Thursday, 12 October 2023
His footsteps had an urgency as he showed me some of the historical features of the Campus. Br Michael SJ, originally from the UK, has been a resident at the Jesuit-run Sophia University since 1965, and was delighted to regale a tall Sydneysider with tales of old about his beloved University, nestled in the heart of downtown Tokyo. “It took a lot of courage and a fair bit of luck to establish a Jesuit University in Japan in the early 1900’s. The then Government was supportive, but many hurdles remained. Even the purchase of the original building and grounds had a twist” Br Michael added.

Before the Meiji Restauration in 1868, Japan’s higher education was conducted in various institutions, i.e. teaching and research institutes, private academies, and Buddhist monasteries. In 1872 the Ministry of Education (Monbushō), which was only established the year before, declared the Education System Ordinance (gaku-rei). According to this ordinance the school system would follow the American model of the time of elementary and middle school and university. The first university—Tokyo University—was founded in 1877 and received the status of Imperial University nine years later. Since then, it has produced elite bureaucrats. Since the Education System Ordinance turned out to be too ambitious—only one of the eight planned universities was established—the Ministry made a new Education Order in 1879.

Until 1918 the status as a legitimate university was restricted to public institutions, i.e. Imperial Universities (Kyoto, Tokyo, Sendai, Fukuoka), but this changed under the University Order (daigaku-rei) in 1918 (taking effect in 1919) that allowed private and prefectural as well as municipal institutions to gain university status. This pattern was adapted from the European system of higher education “strongly dominated by the German articulation of academic organization” and “designed to produce educated manpower to meet political and economic needs, not to create broad opportunities for social development.  The hurdles presented to foreigners wanting to gain a presence in Japan were significant.   The most important requirement to gain the status was a “strong financial foundation,” which meant a deposit of 600,000 Yen to the Bank of Japan. Additionally, the facilities that were necessary, meaning a “sufficient number of qualified full-time professors and buildings deserving of a university,” must be provided. Into this heady environment stepped a small band of German Jesuits, flushed with the success of persuading the General that they needed to return to Japan for the first time since the atrocities of the Tokugawa Shogunate, where foreign missionaries, including Jesuits were tortured and massacred. My host at Sophia University points to the large brown administration building and proffers.. “You know, we have a little known link between Sophia University and the Peace Dome in Hiroshima. Let me explain.” He added.

Sophia University – the early years.

In the early Meiji era, the internationalisation in education was popular. Whilst many higher educational institutions hiring foreign consultants and organising travels overseas—Sophia University’s approach came from a different angle. The founders brought internationality with them before even establishing the School. This was also the case for other schools that were founded by foreigners, i.e., Christian missionaries. While Sophia University could fully fulfil their internationalisation, Japanese institutions did not have already established world-wide connections so that their internationalisation did not reach a similar degree until after World War II. In pre-war Japan, Sophia University was something of a rarity. On one of his many visits to Japan, Fr Joseph Dahlmann S.J. wrote to Fr Moritz Meschler, S.J., the German Assistant to the General in Rome, and expressed the necessity of the presence of Jesuits in Japan: “The French Parisian missionaries were not up to the task in particular regarding the spiritual presence” As a result of Dahlmann’s efforts, he was sent back to Japan in 1908 with French Henri Boucher, S.J. and English James Rockliff, S.J. and together they founded Sophia University in 1913. The fundamental principle of the university has been and still is Christian Humanism. This complies with the characteristics and goals of Jesuit education. One of the universities features that stands out the most is its early internationalisation.  While Sophia University was working towards following the private institutions that gained University status and acquiring the necessary funds of 500,000 Yen plus 100,000 Yen for the additional faculty, the 1923 Kanto earthquake turned out to be a major setback. The main building was destroyed and had to be rebuilt. The losses accounted more than 500,000 Yen. Fr Augustine Bea, who would later become Cardinal, agreed that the original grounds be kept and funds for the new buildings were acquired through a loan from the English Province of the Society of 500,000 dollars in March 1929.

Hiroshima link

The Jesuits in Japan turned to a young Czech born Architect to design a new main building for their post-quake Campus. Jan Letzel arrived in Japan in 1907 and designed about 40 buildings. His most famous design however was the huge Administrative Building of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Hiroshima, now the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. 

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) was built in 1915 as a facility to exhibit and sell products from Hiroshima prefecture. At the beginning of its establishment, it was called “Hiroshima Prefectural Products Display Hall,” but later it was renamed “Hiroshima Prefectural Product Display Centre” and “Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall.” At that time, most of the city centre of Hiroshima consisted of wooden two-story buildings, and these bold European-style buildings were very rare. The structure was partially brickwork using steel, and the exterior was made of stone and mortar. The whole building was composed with a three-story staircase, another five-story staircase in the centre and an oval dome of copper plate (about 11 metres long axis, 8 metres short axis, 4 metres high) placed on it.

August 1945 and the aftermath

The war in Europe concluded when Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945, and the Allies turned their full attention to the War in the Pacific. By July 1945, the Allies' Manhattan Project’ had produced two types of atomic bombs: "Little Boy", an enriched uranium gun-type fission weapon, and "Fat Man", a plutonium implosion-type nuclear weapon. The 509th Composite Group of the United States Army Air Forces was trained and equipped with the specialised Silverplate version of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress and deployed to Tinian in the Mariana Islands. The Allies called for the unconditional surrender of the Imperial Japanese armed forces in the Potsdam Declaration on 26 July 1945, the alternative being "prompt and utter destruction". The Japanese government ignored the ultimatum. The consent of the United Kingdom was obtained for the bombing, as was required by the Quebec Agreement, and orders were issued on 25 July by General Thomas Handy, the acting Chief of Staff of the United States Army, for atomic bombs to be used against Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki. These targets were chosen because they were large urban areas that also held militarily significant facilities. On 6 August, a Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later, a Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki. Over the next two to four months, the effects of the  atomic bombings killed between 90,000 and 146,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000 and 80,000 people in Nagasaki; roughly half occurred on the first day. For months afterward, many people continued to die from the effects of burns, radiation sickness, and injuries, compounded by illness and malnutrition. Though Hiroshima had a sizable military garrison, most of the dead were civilians.


By 1923, the Society of Jesus already had established a world-wide network the founders of the University could rely upon before arriving in Japan. As a result, Sophia University had a head start when it came to internationalisation. The challenge was rather the incorporation of Japan into their system of principles and beliefs. Ignatius viewed education not only as “a source through which to acquire knowledge but also as one of the most valuable ways to motivate students to grow in faith and virtue, which might lead them to better fulfil the ultimate end of their lives on earth”. And so it was and is at Sophia. In collaboration with Japanese authorities, the Jesuits have aimed from the beginning to develop it as a representative Japanese University. Over time, problems have been successfully worked out. In 2023, the 16,000 strong Campus is thus a mature product of Japanese and Jesuit educational experience, and one that is fully representative of Japanese national life. And with a firm handshake and a beaming smile, Brother Michael waved us off in the general direction of the Tokyo Metro, to join the other 6.8 million daily commuters as they headed home after work.

Daniel Bolger
Old Ignatians’ Union