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By Nina Belova

Today, about 8% of all students at Todai are international students (according to the university’s homepage). It is about 2,500 people in number, and 80% of them are from Asia. It is a quite low rate compared with other prestigious universities around the world. This fact drives Todai to enrich programs for accepting international students.

In this article, I am not going to discuss globalization strategy. I will leave that topic to others. What I want to do here is to invite you to a historical trip. Let’s fly back to 100 years ago, and discover who was the first international student at Todai.

Komaba Campus at dusk. Photo by author.

Komaba Campus at dusk. Photo by author.

His name is Sergei Grigorievich Eliseev. He was born in a rich family in today’s Saint Petersburg, when Russia was still an empire. Like many other Europeans at that time, he had a strong interest in the East. When he was studying in Berlin, he met Izuru Shinmura, Japanese linguist known for compiling Kojien (the most authoritative dictionary in Japan), and decided to go to Japan. It was in 1908.

At that time in Meiji period, the Japanese tried to learn as much as possible from western cultures. Japanese government had sent a number of students to Europe, so they knew how it is difficult to come, live and study in a foreign country. Eliseev got a lot of help from various people at Todai. It took him more than a month to come to Japan, using the brand new Trans-Siberian Railway. He became the first foreign student who was allowed to enter Todai, and started to study Japanese literature.

His life as a student in Japan was quite flamboyant. He never had a problem with money and loved parties. He tried any kind of Japanese entertainment including Kabuki, Rakugo and playing with Geisha. He learned a lot of Japanese expressions from these kind of activities, so he had a strong Shitamachi dialect (working-class accent). It is said that he had a nice sense of humor and was handsome, he was quite well off with plenty of girls around him.

However, Eliseev never forgot the reason why he came to Japan; to study. In fact he was a great student. He acquired Japanese soon and studied Japanese literature of different historical periods. Soseki Natsume gave him his own book with Haiku written for him, and Eliseev kept it as a treasure for the rest of his life. In the final exams, he got 82 points out of 100. It was the third highest grades among all students, so he graduated with honor.

There is an interesting episode about his graduation ceremony. For his high grades, he was allowed to sit in the front row, just in front of Emperor Meiji. It was a great honor even for a Japanese student. However, Russian biographer Vasili Molodyakov claims that he was treated unfairly. He says that Emperor Meiji presented a golden watch to all students with high grades, except Eliseev, for being a foreigner. Eliseev was disappointed, so was the president of Todai, who decided to present him a silver watch few years later. This story shows that the university was very supportive for him, knowing that the difference in race means nothing in academic fields.

Soon after his returning to Russia, the Russian Revolution broke out. Because of his noble roots, Eliseev exiled himself to France, and later to the United States. He continued studying about Japan at Harvard University, and became a father of Japonology. It is a famous story that during the World War Ⅱ, he entreated Douglas MacArthur not to attack Jimbo-cho area in Tokyo, because he knew that there are millions of precious old documents. He saved Japanese history from burning.

Over 100 years had passed since Eliseev, the first international student of Todai, passed the Akamon gates. Japan and the university has undergone many big changes, but is still fascinating young people around the world. Eliseev was able to lead a good life as a Todai student not only for his own open-minded character but thanks to the help of many people in the university. It seems that Todai today is struggling to accept more international students in order to catch up with other prestigious universities. However, the main reason for proceeding with the globalization strategy is to reach out a helping hand to students who truly want to come to Japan, not just a simple increase in number, isn’t it?

Nina is a first-year student at the University of Tokyo. 

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