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Identifier: MC 1015

William Elliot Griffis Collection


  • Majority of material found within 1859-1928

Scope and Content Note

The William Elliot Griffis Collection (East Asia) in Rutgers Special Collections and University Archives is approximately 120 cubic feet in size. The collection also includes approximately 120 cubic feet of unprocessed material assembled by Griffis that documents Holland; New York State and American history (including the 1779 Sullivan Expedition against the Iroquois); and many other topics. The East Asian material comprises five sub-groups: the William Elliot Griffis Papers, the Margaret Clark Griffis Papers, the Griffis Family Papers, Papers Collected by Griffis, and Griffis Related Materials. Document types include papers, publications, photographs, ephemera and artifacts created and collected by William Elliot Griffis, one of the first foreign employees (yatoi) of the Japanese Government during the second half of the 19th century, and the foremost interpreter of Japanese culture for the American public from 1876 to the First World War.

Over a fifty-year period spanning the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, William Elliot Griffis was well known as a popular author and lecturer, a "Japan hand" who was perhaps the foremost American expert on Japan and the Far East and on American relations with East Asia. After returning to the United States in 1874, Griffis embarked on a career writing and lecturing on Japan and related subjects. His 1876 volume The Mikado's Empire was for decades the authoritative reference in the West on Japanese culture and history.

The entire range of his output is represented in the Griffis Collection at Rutgers. Manuscripts, in various stages of completion, are joined by copious notes on Griffis's many projects and interests: Japan, its history and religion; Korea and China; important figures in the history of Japanese-U.S. relations from Millard Fillmore and Matthew Calbraith Perry to the missionaries Guido Verbeck, James Ballagh, J.C. Hepburn and Samuel Robbins Brown; fine and applied arts; folklore; current events and world affairs; biblical literature; theology and the challenges offered Christianity by its exposure to the religions and cultures of the East, and so on.

In addition to the considerable quantity of Griffis's own work, his working subject files contain remarkable source materials on the various issues in which he was interested. The materials Griffis gathered, even more abundant and broad-ranging than those he himself produced, include numerous items rare or unique to the collection and of great historical interest. Among them, notably, are not only numbers of very rare printed materials in Japanese—books, pamphlets, maps—from the late Tokugawa and Meiji periods, but also nearly 350 manuscript essays written in English by Japanese students of Griffis and Margaret Griffis, on numerous subjects: growing up in pre-Meiji Japan; Japanese history (including contemporary history); customs; games; theater; occupations and crafts; religion, folklore and superstitions. Another valuable asset of the Griffis papers is their reflection of the popular image of Japan in the American public as it developed up to the turn of the century and beyond. Furthermore the papers' extensive documentation of the American popular press (Griffis carefully saved notices and reviews of his own and others' work), and his personal contacts with publishers and audiences, offer a close view of nineteenth-century American popular and intellectual culture. As a result of his work as a public speaker the collection contains many materials in media besides print, notably photographs, lantern slides, and oversize material including maps, prints, broadsides, and posters. The collection also includes a small group of artifacts that Griffis acquired in Japan.

Parts of the Griffis Collection were microfilmed in 2000. Researchers are requested to use the microfilm to access the JOURNALS and SCRAPBOOKS series, which are very fragile. The microfilm has now been digitized and is available at Rutgers and by subscription through the Area Studies: Japan database.

Because the Griffis Collection is used so frequently by visiting groups, some originals and reproductions of particular interest have been separated and stored in Boxes X, Z, and the Fukui Exhibition box.


120 Cubic Feet

Language of Materials


Biographical Note

William Elliot Griffis was born on September 17, 1843, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The second son in a large family, early in his life he was exposed to decisive influences of family and culture. His mother, a devout church-goer, instilled in Griffis a profound faith and confidence in Christianity. His father was a coal merchant, involved in the rapid expansion of international trade in the burgeoning nineteenth-century American economy, traveling as far away as Europe, Africa, China and the Philippines. Among the significant events of his early life, Griffis later recounted with pride his witnessing, from his father's shoulders, the launching in 1850 of the U.S.S. Susquehanna, the largest steamship then built, which was soon to be used by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry as flagship on the historic mission to open the far-away island empire of Japan. Again, Griffis recollected, in 1860 he was in the crowd of admirers when the first Japanese emissary to the U.S. toured the country.

