by Mark W. Podvia
Issa Tanimura, the first foreign student to earn a law degree from The Dickinson School of Law, was born in Hagi, Japan, on May 1, 1866. Tanimura attended primary school in Tokyo, with specialized studies of old Chinese classics. In 1886 he left Japan for the United States, entering the scientific course at Centenary Collegiate Institute in Hackettstown, New Jersey. He graduated in 1888, completing a six-year course in two years and earning first prize in geometry.
While attending the Centenary Institute, Tanimura met the Rev. Dr. George E. Reed, who was soon to become President of both Dickinson College and The Dickinson School of Law. Tanimura later said that following this meeting he “decided to devote his whole life toward the promotion of Japanese-American relationship.” It would seem very probable that it was this chance meeting that later brought Tanimura to The Dickinson School of Law.
In the fall of 1888, Tanimura entered the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University. There he played football, Yale then fielding the nation’s premier college team under Coach Walter Camp, “the Father of American Football.” Tanimura graduated from Yale in 1891.
We do not know exactly when Tanimura arrived in Carlisle or how well he performed in his law school classes. However, he must have made a favorable impression on his fellow students; his classmates elected him treasurer of the Class of 1892.
While a student, Tanimura “conceived the idea of holding a fair and entertainment, after the manner of those given in the Empire of Japan” with the proceeds “to be devoted to making an addition to the law library of the [law] school.” Many of the ladies of Carlisle “kindly consented to lend him aid in making the affair a success.” The Carlisle Herald reported that “[t]he ladies participating will be clad in Japanese costumes. The articles sold will be of Japanese manufacture. All visitors will be presented with a Japanese cup and saucer.”
The fair was held on Friday and Saturday, April 22 and 23, 1892, at Carlisle’s Armory building. “A bewildering series of attractions” were offered on Friday evening, including “[f]ruits and flower stands, tea and cake pagodas, [and] China and Japanese bric-a-brac booths.” The festivities on Saturday evening included a Japanese dance “shown by 23 fair and charming yum yums” as well as an illustrated lecture on Japan by Issa Tanimura.
The fair was “well patroned, and was a complete success financially.” On June 6, 1892, President Reed offered the following report to the Law School’s Board of Incorporators:
We are glad, also, to report large additions to the Law Library, which now numbers between seven and eight hundred volumes, carefully selected, and well adapted for the purposes of a School of Law. To this collection we hope to add largely during the ensuing years.
In this connection it is becoming to mention the interest manifested by the students in the developing of the Law Library, and particularly the generous labor of Mr. Issa Tanimura, of the Graduating Class, a native of Japan, who, in conjunction with the eminent ladies of the town, has donated during the year the sum of $475 for the enlargement of the Library of the School. The volumes, appropriately inscribed, now constitute the Japanese Memorial Law Library.
In his report to the Board, Law School Dean William Trickett noted that the donation had allowed the purchase of “all the Reports of Massachusetts and of New Jersey, 25 volumes of the Weekly Notes of Cases, 4 volumes of Pennsylvania Reports of the Decisions of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, [and] 10 volumes of Pennsylvania County Court Reports.”
In 1892, Tanimura graduated from The Dickinson School of Law and returned to Japan. In 1893, he was appointed as a Commissioner of Commerce and returned to the United States at part of the Japanese delegation to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Tanimura carried out his assignment in a manner that was “very satisfactory” to both nations.
In 1894, Tanimura traveled to Europe to oversee the Japanese exhibits at international expositions in Antwerp, Belgium, and Lyon, France. While in Belgium he had dinner with the King and Queen, the first of many meetings that he was to have with various royal houses of Europe. He ultimately made ten extended trips abroad.
Tanimura also received “inquiries coming from other countries for anything related to Japan.” His responses to the letters received over his many years of service helped to introduce numerous individuals to Japan and to Japanese culture. At the same time, he worked to introduce American culture to Japan.
With the two nations he loved so deeply engaged in combat, the Second World War must have been a difficult time for Tanimura. Indeed, one Japanese source indicates that the later portion of his life “was not fortunate.” Following the war he served as an advisor for the forces occupying Japan. Towards the end of his life he reported that he was writing his autobiography, however there is no evidence either work was ever published.
Tanimura died on February 4, 1961. His life can best be summed up with words written shortly before his retirement, describing him as “a modest and self-effacing gentleman long connected with the Imperial posture...who continually travels about the world and works for international goodwill.”