Nikkei Chicago / 日系シカゴ

Documenting the untold stories of Nikkei (Japanese American) Chicago シカゴにおける日系人に関する記事のサイト

Michitaro Ongawa: The First Japanese American Chicagoan


The Ongawas in a Delightful Japanese Entertainment of Music (Special Collections, The University of Iowa Libraries)


On July 8, 1867, the Chicago Tribune reported a love story between a Chicago girl and a Japanese acrobat. Traveling acrobats were most likely the first Japanese people who came to Chicago after the Shogunate began allowing ordinary people to go overseas in 1866. “Out of the very first seventy-one ‘passports’ granted to ordinary citizens by the feudal government, most were issued to the members of acrobatic troupes.”1 In 1869 the transcontinental railroad was completed, and many delegates and students sent by the new Meiji government rushed to the US, especially the eastern part of the country, and Europe, in order to study western technologies and arts. They passed through Chicago to change trains, but very few stayed to live in Chicago.

It was in 1880 that the Illinois census officially recorded the first three Japanese living in the state. One was J. Yanada in Galena, a butler to former President Ulysses Grant, and the other two—a woman and a man—lived in Chicago. Little is known about the Japanese woman at this point, but the man was Michitaro Ongawa, who later became a popular performer of Japanese dance and songs on the Chautauqua circuit from the 1910s to the 1930s. J. Yanada went back to Japan in the spring of 18842, but Ongawa stayed in the Chicago area for the rest of his life.

Ongawa’s original name was Michitaro Ogawa. He was born in Tokyo on February 21, 18593, and lived in Yokohama, where a foreign concession was established the year he was born. In that concession, there were many missionaries from various churches who hoped to spread Christianity by teaching English using the Bible as a textbook. One of them was Christopher Carrothers, a Presbyterian missionary. Born in Ohio, Carrothers graduated from the University of Chicago in 18674 and completed the Illinois Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1869. He arrived in Yokohama in late June 1869 with his wife Julia5.


Yokohama Concession 1864

Carrothers’ mentor, Edward Cornes, was also a Presbyterian missionary. Cornes knew Carrothers in college in Pennsylvania, as well as at the Illinois Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and it was he who encouraged Carrothers to work in Japan. Cornes had gone to Japan in 1868, one year earlier than Carrothers.

Christopher and Julia Carrothers started a private school in their home. Their first students were young boys. They offered two kinds of classes: a samurai class and a regular class6. “Michitaro” must have been a familiar name to Julia, as she mentioned it as an example of a Japanese boy’s name in a book about her life in Japan, published in 18797. Julia also called Michitaro’s uncle, Yoshiyasu Ogawa, “Ongawa.”8 “Ongawa” seems to be how the name “Ogawa” sounded to English speakers.

On August 1, 1870, a tragedy occurred in the Presbyterian missionary community. The boiler on the steamship “City of Yeddo,” bound for Yokohama, exploded just before departure. Edward Cornes, his wife Elisa, their firstborn son Eddie, and their young English nurse were killed in the incident. Only their three-month-old baby, Harry, survived.

Julia decided to take Harry to the home of a Cornes family friend in Iowa in February 1871.9 What is most interesting is that she took not only Harry but also Michitaro with her to the US. It is notable that Michitaro’s passport had already been issued in 1869, not after the tragedy of 1870, and that the purpose for travel indicated on the passport application to come to the US was to be a servant of Carrothers.10 This means that Michitaro’s trip to the US had probably been planned before Carrothers’ arrival in Japan. In fact, Cornes had written to the church in 1869 that “one boy [is] learning very fast in [his] English Class. Hope to train him for service to his countrymen. Abundant reason to be encouraged. Very little to discourage.”11

In those days, Christianity was prohibited in Japan, so missionary work was closely monitored by the government. Although Cornes did not mention Michitaro by name, the boy mentioned in the letter is most likely Michitaro because Christopher Carrothers also wrote to the church as follows:

The Japanese boy she took with her is a very smart and promising youth. … The fact that none of his relatives will be likely to lead him away from our influence after he is educated is encouraging. His father and mother are both dead, and his uncle who had charge of him is Mr. Thompson’s teacher and a baptized Christian.12


Michitaro Ongawa (Special Collections, The University of Iowa Libraries)

David Thompson, another Presbyterian missionary, had been in Japan since 1863. Michitaro’s uncle, Yoshiyasu Ogawa, who had been Thompson and Cornes’ Japanese language teacher, was well known in the Yokohama missionary community. Yoshiyasu was baptized by Thompson in 1869, and became the first Japanese pastor in the Japanese Christian church in 1877. Both Yoshiyasu and Michitaro were deeply involved with Presbyterian missionary work in Yokohama; Michitaro was only about 11 years old when his passport was issued in 1869.

Because her father, Richard Varick Dodge, was the minister of a Presbyterian church in Madison, Wisconsin, Julia brought Michitaro to Madison. The April 2, 1871, issue of the Wisconsin State Journal reported on Michitaro’s arrival as follows: “Ungawa, [is] between 12 and 13 years of age, but small for his years. He is gentle looking, refined in his appearance, and very polite in his manners. The lad seems a bright boy and, dressed like American children, he would hardly attract the notice of a casual observer.”

