CUNY’s long relationship with Japan: Townsend Harris

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In 1847, Townsend Harris, president of the New York City Board of Education, found The Free Academy, which later becomes the City College of New York, CUNY. The Free Academy was founded to provide education to people beyond those who were socially and economically privileged. One of Harris’s quotes still resonates as the raison d’être of CUNY.

“Open the doors to all — let the children of the rich and the poor take their seats together and know of no distinction save that of industry, good conduct and intellect.” — Townsend Harris

Townsend Harris by JamesBogle

After his tenure as the president of the Board of Education, Townsend Harris, a successful merchant and importer of Chinese porcelains, was also appointed as the first Consul General of the United States to Japan. At that time, the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate largely closed off its foreign relationships (“sakoku”) and had a limited diplomatic connection with the U.S. after Commodore Matthew Perry’s first visit to Japan in 1853.

Harris arrived in Japan in August 1856 and was tasked with negotiating a treaty that would open up Japan to trade with the United States. The Harris Treaty was a major turning point in Japanese history. It marked the beginning of the end of Japan’s isolation and the start of its modernization. Harris is credited with playing a key role in this transformation.

Harris’s legacy is still felt today. He is remembered as an advocate for education for general public and also a pioneer in U.S.-Japan relations and an important figure in the history of American diplomacy.


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