryly. “And I did.”

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