Before Julia went back to Japan in early 1872, she again visited Madison in late fall 1871. She wrote to the church: “The little Japanese boy who I brought with me is now with us. Studying quite hard. He is a bright boy and seems anxious to please.”13 It can be assumed that Michitaro was with the Reverend Dodge and his family in Madison until Reverend Dodge left for San Francisco in 1872. But did Michitaro leave Madison with them?


Ongawa letter from Woodstock, IL. (Archived at Naniwa Church, Osaka, Japan)

Evidence of Michitaro’s residence in the Midwest can be found in the Naniwa church, a congregational church in Osaka, Japan. Archived there are letters from Michitaro sent by him from Woodstock, Illinois, to Umanoshin Sawayama in Evanston, Illinois. Sawayama had come to the US in 1872 and was the first Japanese student at Northwestern University preparatory school.14 Sawayama had been sent to Evanston by Daniel Greene, the congregational missionary from Kobe, Japan. Why Evanston? Because Greene’s brother Samuel and sister Anna both lived in Evanston. They took care of Sawayama for four years until he returned to Japan in 1876.

When Michitaro was writing letters to Sawayama in early 1876, he was a student at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock. The Todd School was founded by Reverend Richard Kimball Todd, a graduate of Princeton Seminary in New Jersey—the same school that Reverend Dodge had graduated from. It is logical to speculate that Reverend Dodge sent Michitaro to his friend’s school when he left for San Francisco.


Boy’s seminary, Rev. R. K. Todd, A.M. Principal, Woodstock, Illinois. (Combination Atlas Map of McHenry County by Eversts, Baskin & Stewart, Chicago, IL, 1872.)

In a letter to Sawayama, Michitaro expressed his joy at making contact with a person who probably knew his uncle, saying: “I infer from your letter that you were acquainted with my uncle…if you knew my uncle you very likely knew me.”15 At Reverend Greene’s home in Kobe, Michitaro’s uncle-in-law, Masanosuke Otsubo—Yoshiyasu Ogawa’s wife’s brother—had also studied English with Sawayama. How denominational differences affected Michitaro’s relationships with his two uncles, one of whom is Presbyterian while the other is Congregational, is unclear at this point. However, Michitaro’s words are testimony to the tightness of the missionary network in 19th-century Japan—a network that made an immense contribution, despite denominational differences, in the modernization of Japan and its people.

The May 31, 1877, issue of the Woodstock Sentinel quoted a section of Michitaro’s speech at a Ladies Foreign Missionary Board event in Chicago: “It is to their kind and generous assistance that I would acknowledge a debt of deep and lasting gratitude. To them and to the work of foreign missions I am indebted for all that I now enjoy in this Christian land, for I was once a heathen in the far off isles of the sea.”

Michitaro seemed popular at the Todd school; he was nicknamed “Mitchie” and the school had a lawn party “for his benefit.”16 He lived in Woodstock for about five years. After graduating from the Todd School, he enrolled at a Presbyterian school, Lake Forest University, in 1878.17 He also enrolled as a freshman in the collegiate department of the University of Chicago in 1879.18 There is no evidence that he finished both schools with diplomas.

According to the 1880 census, Michitaro was 21 years old, single, living on Water Street in Chicago, and working as a clerk at a dock company. As the Woodstock Sentinel reported on July 1, 1880, “Mitchie,” a student at Lake Forest University, spent a few days of the week with Mr. Todd’s family; he may have then been a working student. He also used the English name Michael.19 He moved to Austin, a suburb of Chicago, around in 1882, but kept working in Chicago.20 Although he often changed jobs, the types of jobs he held were consistent: clerk, bookkeeper, accountant, and cashier.

Michitaro was naturalized in October 1884 in Chicago.21 He married a white woman, Clara Page, in Austin in September 1891.22 Clara was well known in the musical circles of Chicago and Oak Park as one of the leaders of the Beethoven club, and in Austin as a leader of church choirs.23

The 1900 census shows that Michitaro and Clara lived with Clara’s parents and sister in Chicago. Around 1909, they moved to Oak Park, where Clara had held a teaching job at Bliss Music School since the fall of 1907.24

It is not yet known how and when the Ongawas got involved with the Chautauqua traveling performance circuit, choosing a life in the world of theater, where they presented traditional Japanese culture in the form of songs, musical instruments, dance, and stories. They spoke English in their performances, and it was said that “they spoke such fluent English that until one listened carefully one fancied they were Americans artfully made up as Orientals.”25

Reports of their performances appeared in the popular media between 1908 and the 1930s. One of the earliest articles was about Clara’s performance at the Woman’s Club of Austin, titled A Glimpse of Japan. Michitaro loaned her a collection of Japanese prints for the event.26

After the big success of their first musical, Along the Road to Tokyo, it seems that some time after 1914, Ongawa signed a contract with the Radcliff Attractions Chautauqua circuit and started performing with Clara in the eastern US, from North Carolina to New Hampshire.