Griffis served briefly in the Civil War in Pennsylvania's 44th Regiment. After the war, aware that advancement in his chosen fields of divinity and letters required higher education, Griffis entered Rutgers College in the class of 1869. It was at Rutgers (notwithstanding his earlier brushes with the East) that Griffis first became properly aware of Japan. A classmate and close comrade was Robert Pruyn, Jr., son of Robert H. Pruyn, the successor of Townsend Harris as U.S. Minister to Japan from 1861 to 1865. Among Griffis's and Pruyn's activities at Rutgers, their founding of the Rutgers Targum is memorable. Of much greater significance, however, was the appearance at Rutgers of the first Japanese students to come to the U.S. to learn English and Western sciences.

The first Japanese students in the U.S. were directed to Rutgers through the offices of the Dutch Reformed Church Board of Foreign Missions in New York. They were "Ise" and "Numagawa," the assumed names of the Yokoi Brothers, nephews of the reformer Yokoi Heishiro. Soon joined by others, notably the brilliant Kusakabe Taro and the flashy Soogiwoora Ko-Zo (Hatakeyama Yoshinari, later briefly to be Superintendent of the Kaisei Gakko in Tokyo), these students formed the nucleus of a thriving community of expatriate Japanese, ambitious and proud young men determined to master Western learning for the benefit of their emerging nation. Not only did Griffis move in the same social circles as the Japanese, but also tutored a number of them, including Kusakabe, in English and Latin.

It was natural, therefore, that Griffis should be offered a position "for a young man single not a minister to go to Japan and teach the Nat[ural] Sciences & organize educational work generally." The offer was forwarded by D.T. Reiley of the Rutgers Grammar school: the applicant was to go to the province of Echizen in Japan, whose Daimyo, Matsudaira Shungaku, was among the most forward-looking Japanese statesmen of the pre-Meiji period. Griffis, perhaps still unsure of his professional course after a year at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, but undoubtedly fascinated by the possibilities, accepted and sailed for Japan. He arrived in Echizen in early 1871, teaching there for a year before moving to Tokyo, where he taught English and Chemistry for three years at the Kaisei Gakko (later Tokyo University). In Tokyo, he was joined by his sister Margaret Clark Griffis, who also worked as a teacher and participated in the modern revolution of Japanese women's education (and whose papers are also preserved in the Griffis Collection).

Griffis's work in Echizen (renamed Fukui), at the Kaisei Gakko, and his contributions to educational reform have been discussed by historians. Of at least equal significance, however, was Griffis's freelance work in Japan. Traveling widely, and moving in social circles with missionaries and other yatoi as well as with the elite of the early Meiji government, Griffis worked from the beginning with the awareness that in Japan, he had a subject for which his methods of working were well-suited. He immediately began writing for the popular press, both the English-language press in Japan and for American periodicals and reference books. In 1874, he returned to the U.S., where he sensed that his career prospects as a writer were considerably enhanced by his exposure to a field of study still largely open. And this proved to be the case, as was demonstrated by the publication in 1877 of The Mikado's Empire. The book, the first monograph to treat Japanese history and culture systematically for an American and British audience, met with immediate critical and popular success, and eventually went through twelve editions.

Griffis's subsequent career was built on this success. After studying at Union Theological Seminary to realize his goal of becoming a minister, he embarked on a fifty-year career of preaching, lecturing, and writing. He served as pastor at three churches: the First Reformed Church in Schenectady, New York; Shawmut Congregational Church in Boston; and First Congregational Church in Ithaca, New York, before retiring in 1903 to devote himself full time to writing. He authored over fifty books and innumerable journal articles and entries in encyclopedias and reference books, including a great many on Japan, the Far East, and the American role in the Pacific. Over the same period, Griffis maintained his contacts both with Japanese students and associates as well as with other Westerners involved in work with Japan, including missionaries and yatoi (foreign employees of the Japanese government). He was part of what today would be called a Japanese-American network. In 1926-1927, Griffis made a return visit to Japan. He died the following year.

