January 6, 2006
The University of Alberta changed Yuichi Kurimoto's life, so he changed the lives of others
by Richard Cairney
Japan during the 1920s was in the midst of economic, political and social chaos. So it was likely that circumstance would have a hand in changing a young man's life. That's the only way you can explain the way disaster and good fortune conspired to direct Yuichi Kurimoto's life and, ultimately, the thousands of young men and women whose lives he touched.
Yuichi was the first international student to earn a bachelor's degree at the University of Alberta. In 1930 he returned to Japan and established three schools over the course of his life, including Nagoya University of Commerce and Business in Nagoya, Japan. His son, Dr. Hiroshi Kurimoto, is now president of the university.
But what prompted his father to pick up and enrol in a university on the other side of the planet? At the time, explained Hiroshi in an e-mail interview with Folio, many young people dreamed of studying abroad to improve their lives. A chance encounter changed everything for Yuichi.
"While my father was a student in Kyoto, he happened to meet by chance a ship's doctor and he showed him around Kyoto. He spoke to him about his dream of studying abroad," said Hiroshi. "The doctor happened to know Dr. Henry Marshall Tory, president of the University of Alberta, who was also travelling on the same ship and attending a conference in Tokyo for the presidents of universities located in the Pacific Rim area.
"This ship's doctor spoke to Dr. Tory about the young man he had met in Kyoto, and four months later my father received an invitation from him to attend the University of Alberta."
After poring over maps to locate Edmonton, the Kurimoto family wondered how it could afford to send Yuichi overseas. It seems though, that his destiny was sealed.
"My father lost his father at a young age, and therefore his "patron" (financial supporter) became his eldest brother," said Hiroshi. "Luckily, a typhoon hit the village in Gifu and many trees collapsed. His eldest brother managed to sell trees in order to gather the necessary amount he needed for Yuichi's studies in Alberta. Later, he would say: 'The typhoon brought me luck!'"
Thus began Yuichi's odyssey.
"Going abroad was like going to the moon," Hiroshi said of his father's journey. "He had to go on a 16-day trip from Yokohama to Victoria under rough seas, and he remembers his cabin window being constantly under water. He then had to travel another 26 hours by train from Vancouver to Edmonton. There was no information on Canada in those days for travelling purposes. In the family, the idea of going to Canada was a frightful experience . . . My father's mother constantly supported her son while he was away and prayed every day at the shrine for his well-being, safety and success."
With just $200 to his name, Yuichi took on part-time work and full-time studies in Edmonton, enrolling at the university's St. Stephen's College, studying philosophy, psychology and religious studies. Language was a barrier, but Hiroshi says his father worked hard and always felt welcome. He fell in love with the West's pioneering spirit.
To say the U of A has a profound influence on Yuichi would be an understatement. In 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression, he returned to Japan with big dreams.
"As he had worked in the shipyards of the Canadian Pacific Rail, he wanted to open a railway school in Japan and also introduce the frontier spirit which he had learned in Canada," said Hiroshi.
In 1935 Yuichi opened a vocational school for railroad workers, with 46 students. Within a decade, enrolment had grown to 1,600. The school was destroyed during the Second World War, "and he had to start again from scratch."
He did. In 1953 the Nagoya University of Commerce and Business became an accredited university, with less than 50 students. Today, three schools founded by the Kurimoto family are operating: the Nagoya International Junior High School has 200 students; the Nagoya International High School has 700 students. The university itself serves 3,600 students in four faculties with "a curriculum with a truly global perspective." It is ranked 25th of more than 700 universities in Japan. There are 220 students at the Koryo International Women's College and 210 currently enrolled at the graduate school located in the downtown campus of Nagoya.
"It was a tough time for the family to achieve my father's dream. His dream always came first, and we had to give up many things, but the dream has now been realized and has come true," said Hiroshi.
Because of a chance encounter, a timely disaster, strength of character and, no doubt, the U of A, tens of thousands of students have been educated in schools founded by Yuichi Kurimoto. There exists today a strong bond between the U of A and the Nagoya University of Commerce and Business.
"During the Second World War, there was no contact between the institutions," Hiroshi said. "After the war ended, Dr. Nelson Chapel and some friends, with the dean of St. Stephen's College, came to Japan to attend an international conference which renewed the relationship between them.
"Since Dr. Walter Johns became president in 1959, followed by Max Wyman, Harry Gunning and then Dr. Myer Horowitz, the two universities began to develop their relationships, which last until this day."
In fact, the schools the Kurimoto family established focus on a "frontier spirit" in teaching well-rounded students.
"Frontier spirit means to dream and to achieve the dream. There are many frontiers in many fields, and in order to have a frontier, people must have a dream. Without dreaming, nothing is achieved. You need to set a target and challenge it," said Hiroshi. "People must not content themselves with what they have. For example, the University of Alberta must have more international dreams."
In recognition of their achievements, the U of A has bestowed honorary degrees upon Yuichi, his wife, Dr. Shizu Kurimoto, and Hiroshi. The Kurimoto Japanese Garden at the university's Devonian Botanical Gardens is named for Yuichi. And the family funds a scholarship at the U of A School of Business.
The Kurimoto family, and the students for whose education it has been responsible, know the importance of international education.
"I strongly believe that seeing is believing," said Hiroshi. "I encourage our students at NUCB to travel, and maybe next year we will introduce dual-degree programs with overseas business schools.
"To listen to somebody's lecture is important, but you have to see things for yourself and learn to appreciate the different cultures. There are so many ways of thinking, and you have to appreciate that."