A Japanese student pioneered Akron in 1905

Most residents of Akron had never encountered a Japanese immigrant until Iwahiko Tsumanuma came to town.

The 27-year-old became a local celebrity in 1905 when he enrolled at Buchtel Academy, a preparatory school run by Buchtel College, the forerunner of the University of Akron.

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Tsumanuma, who also went by the anglicized name of Thomas Rockrise, was happy to share his culture and customs with the community.

Japanese student Iwahiko Tsumanuma is pictured in the Buchtelite in 1905.

Most of what the citizens of Akron knew about the Land of the Rising Sun came from reading newspaper articles about the Russo-Japanese War of the time or attending performances of the Gilbert & Sullivan musical. “The Mikado” at the Colonial Theater.

In the early 1900s, Akron had a population of over 43,000, almost all white except for 500 African Americans and a handful of Chinese immigrants who operated laundries on North Howard, South Main, West Mill streets and East Mill.

Tsumanuma took a circuitous route to get here.

Born in 1878 in Yamagata, he left Japan around 1900 to continue his studies, traveling through Sumatra and China before settling in India.

“I took a train to Mussoorie from Calcutta, a distance of about a thousand miles,” Tsumanuma later wrote. “The journey passed through the vast plain of the Ganges, where naked Hindus farm in the hot, dazzling sun alongside elephants, and where ancient structures still rise to the heavens. I arrived in Dehra Dun after nearly thirty From there my journey held me for another four hours on horseback, climbing the gray, muddy, narrow path, eleven miles to Mussoorie.

Wanting to improve his English, Tsumanuma enrolled at Philander Smith Institute, a Methodist boarding school in Mussoorie, converted to Christianity, and was baptized as Thomas Rockrise.

“I thought India would be the best place to study English,” he told the Beacon Journal. “I thought so because I thought the language there, from the lips of the English to the country, would be pure, and being so close to Japan and close to China, it would be easy to switch from language to language. It’s also a country where life is cheap, but the climate is bad and I went to America.

Tsumanuma took a boat through the Suez Canal, visited Italy, and crossed the Atlantic to the United States, arriving in New York on September 23, 1904. While reading a Universalist newspaper, he saw an advertisement for Buchtel College and thought it would be a good place to improve his English.

Buchtel Academy was a preparatory school operated by Buchtel College in Akron.

“Our Japanese Student”

He wrote letter after letter to the president of Buchtel Augustus Church until the administrator invited him to Akron to join the academy.

John Ball, senior library associate at the University of Akron Archives and Special Collections, recently discovered a 1905 Buchtelite article titled “Our Japanese Student.”

“Mr. Rockrise, as we observed him, is what one might call a good boy,” reported the college newspaper. say and above all independent. The very fact that he supports himself, a state of affairs which could only exist in America, would naturally draw us to him. He has seen many people and no one can spend an hour or two with more profit than conversing with him. We are sure to say that he will be happy to meet anyone who is not motivated by mere curiosity.

The Buchtelite added: “The particular accent due to his foreign birth adds to the pleasure of his conversation.”

It was not a glamorous life in Akron. Tsumanuma earned his tuition by working as a house servant for President Church, where he showed “great skill in performing household chores of all kinds except cooking”. Church described the student as “very alert and lively”.

Japanese student Iwahiko Tsumanuma paid for his tuition at Buchtel Academy by working as a servant at the home of the president of Buchtel College.

Shared Asian Culture in Akron

Tsumanuma intended to demystify the culture of his native land. He wore a kimono, walked on bamboo stilts, lectured in churches in Akron, sponsored Japanese parties, flew a Japanese flag, played traditional music on a flute, sponsored a bazaar, exhibited pictures and relics, including a dagger, an umbrella, a fountain pen. and handkerchief.

In 1907, he staged a Japanese play featuring 40 characters and played the lead role of a groom at a wedding. He imported paper from Japan and taught origami to his classmates, having them fold thousands of artificial cherry blossoms for production.

