In Japan’s long history, there are lots of instances of foreign culture unexpectedly seeping into Japanese culture. It’s why a stapler is called a “Hotchkiss” in Japanese, and why a lot of Japanese choirs have a Croatian aria in their repertoire.
But foreign culture slipped in in more obvious ways too. One of the biggest eras of Japanese history was the Meiji Restoration, when Japan opened up to the world and invited foreign influence into the country.
Even with all of that foreign influence in Japan, it’s surprising that one of the most longlasting figures from the Meiji era has been an American man. Even though William S. Clark has been dead for over a century, most people in Japan recognize his legacy today.
Soldier, Scientist, Gentleman
William S. Clark was a badass 19th century renaissance man. He was a colonel in the Civil War, the president of a university, and the president of a mining company. Plus, like all men of that era, he had sweet facial hair.
But none of these things are why Clark is remembered today in Japan. Clark is known for his work as a foreign advisor to Japan during the Meiji Restoration.
He was hired on by the Japanese government to establish a college in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island and bring Western-style education to Japan.
A former president at an American university, Clark had no trouble getting into the swing of things. He built Sapporo Agricultural College from the ground up, quickly bonding with local leaders and, of course, the students themselves.
Clark’s time in Sapporo was especially appreciated because of Hokkaido’s standing in Japan. At times, Hokkaido can feel very isolated from the rest of Japan; a separate, distinct, sometimes underdeveloped island.
The fact that Clark put so much hard work and care into working with people in Hokkaido meant a lot to the people there. It was clear to them that Clark cared a great deal about Hokkaido’s well-being.
But Clark’s time in Hokkaido wasn’t to be long. He returned to the US after a little under a year in Japan.
As he left, Clark said something that put him in the history books. He shouted to his students
Boys, be ambitious!
. . . well, maybe. There are a ton of different stories about what Clark actually said that fateful day. Variations include:
Boys, be ambitious, like this old man!
Boys, be ambitious for Christ!
Boys, be ambitious! Be ambitious not for money or for selfish aggrandizement, not for that evanescent thing which men call fame. Be ambitious for that attainment of all that a man ought to be.
But even if we don’t have the quote right, it doesn’t matter. Clark’s legacy has been imprinted upon Japan.
“Boys, be ambitious” (or 少年よ大志を抱け) has become familiar saying in Japan. It’s not the kind of thing you hear in everyday conversation, but it’s something that people (especially around Hokkaido) know about. I’d compare it to the English saying “Keep calm and carry on.”
Even if it’s not an idiom people use every day, it’s been immortalized in other ways. “Boys, be ambitious” can be found carved into stone and written in metal in tributes to Clark.
But it doesn’t stop there. “Boys, be ambitious” is used in ads, TV shows, anime, movies, music, and virtually any other form of media that you can think of.
Given few, if any, of the media that use the saying have anything to do with Hokkaido or Clark, but that’s beside the point.
Even if only a few Japanese people know who William S. Clark is, I’d expect that he’d be happy that his message has been carried so far for so long, inspiring people across Japan to be a little more determined than they might normally.