This project showcases student project work from Japan and the World, a modern Japanese history course offered at Kanda University of International Studies. It focuses on important themes and individuals from the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-26) periods, when Japan was beginning to open to the world after centuries of government-enforced isolation.

All submissions are researched, whether in English or Japanese, and references provided. Comments responding to and exploring ideas, suggesting connections or further reading, are most welcome. As entries are written by non-native English speakers, please refrain from non-constructive comments about language use.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Raphael Von Koeber

Raphael von Koeber
By Misato Mochizuki

Nowadays, you can learn philosophy, aesthetic and languages like Latin and Greek if you want. However, do you know the person who brought these subjects from overseas and taught them to Japanese for the first time? The person who did the important work for Japan is Raphael Von Koeber.

Raphael Von Koeber was born in Russia in 1848. Although he graduated music school in Moscow, he gave up on being a pianist because he was too shy to play the piano in front of many people. He began to study philosophy in Germany in 1872 and got doctorate in 1878. When he was 43 years old, his friend recommended he go to Japan. He followed the offer. He came to Japan in 1891, and began to teach philosophy, aesthetics and languages at Tokyo Imperial University.

He met many students who became famous in Japan later. For example, Natsume Soseki and Watsuji Tetsuro respected Mr. Koeber. Natsume said “if you ask students in Tokyo Imperial University who is the best teacher here, 90% of students would answer Mr. Koeber.” He taught hard for 21 years. He decided to go back to Russia after he quit his job. Unfortunately, Japanese-Russo war happened at that time, so he could not go back to his home country. He passed away in 1923 in Kanagawa, unable to return.

In my group discussion, I asked three questions to my members. First, I asked them “what do you think about his background?” Student A said that he could not choose the thing which he should persuade. He was very good at playing the piano, but he was a philosopher. Moreover, he could teach aesthetic and languages. He had good abilities in studies so he could do many things in his life.” On the other hand, student B had completely different opinion from other perspective. She said that he could use wide range of knowledge for studying philosophy. She also mentioned his musical side. She said that his musical abilities and knowledge grew his thinking. She meant that thanks to his knowledge, he could think of things from many perspectives so he could be a philosopher. From these two opinions, I can say he was a curious person. In addition, his wide range knowledge led him to be a philosopher. His life seemed to be little strange at first glance, but all parts of his life were important for him.

Second, I asked “what do you think about why he did not speak Japanese even though he lived Japan for over 30 years?” Student C said that he might feel no interest in Japan. She meant that although he was a good teacher, he thought West was better than Japan. This is really interesting opinion because I did not think this way. Actually, he did not travel around Japan so this opinion was good point. He might think Japan was not developed compared to West so he did not have interest in Japanese culture.

Third, I asked “if you were a student of Tokyo Imperial University at that time, would you want to take his classes?” Student D said that he wanted to take his philosophy class because it was rare Japanese could learn philosophy in detail. On the other hand, student E said she wants to take his aesthetics class because this was the first time to bring it to Japan. She thought it must have been interesting for Japanese students. From these opinions, my members thought he was a good teacher and they had curiosity about his classes.

Probably, they were influenced by Soseki’s words. The famous person in Japan said he was the best teacher so we were very interested in his classes and teaching. In my opinion, I would really want to take his lesson if I were a student at that time. Of course, I cannot understand German, but I am interested in what he taught and how to teach. My questions was too unclear and broad, especially question 1. Moreover, my questions did not relate to Koeber’s important points, especially question 2. I think I had to prepare and think more about questions. If I could do so, my members could more easily discuss and know what his important points were. 

From this project, I thought it was difficult to research foreign people who came to Japan in Meiji or Taisho period. There was little information, especially my focus person. Probably, Japanese did not record that what foreign people did and how people felt about them compared to famous Japanese people who went to Western. Moreover, Japanese could write about their experience in West after they came back, but foreigners did not do after they came to Japan like Japanese. Therefore, there was little information about them. However, it was really interesting to learn about foreigners at that time. They were very important for today’s Japan because they brought a lot of knowledge, thinking and technology. I understand they gave huge impact to Japanese even though the numbers of foreigners who came to Japan at that time were few. Thanks to their work, Japan could develop.

Speaking of Raphael Von Koeber, his life was different from others. Normally, famous people who we know very well do not change their job or thought incredibly like Koeber. However, he is attractive because of the differences. He learned music and playing the piano in his early life but he became a philosopher. Moreover, he had a lot of knowledge of many subjects. I think every experience and all studies in our life make us wise. He is not famous in Japan but many famous Japanese were influenced by him. Therefore, I believe that his spirit and lesson are living on in some Japanese.


Ito.M. (2007, August 27). Kyouikusya tositeno Raphael Von Koeber [Raphael von Koeber as an educator]

Kadokura,I.(1997, October 7). Koeber sensei to sono zidai [Mr.Koeber and the period he lived]

Wikipedia. Raphael Von Koeber