William S. Clark is not a name which strikes a chord with the American public, let alone all but the most dedicated of 19th century history buffs. In both cases, all parties can be 100% forgiven for their complete lack of knowledge on this somewhat benign figure.

That is, at least in his native country of the United States. The nation of Japan however, lying over 10,000 kilometers away from his native state of Massachusetts, has the man’s work, and above all his words, immortalized in the national consciousness. So who is this Mr. Clark?

Origins Of An Agricultural Educator

William S. Clark in 1876 (Age 50)

William Smith Clark was born in the western Massachusetts town of Ashfield in 1826. Growing up, he pursued an academic life, first by obtaining a degree from nearby Amherst College in 1848, and eventually a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Göttingen, known as the “city of science” in Germany.

Naturally, an academic career in the sciences is what would become Mr. Clark’s mainstay for much of his adult life. After returning to Amherst in 1852, he would serve as a professor of chemistry at his old Alma mater for the next fifteen years. His relatively lengthy tenure would only be briefly interrupted during the Civil War (1861-1865), where he served as a colonel with operational command of the 21st Massachusetts Regiment for about fourteen months.

Most notably, his very own regiment suffered nearly 30% casualties while valiantly fighting during the Battle of Antietam on September 17th, 1862. It was the single bloodiest day in U.S. history, with over 22,000 men on both sides either dead, wounded, or missing before the clock struck midnight.

antietam

Clark’s regiment fought and took heavy casualties at Antietam, the USA’s equivalent of Britain’s “First day on the Somme“.

Following the return to his much more life-affirming civilian career, he became a pivotal figure in the early history and success of the Massachusetts Agricultural College, which would eventually be renamed the University of Massachusetts Amherst long after his passing in 1947.

Now fast forwarded to the 1870’s, his extensive experience in science teaching, leadership in a new and innovative college, and commendable war record would attract the attention of a rising nation far far away. Mister Clark had no idea at the time that his decision to work in Japan would set himself up for immortality in that country, as a revered national figure of ambition and encouragement.

The New Land Of The Rising Sun

1870’s Yokohama, Japan.

Japan in the 1870’s was undergoing profound changes which altered society right to it’s core. After the American Commodore Matthew C. Perry finally forced open the country to trade via ‘gunboat diplomacy’ in 1854, the Japanese leadership was convinced that they must wholeheartedly embrace Western technology and customs, or else continuing their policy of “Sakoku” (national isolation) would endanger their sovereignty.

As the Japanese feudal lord Shimazu Nariakira stated in the 1850’s, “if we take the initiative, we can dominate; if we do not, we will be dominated“. And the rest as they say, is history.

Japan would rapidly transform from a feudal society in 1850 into the world’s first non-Western industrial powerhouse by the centuries end. The Yamato people expressed a fundamental determination to succeed and not be subjugated, and their government would take great interest in Mr. Clark’s agricultural work as the years progressed in order to achieve this goal.

Hokkaido, Japan. William Clark’s home for eight months.

During this period of rapid modernization, the Japanese government would take in a considerable number of ‘oyatoi gaikokujin’ (hired foreigners). These were essentially Westerners who were aloud to temporarily reside in Japan and teach a specialized craft or technological skill which was lacking within the nations own borders at the time. It was a very prestigious and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be sought out as a hired foreigner, and whatever positions on offer were very highly paid.

In 1876, a now 50 year old William Clark was in the fortunate position to have just the right combination of skills desired in agriculture, along with many years of experience accumulated in his craft, to impress the Japanese government enough to take him on board in the program. He would set sail for the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido that year, which would become his new home-from-home for the next eight months.

Boys, Be Ambitious!

Clark’s offering of knowledge completely transformed the agricultural landscape of Hokkaido and eventually Japan as a whole. He introduced the first American model barnyard to the country, and helped the people of Hokkaido adopt new crops and techniques in fishing and animal husbandry, which would also eventually be taken nationwide. Considering the country has a modern day population of over 120 million, that’s not a bad legacy for the work of a single man is it!

As the months progressed, Mr. Clark was becoming well aware of the tremendous influence he was having upon Hokkaido affairs, writing to his wife back in Massachusetts “I tremble to think how much confidence is reposed in me and what responsibilities I am daily assuming”.

Bust of William S. Clark at modern day Hokkaido University

Along with the great work he was doing, William Clark made fantastic rapport with the first students of the Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University), which he helped establish soon after arrival in Japan. The same teachings of morality he expressed as an educator in Massachusetts, along with his rhetoric of ambition and personal success, resonated deeply with his pupils who had been born into a rigid feudal caste system just two decades prior.

Eventually, there came the day that would change Japan forever. Mister Clark’s departure on April 16th, 1877 witnessed many of his students and faculty ride with him nearly 20 kilometers outside of Sapporo, a mark of profound respect for their teacher who had imparted so much applicable and philosophical knowledge. After saying his farewells, Clark shouted…

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).

The Legacy And Lessons of William Smith Clark

The statue of William S. Clark at ‘Observation Hill‘ in Sapporo is a popular tourist attraction, and frequently visited by graduating students in the city.

“Boys, be ambitious!” is now a legendary phrase of goodwill and encouragement in Japan, and elementary schoolbooks across the nation contain Clark’s picture along with a brief story of his life. Eight months of work which had just been normal routine for him at home, along with three parting words to uplift the human spirit, had immortalized this otherwise ordinary gentleman into the consciousness of one of the world’s most prosperous and populous societies.

If William Clark was resurrected for just one day to witness modern Hokkaido, and how his words would be instantly recognizable to untold millions of people, he would be humbled beyond the point of speech.

The lessons to be learned from this story is that being born at just the right place and time in history, along with following lucrative opportunities when they are presented, can make all the difference in how you may impact local communities and be remembered to it’s future generations. So make the smart choice, and have fun doing it.

In the meantime, next time you visit Japan, be sure and drop “Boys, be ambitious!” to any young man you come across who deserves the recognition. Whether it’s a new friend, likable colleague, or even a happy and lively young boy with his family, you are almost guaranteed to get a smile and nod of respect.

Read Next: What Men Can Learn From The Fascinating Destiny Of English Explorer William Adams