“America’s First Japanese Play,” read the headline of the Beacon Journal.

“Harvard may boast of its plays in the original Greek and other colleges of their French and German dramatic accomplishments, but Buchtel College has the distinction of producing the first play in America in actual Japanese form, with every detail carefully copied after the authentic and with a part produced in Japanese.

At the end of the wedding ceremony, the actors stood up from a kneeling position and shouted “Banzai!”

Tsumanuma has had many adventures. He spent his 1906 summer vacation as a butler in the Connecticut villa of a Rhode Island millionaire, working 12-hour days and sleeping only six hours. That summer, he also read a 600-page book on United States history, studied three books on geometry, and wrote over 100 letters.

He visited Niagara Falls and crossed the suspension bridge on the Canadian side. When Tsumanuma attempted to return, an American inspector accused him of being a Chinese national trying to enter the country illegally. The Akron student’s fluency in English prevailed that day. After 30 minutes of questioning, the inspector let him pass.

Even in Akron, people could be suspicious.

When Tsumanuma visited a local laundry, hoping to practice his Chinese with the owner, the owner accused him of being a foreign spy and ordered him to leave.

The Japanese-American War in Doubt

The citizens of Akron often sought Tsumanuma’s opinion on world events. After Japan defeated Russia in battle, he was asked to comment on the prospect of future conflicts.

“I do not believe that there will ever be a war between the United States and Japan”, he predicted on December 8, 1906. “Never will the Japanese people feel anything but friendship for the Americans and their nation. We owe you too much and we are not an ungrateful people.

“We realize that without the United States, our nation would still be asleep. It was America’s encouragement that made Japan want to move forward and learn the modern ways. Anyone who says there will be a war is doing a great injustice to the Japanese.

Tsumanuma graduated from Buchtel Academy in June 1907, presenting his thesis on “Samurai in the Feudal Age”. He studied mechanical engineering for a year at Buchtel College, becoming the first Asian student in the school’s history, before offering sayonara to Akron.

No one guessed that he would be famous.

Acclaimed in Architecture

He transferred to Syracuse University in 1908 and four years later earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture, one of the first Asian Americans to do so. Moving to New York, he apprenticed at an architectural firm and worked on the JP Morgan & Co. building on Wall Street.

Iwahiko Tsumanuma and his wife, Agnes, take a portrait with their son, George Thomas Rockrise, circa 1917 in New York City.

In 1915 he married Brooklyn socialite Agnes Asbury and they had a son, George Thomas Rockrise, on November 25, 1916.

One of the first licensed Japanese-born architects in New York, Tsumanuma opened his own practice in 1917 and became famous for the Beaux Arts style. He has traveled the world, designing buildings from New York to Miami to Tokyo to Beijing to Shanghai.

He built hotels, banks, libraries, offices, gymnasiums, galleries, museums, restaurants, apartments, mansions and a 600-bed hospital.

At the height of his career, he contracted tuberculosis and sought treatment in a sanatorium. Iwahiko Tsumanuma died on February 5, 1936, at the age of 58.

His son carries on the tradition

George Thomas Rockrise also became a famous architect and urban planner. He studied in Syracuse just like his father and earned a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University. During World War II, he was the architect of the Panama Canal.

He was an architect for the United Nations headquarters in New York and designed dozens of buildings, from shopping malls and university halls to atomic laboratories, hotels, residences and estates. Among the monuments were an American embassy in Bahrain and an American consulate in Japan

Rockrise moved to San Francisco, joined the faculty of the University of California, and became president of the American Institute of Architects.

He died in 2000 at the age of 83 in Sonoma, California.

All these buildings, all over the world. Father and son have transformed the skylines of countless cities in dozens of countries.

“Our Japanese Student” really made a name for himself after leaving Akron.

Mark J. Price can be reached at [email protected]

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