Biographical / Historical

Chronology of Events

Born September 17 in Philadelphia, the fourth child of seven and second son, to John Limeburner Griffis and Anna Maria (Hess) Griffis.
Observes the launching of the U.S.S. Susquehanna in Philadelphia. The Susquehanna, the largest steamship yet commissioned by the U.S. Navy, was to be Commodore M. C. Perry's flagship on the 1853-1854 Naval Expedition to Japan.
Sees the Shogun's Mission, the first Japanese Embassy to the U.S., when it visits Philadelphia.
Serves in Pennsylvania's 44th Regiment in the Civil War.
Enters Rutgers College.
Graduates with A.B. from Rutgers College. In the summer, tours Europe with his sister Margaret Clark Griffis and family friend Edward Warren Clark.
Sails for Japan to organize schools in Echizen.
Named Superintendent of Education in Echizen. [Iwakura Mission 1871-1872].
Awarded A.M. from Rutgers College.
Publishes, in Yokohama, The New Japan Primer and The New Japan Pictorial Primer.
Serves as Professor of Physics at the Imperial University, Tokyo. In 1872, Griffis's sister Margaret Clark Griffis joins him in Tokyo, and is appointed teacher, and then principal, of the first government school for girls (to become the Tokyo Female Normal School).
Publishes The Tokio Guide and The Yokohama Guide (Yokohama).
Griffis and Margaret Clark Griffis return to America
Publishes The Mikado's Empire.
Graduates from Union Theological Seminary.
Serves as Pastor of the First Reformed Church, Schenectady, NY.
Marries Katherine L. Stanton (1859-98).
Publishes Japanese Fairy World: Thirty-five Stories from the Wonderlore of Japan.
Publishes Corea: the Hermit Nation.
Lillian Eyre Griffis (daughter) born in Schenectady.
Awarded D.D. from Union College.
PublishesCorea: Without and Within.
Serves as Pastor of the Shawmut Congregational Church in Boston, MA.
Stanton Griffis (first son) born in Boston.
PublishesMatthew Calbraith Perry: A Typical American Naval Officer.
Publishes The Lily Among Thorns: A Study of the Biblical Drama Entitled"The Song of Songs".
Publishes Honda the Samurai: A Story of Modern Japan.
PublishesSir William Johnson and the Six Nations, and an edition of The Arabian Nights.
Publishes Japan: In History, Folklore and Art.
John Elliot Griffis (second son) born in Boston.
Serves as Pastor of the First Congregational Church, Ithaca, NY.
Publishes Brave Little Holland and What She Taught Us.
Publishes The Religions of Japan From the Dawn of History to the Eraf Meiji: Shinto, Buddhism and Confucianism, and Townsend Harris, First American Envoy in Japan [an edition of Harris's journals].
PublishesThe Romance of Discovery: A Thousand Years of Exploration and the Unveiling of Continents.
Publishes Charles Carlton Coffin: War Correspondent, Traveler, Author and Statesman; The Romance of American Colonization; The Pilgrims in Their Three Homes.
Katherine Stanton Griffis dies in Ithaca on December 9.
PublishesAmerica in the East: A Glance at Our History, Prospects, Problems and Duties in the Pacific Ocean; The Romance of Conquest: The Story of American Expansion Through Arms and Diplomacy.
Awarded L.H.D. by Rutgers College
Marries Sarah Frances King (1868-1959).
Publishes The American in Holland: Sentimental Rambles in the Eleven Provinces of the Netherlands; The Pathfinders of the Revolution: A Story of the Great March into the Wilderness and Lake George Region of New York in 1779; and Verbeck of Japan: A Citizen of No Country.
PublishesIn the Mikado's Service: A Story of Two Battle Summers in China.
Publishes A Maker of the New Orient: Samuel Robbins Brown, Pioneer Educator in China, America, and Japan, the Story of his Life and Work, and Mighty England--Our Old Home.
Resigns pastorate to write and lecture full time.
Publishes John Chambers: Servant of Christ and Master of Hearts, and his Ministry in Philadelphia; Sunny Memories of Three Pastorates; and Young People's History of Holland.
Publishes Dux Christus: An Outline Study of Japan.
Decorated with the Order of the Rising Sun, Fourth Class, by the Emperor of Japan.
Publishes The Japanese Nation in Evolution: Steps in the Progress of a Great People,and Christ, the Creator of the New Japan.
PublishesThe Firefly's Lovers and Other Fairy Tales of Old Japan.
Publishes The Story of the New Netherlands, the Dutch in America
Publishes China's Story in Myth, Legend, Art and Annals, and The Unmannerly Tiger and Other Korean Tales.
Publishes A Modern Pioneer in Korea: The Life Story of Henry G. Appenzeller; Might England: the Story of the English People; The Call of Jesus to Joy; Belgium, the Land of Art.
Publishes Hepburn of Japan and His Wife and Helpmates: A Life Story of Toil for Christ.
Margaret Clark Griffis dies in Ithaca, December 15.
Publishes The House We Live In, Architect and Tenant: Talks About the Body and the Right Use of It.
Publishes Millard Fillmore Constructive Statesman, Defender of the Constitution, President of the U.S.; The Mikado, Institution and Person: A Study of the Internal Political Forces of Japan; The Story of Belgium.
Publishes Bonnie Scotland and What We Owe Her.
PublishesDutch Fairy Tales.
Publishes Belgian Fairy Tales.
Publishes Swiss Fairy Tales; Young People's History of the Pilgrims.
Publishes Welsh Fairy Tales; The Dutch of the Netherlands in the Making of America
Publishes Korean Fairy Tales; Japanese Fairy Tales.
Publishes The Story of the Walloons, at Home, in the Lands of Exile and in America
Publishes Proverbs of Japan: A Little Picture of the Japanese Philosophy of Life as Mirrored in Their Proverbs.
Publishes The American Flag of Stripes and Stars: Mirror of the Nation's History, Symbol of Brotherhood and World Unity.
With Frances King Griffis, journeys to Japan for the second time, stopping in Korea and Manchuria.
Decorated with the Order of the Rising Sun, Third Class.
Dies in Florida, February 5.

