When I was in high school, a teacher told us that Japanese students of English in olden days tried to memorize English words and expressions by tearing out pages of their English dictionary and eating them, one by one.

I didn't believe my teacher back then.

But such stories are still told about Kanichi Asakawa (1873-1948)--even the title of the dictionary he ate. He was arguably the greatest scholar of his time, born in Fukushima Prefecture and the first Japanese to become a professor at prestigious Yale University in 1937.

"The front cover of the dictionary, which he left uneaten, was buried under a cherry tree on the campus of his alma mater, Fukushima Prefectural Asaka High School," said Takashi Jinno, 61, a historian and professor at Waseda University. "The tree is called the Asakawa Cherry Tree."

Jinno is one of the founding members of the Asakawa Study Association, established in November last year.

Born into a feudal retainer's family of Nihonmatsu Domain in present-day Fukushima Prefecture, Asakawa's gift for foreign languages was apparent from a young age. He attended Tokyo Senmon Gakko (the predecessor of Waseda University), and then transferred to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he was affectionately called "samurai" by his American classmates.

Upon securing a teaching position at Yale, Asakawa focused his research on Japanese and European feudal systems.

But he also remained a keen observer of contemporary international affairs and repeatedly warned against Japan's dogmatically self-righteous foreign policy.

As early as in 1909, he stated in "Nihon no Kaki" (Ill omen for Japan) that Japan would eventually become isolated in the world, incur the ire of the United States, and ruin itself.

He died in the United States in 1948 at age 74.

"His broadness of vision was truly notable," said Jinno. "Historians of today, who tend to 'drown' themselves in oceans of historical materials and lose their focus, have much to learn from Asakawa."

Members of the Asakawa Study Association plan to research and analyze massive manuscripts and letters left by Asakawa to deepen their understanding of his prodigious scholarship.

At Asaka High School, the Asakawa Cherry Tree is now in full bloom. But the landmark 70th anniversary of his death has already passed, and his name is unfortunately beginning to fade into oblivion, except in his native Fukushima Prefecture and among historians.

Given his outstanding achievements and extraordinary life, he is a historian who deserves renewed scrutiny and recognition.

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 19

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.