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After 100 years, a trove of Japanese antiques returns home from Kansas City

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Marilyn Woods, at left, learns more about her grandmother’s antique bowls from Nobuko Aihara and Keiko Suzuki as they pack them up in the living room of Woods’ Kansas City home. Aihara is vice principal of the Ferris Junior and Senior High School for Girls, and Suzuki is the school’s archivist.

When the daughter of an American missionary returned from Japan in 1923, she brought along some of her most cherished possessions. Now, her collection has returned to the Japanese school where she grew up.

A few days before Christmas, Nobuko Aihara and Keiko Suzuki carefully packed away a cabinet of precious gifts — silk toys, dolls, lacquer boxes and ceramic plates decorated with dragons and phoenix — bound from Kansas City to the Ferris Junior and Senior High School for Girls in Yokohama, Japan. Aihara is the school’s vice principal, and Suzuki is the archivist.

In a living room festively decorated for the holidays, Aihara and Suzuki stood at a worktable wearing the white cotton gloves of conservators. The two organized rolls of Bubble Wrap and stacks of acid-free paper. After consulting their inventory list, they chose the first collection piece to wrap up for the long trip.

Aihara picked up a small red fish made of antique silk.

“She wants to start from this goldfish,” Aihara said, turning to Suzuki. “And this one is given to her by the emperor.”

The items were brought to the United States by Eugenie Booth, the daughter of an American missionary who moved to Yokohama in 1879. Eugenie was born in Japan and spent her most formative years there. For the family that kept her collection for 100 years, it’s been an important connection to the past.

Steve Johnson
Eugenie Booth, center, flanked by her mother, Emily Booth, and her father, Rev. Eugene Booth. The reverend was sent to Japan as a missionary for the Reformed Church of America, and he served as the second principal of Ferris Seminary, the first Christian-based educational institution for Japanese girls. The school was founded by Mary E. Kidder in 1870.

Marilyn Woods and her brother Steve Johnson set this exchange in motion in 2019. They're Eugenie Booth’s grandchildren. Woods lives in Kansas City and Johnson lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

“Our great-grandparents ... moved to Yokohama and in 1881 (Rev. Eugene Booth) became the second principal of a school called Ferris Seminary. It was the first Christian-based educational institution for Japanese girls,” Johnson said.

The port city, south of Tokyo in the Kanto region, was very cosmopolitan. In the late 19th century, Japan opened up to the West, and cities like Yokohama became centers for international trade. It was an exciting place for an American girl to grow up, Johnson said.

Johnson learned about his grandmother’s adventures in Japan from a box full of letters she sent to Harry Campbell, who she eventually married.

“Her letters are just full of stories of her activities, the people, the culture, disasters,” Johnson said. “She was an incredible woman and, unfortunately, I didn't know how incredible she was until I read all of these letters.”

Nobuko Aihara and Keiko Suzuki, wearing white cotton gloves, carefully wrap antiques for their return trip to Japan

Johnson said his grandmother was 9 years old when Emperor Meiji visited Yokohama in 1894.

“It was a big deal. Everybody lined the streets to watch the emperor pass by but, culturally, it was taboo for them to look directly at the emperor,” Johnson explained. “She was on the street with the students at the school, and she thought to herself, 'I'm an American girl. I don't have to live by those rules.' And she looked up, looked the emperor straight in the face. He looked right back at her and smiled at her.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Meiji Emperor, photographed by Uchida Kuichi in 1873.

Several weeks later another royal delegation unexpectedly visited the school. With her parents away, Eugenie Booth was required to play hostess for the group, and she received a brief course in royal etiquette. The princess was curious to see an American home, and wanted a tour. Booth wrote later that she expected to meet the delegation dressed in Japanese royal court costume.

“The door opened and in came the princess not in royal robes, but in Western fashion of a Princess in the court of Queen Victoria’s time. The clothes were copied from an etiquette book used at the Court of St. James. Her costume was complete with a bustle, train, and a feather boa – her lady-in-waiting dressed similarly but with less bustle, train and feathers. The three men in attendance wore frock coats, and white kid gloves.”

Booth showed the ladies around the house and the princess was charmed by her. After the visit, the palace sent a package of elaborate gifts.

“There came a messenger from the Imperial Palace bearing a beautifully packaged gift with the Imperial seal from the princess for me," she wrote. "These were made from exquisite pieces of silk and crepe. These were in the form of a fish carp, a baby crawling, a priest's hat, a duck and an octopus.”

“It can be converted into a small bag if you hold it upside down,“ Aihara said of the charming, silk octopus. After extracting it from the cabinet, Aihara wrapped it in paper.

“Very clever idea,” she said.

Aihara said her school, which was founded by American missionary Mary E. Kidder in 1870, still begins every morning with a prayer.

“Our school motto is ‘For Others,’ from the Bible, Philippians 2:4,” Aihara said. "The school’s mission is to let the girls learn what their own talents are, given from God, and then make the best use of their talent for others.”

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Booth wrote more than 350 letters to her fiancé, Harry Campbell, during their five-year engagement. When Steve Johnson read them years later, he gained a window into his grandmother’s life in Japan.

The school was preparing to hold a 150th anniversary celebration in 2020. So Woods and Johnson decided it was time to donate their grandmother’s antiques to the school. When the pandemic hit, their plan was put on hold.

“There's some people that I have told what we're doing with these items, and they can't believe we're giving them away. But I think it's a good thing,” Johnson said.

Aihara said these gifts will help fill important gaps in the school’s history. One hundred years ago, Tokyo and Yokohama were struck by a powerful earthquake and tsunami. More than 140,000 people were killed. The school was destroyed and all of their records were lost.

“It will be a very precious addition to our collection at the archives since we lost most of their records and other things after the Great Kanto District earthquake in 1923," Aihara explained. "From those cute little things, we can learn a lot about what their daily lives are like. Especially the little girl's life during those times and how a missionary family lived through those days.”

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Steve Johnson holds an octopus made of antique silk, one of the many gifts sent to his grandmother from the Imperial Palace. When held upside down, the octopus can be used as a little girl’s purse.

As the school’s archivist, Suzuki’s job is care for historical materials, and store them safely for the school. She said once she's back in Japan, she'll carefully examinine each item. Then she will make plans to display them — a little at a time.

"They are so they are so precious, so we don’t want them to be damaged by the light,” Suzuki said. “They also may break if we exhibit them for a long time.”

After caring for her grandmother's things for more than three decades, Marilyn Woods said she’s a little sad to let them go.

“It's hard,” Woods said with a sigh. “It's really hard to watch, but I know they're going someplace special.”

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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