Arrangement Note

A U.S. Department of Education Title II-C Grant was awarded in late 1993 to support comprehensive processing of the Griffis Collection. At that time, the collection had been closed to researchers due to its deteriorating condition. The collection had come to Rutgers University in a series of accessions between 1928 and 1982: many of the most valuable parts of the collection had been processed and segregated from the body of the collection, but in several stages at different points in the collection's history. Research and arrangement of early accessions had been done by Frederick Welden (notably on the Brunton Manuscript), with the support of the American Council for Learned Societies, in the 1930s; and many areas of the collection of personal interest (held by the family and presented to Rutgers in later accessions) had been researched by Griffis's granddaughter, Katherine G.M. Johnson. The collection arrangement, while a fascinating object study in the complex and nuanced history of a rich manuscript collection such as this one, had become cumbersome, reflecting the various organization schemes introduced by this work, and later archivists', placed over the last remaining vestiges of Griffis's original arrangement of his papers - which clearly had itself been opportunistic and haphazard.

When the 1994-1995 project began, the first thirty-five or forty boxes contained the catalogued "William Elliot Griffis Far East Collection," a broad mix of materials, sorted into a subject arrangement and listed by box contents. Heavily used by researchers, the Far East Collection had been instituted in the early 1960s by Prof. Ardath Burks with the assistance of Jerome Cooperman and the support of the Rutgers Research Council. It was only a portion of the entire collection, however, which continued to be added to, with new accessions eventually amounting to nearly 250 manuscript boxes in all. Burks' and Cooperman's arrangement was later supplemented by collection curators Clark Beck and Ruth Simmons, who successively segregated correspondence and such important groupings as the STUDENT ESSAYS. Many boxes in the collection, containing voluminous research materials of less immediate interest (primarily Griffis's America and Europe researches) remained unsorted and undocumented. In preparation for the grant applications that led to the 1994 grant, a collection survey, the first to be comprehensive, was conducted in 1993 by Ruth Simmons and Project Archivist Wendell Piez.