They lived in Oak Park for about six years, between 1909 and 1915. The 1920 census shows that they moved back in Chicago to live with Clara’s sister. In the census, Michitaro and Clara listed themselves as travelers for educational work, indicating that they had finally found their life’s purpose. In the 1920s, they performed at Columbia University in New York, the University of North Carolina, and Illinois State University at Normal.


Ongawa grave at Forest Home Cemetery.

Michitaro Ongawa died at the age of 79, on July 30, 1938, in Chicago. He was buried in lot number 113 S1/2, section 43, in Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park. His grave does not have a stone marker. This may be because many cemeteries in Chicago had a policy of refusing to bury Japanese Americans during and after the war. In one report made after the war, Forest Home Cemetery announced that they “fought this out in court many years ago and won a decision to prohibit any but Caucasians to be buried therein.”27 The marker for Michitaro Ongawa may have been removed during a period of such anti-Japanese sentiment.

Michitaro Ongawa was one of the earliest Japanese Americans in Chicago. He played a unique role in promoting multiculturalism in early 20th-century America. His long 19th-century journey from Yokohama, Japan, to Chicago and the Midwest embodies the American dream of fulfillment and success that the Presbyterian missionaries who sent him to the US did not expect at all, but probably could strongly embrace.


1. Frederik L. Schodt, Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe (Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2012), 142.

2. John Simon, ed, The Papers of Ulysses Grant Volume 31 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), 98.

3. Illinois Deaths and Stillbirth Index 1916–1947 (

4. 8th Annual Catalogue of the University of Chicago 18661867. The Old University of Chicago Records 1856–1890, Box 5 Folder 6.

5. Memoir, William Elliot Griffis Collection from Rutgers University Library, Japan Through Western Eyes, Part 3, Reel 28.

6. Julia Carrothers, The Sunrise Kingdom: Or, Life and Scenes in Japan and Woman’s Work for Woman There (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1879), 56–57, 93.

7. Ibid, 89.

8. Ibid, 153, 196, 370.

9. Hepburn’s letter to Griffis dated Nov 18, 1895. William Elliot Griffis Collection, Japan Through Western Eyes, Part 3, Reel 31.

10. Passport issuing record, Foreign Ministry of Japan, Tokyo, Japan, Microfilm 3-8-5-2, Kanagawa Prefecture, Vol. 1, Reel No. Passport 3.

11. Cornes’ letter to Lowrie, dated January 30, 1869, summary. Japan Letters 1869–1873, Volume 2, Records of US Presbyterian Missions, Yokohama Open Port Library, Japan.

12. Christopher Carrothers’ letter to Lowrie, dated March 18, 1871. Japan Letters 1869–1873, Volume 2, Records of US Presbyterian Missions, Yokohama Open Port Library, Japan.

13. Julia Carrothers’ letter to Lowrie, dated Nov 16, 1871. Japan Letters 1869–1873, Volume 2, Records of US Presbyterian Missions, Yokohama Open Port Library, Japan.

14. Catalogue of Northwestern University 1872–1873, page 28.

15. Michitaro Ongawa’s letter to Sawayama, dated April 30, 1876, Naniwa Church, Osaka, Japan.

16. Woodstock Sentinel, June 14 and 21, 1877.

17. General Register of Lake Forest College 1857–1914, page 37.

18. 21st Annual Catalogue of the University of Chicago 1879–1880, The Old University of Chicago Records 1856–1890, Box 5B, Folder 18.

19. The Lakeside Annual Directory of the City of Chicago, 1881.

20. Chicago City Directory, 1885.

21. Certificate of Naturalization, dated October 31, 1884.

22. Marriage License No. 172500, dated September 14, 1891.

23. Oak Leaves, October 15, 1910.

24. Oak Leaves, September 21, 1907.

25. “Mr. and Mrs. Michitaro Ongawa.” Official Registry and Directory of Women’s Clubs in America, 1922 (X–XI).

26. Chicago Daily Tribune, March 22, 1908.

27. List of Cemeteries Contacted for Lots for Orientals. Chicago Oriental Council. Collection of the Japanese American Service Committee, Chicago.

* This article was based on a paper presented at the 18th Annual Conference on Illinois History on October 7, 2016 in Springfield, IL.

This story was published online at the Discover Nikkei website on December 7th and 8th, 2016. is a project of the Japanese American National Museum.  The website links are at: and

Takako Day, originally from Kobe, Japan, is an award-winning freelance writer and independent researcher who has published seven books and hundreds of articles in the Japanese and English languages. Her latest book, SHOW ME THE WAY TO GO HOME: The Moral Dilemma of Kibei No No Boys in World War Two Incarceration Camps is her first book in English.

Relocating from Japan to Berkeley in 1986 and working as a reporter at the Nichibei Times in San Francisco first opened Day’s eyes to social and cultural issues in multicultural America. Since then, she has written from the perspective of a cultural minority for more than 30 years on such subjects as Japanese and Asian American issues in San Francisco, Native American issues in South Dakota (where she lived for seven years) and most recently (since 1999), the history of little known Japanese Americans in pre-war Chicago. Her piece on Michitaro Ongawa is born of her love of Chicago.

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