While the Burks-Cooperman arrangement was more than adequate for the purposes of researchers at that time, it was not all-inclusive, and although most important materials were accessible, documentation was not sufficient to prevent the necessity of researchers' combing through materials in an attempt to locate specific items. This practice was having a deleterious effect on many of these fragile, acidic materials. The 1994-1995 Title II-C Grant, which supported the employment of a Project Archivist and the application of electronic text technologies for producing and searching finding aids, enabled comprehensive processing of the collection at a level hitherto impossible (in the case of many series, at the item level). The purpose of this comprehensive sorting was two-fold: to allow preservation of the materials by rehousing them in a permanent arrangement reflecting provenance and media type, and to permit a thorough documentation of the collection contents, reducing the need for searching by hand and supporting the creation of a microfilm edition of the unique Japan/Far East materials. While this rearrangement ran the risk of obscuring Griffis's own arrangement even further than it had already been, it was judged to be necessary to address preservation concerns. Issues of original order are addressed, to some extent, in Series Descriptions (and in any case the researcher can refer to the 1993 survey to discern the collection arrangement when this project began).

Although the full two-year Title II-C Griffis Project had to be curtailed to one year (due to the termination of the Federal program in 1994), these objectives of arrangement and description have been largely achieved. The current group and series arrangement was decided, all boxes systematically reviewed, and Japan and Far East-related materials removed to this arrangement. The project was reduced in size and scope by relegating, again, the America-Europe boxes to a less highly processed group. Full listings were created in the process of sorting and rehousing.

The present arrangement of the collection gives comprehensive access to the Japan/Far East materials. They are divided into four groups. The main group, William Elliot Griffis materials, comprises the greatest bulk of the collection: it contains Griffis's own writings as they survive in print and manuscript (with the exception of the bound volumes catalogued in the X-GRIF section of the Rare Books Collection, which fell outside the purview of this project), notebooks, diaries, research notes, as well as extensive materials collected by him in the course of his researches or as memorabilia. (The specific series may be seen in the Finding Aid Table of Contents and are described in detail in the Finding Aid). Group II, Margaret Clark Griffis Materials, contains the extant diaries of Griffis's sister, significant because of her work in the earliest period of the formal education of Japanese women (a copy of her Tokyo contract also appears in the group). Group III contains papers pertaining to other members of the Griffis family, notably the war journals of Montgomery Patterson Griffis (brother of William Elliot Griffis) and diaries and account books of Griffis's two wives, Katherine Lyra Stanton Griffis and Sarah Frances King Griffis; as well as family correspondence. Group IV is a highly important group: it contains manuscript materials collected by Griffis, not as part of his own researches (some materials of this kind appear in Group I), but rather in the course of his work as an editor or intermediary. The Richard Henry Brunton manuscript appears in this series, as do significant works such as memoirs and journals by missionaries James Ballagh and Samuel Robbins Brown; manuscripts in English by Japanese literary figures; scrapbooks on Polar Exploration by Captain Silas Bent (a member of the Perry Expedition to Japan of 1853-1854); and others. Letters from Griffis to Harada Tasuku (President of Doshisha University), which were accessioned into the Griffis Collection in 1970, are also included in this group.

Also held in the Griffis Collection, but not strictly belonging to it, are materials relegated to the category Griffis-Related Materials. This is a very open category, including materials routinely useful to new researchers (such as Griffis Collection-related materials from the University Archives), plus those materials stemming from researchers' work on the collection which were actually sorted from the collection in the process of arrangement. A larger quantity of such material, of minimal value to present researchers, remains undescribed.

The America/Europe boxes of the collection remain for the most part unsorted. A survey of these boxes, updated from the 1993 Collection Survey, is available to researchers for consultation as an appendix to this Finding Aid.

Inventory to the William Elliot Griffis Collection (East Asia), 1859-1928 MC 1015
Edited Full Draft
Wendell Piez, Ruth Simmons, and Fernanda Perrone
August 1994
Language of description note
Finding aid is written in English.
Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University received an operating support grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission, a division of the Department of State.