SAMURAI GOLF – Ryosuke Aria - First Oriental Golfer In USA – By William E. Kelly
The Atlantic City Country Club, in Northfield, New Jersey has a history of golf firsts - the first use of the term "birdie" to signify one under par, the first use of the Haskall ball in official tournament competition (1901), the first American to win the U.S. Open (John McDermott, 1911-12) and the first PGA Senior’s tournament, among others. Now a new one can be added to the list – the first Japanese to play the game.
As Japanese and oriental players begin to have an impact on the professional golf tours, and an ever increasing number of oriental fans, there is a new interest in the history of golf in Japan. While the early British colonial golf courses catered to the foreigners abroad, rather than the natives, the origin and popularity of the game in Japan can be traced to one Ryoichiro Arai.
As historical research into the introduction of the game of golf in Japan is still progressing, one interesting development is that Ryoichiro Arai, the first oriental golfer in America, was introduced to the game at the Jersey Shore, at the Atlantic City Country Club.
New research by a Japanese golf historian Kazunori Ohtsuka indicates that Ryoichiro Arai, a Japanese silk merchant played his first game at the "Northfield Links," today known as the venerable Atlantic City Country Club, adding another first to it’s prominent list of firsts.
Kenny Robinson, who has been a manager of the club for nearly thirty years, learned of the oriental connection when Kazunori Ohtsuka visited the club and mentioned Ryoichiro Arai to Robinson. More oriental golfers began playing the Atlantic City Country Club when Bally-Hilton purchased the club a few years ago, and restricted play to company executives and guests, primarily high-rollers who have an affinity for the game, including many Japanese. Even more oriental players now have the opportunity to play since the new owners, Showboat Hotel and Casino, who merged with Bally, opened the course to the public.
After visiting the club when Bally owned it, Ohtsuka maintained a correspondence with Robinson, detailing how he has been attempting to document this historic feat. At first Ohtsuka wrote, "The first Japanese who played golf in the USA is said that he played in 1899 at Westfied Country Club in Atlantic City, New Jersey."
But when Ohtsuka researched further however, he found that the only golf club in a Westfield is the Shackamaxon Golf and Country Club, near New York City, and founded decades after 1899. This led to back to Atlantic City. "My assumption is that ‘Northfield’ was mistakenly informed as ‘Westfield.’ So he actually played in 1899 at a course in Northfield of Atlantic City. This means that the course in question must be yours as yours is the only one there in that specific year," Ohtsuka wrote.
Indeed, the Atlantic City Country Club was founded by Atlantic City hotel owners in 1897, and was known as "the Northfield Links" in its early years, because of its location in the mainland town of Northfield, the small town between Pleasantville and Somers Point on Shore Road, just across the bay from Atlantic City.
"Past Japanese golf historians must have (been) confused!" Ohtsuka concluded.
And the first oriental golfer in the United States was not know for his golf, but his business savy as one of the first and premier silk merchants from Japan. According to Brian Niiya’s (Japanese-American history, 1993), Ryosuke Arai was born in 1855 under the name Ryosuke Hoshnio in Gumma prefucture, the fifth son of the house of Hoshino, a silk producing family. Later adopted by the Arai family, Ryoichiro studied in Tokyo, where he learned English and accounting, and was encouraged to promote the direct silk trade between Japan and America, not only for his family, but for his country.
Before he left Japan however, he was presented with the gift of the sword of Yoshida Shoin, a Samurai warrior who became a great martyr-hero of modern Japanese nationalism. According to Arai’s biography, "Samurai and Silk – A Japanese and American History (Belknap Press, Harvard, 1986), written by his grand daughter Haru Matsukata Reischauer, Arai "took great interest in American politics and followed them closely. But he was happiest when he had time to get on the golf course."
According to Reischauer however, "He had been introduced to the game around 1902 when he was at Pinehurst, North Carolina, recouperating from an illness. Golf was just beginning to become popular in the United States. Andrew Carnegie, at a dinner party for my other grandfather in 1902, presented him with a set of clubs and toasted the development of golf in Japan, with (statesman) Matsukata (Masayoshi) as its patron. Actually Matsukata never used the clubs since he was already sixty-five and there were no golf courses in Japan, and it remained for Arai to stimulate interest there in the game." And that’s as far as the written, published record went. Ohtsuka went a step further however, and contacted Arai’s son.
According to Ohtsuka, Arai’s son more recently told him that his father first took up the game of golf, not at Pinehurst in 1902, but two years earlier, in 1900 at the "Westfield Links" which his father said was near Atlantic City.
Arriving in New York in March of 1876 Arai formed the Sato Arai company, before representing the Doshin firm, completing the first direct transaction between a Japanese producer and an American importer. The Japanese silk trade eventually became the largest source of raw silk for American industry. In 1893 Ryosuke Arai formed two new companies, and in 1901 was elected to the board of governors of the Silk Association of America. In 1905 he helped establish the Nippon Club and in 1907 the Japanese Society of New York.
The Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield, founded in 1897, was also known popularly as "the Northfield Links," since it was in Northfield, the mainland community across the bay from Atlantic City. It was owned by Atlantic City Hotel operators, who catered mainly to the Philadelphia and New York clientele who came down to Atlantic City in the summer, and often in the winter to play golf because the bayside course seldom saw snow. It was at the Northfield Links where Arai was introduced to the game, which would become a big part of his life, and eventually impact Japan as much as the silk trade.
"After taking up golf himself," Reischauer reports, "Arai presented all his Japanese friends in New York to join him in the sport. But Murai was hard to win over. ‘Why,’ he asked, ‘should I get up early in the morning on my vacations and spend the day chasing a silly little ball around the golf course?’ He finally agreed to take one swing at a ball if Arai would get down on his knees in front of the ball and bow three times, touching the ground with his forehead. Arai did this and Murai took a swing at the ball, which shot high into the air and landed at some distance. Murai was delighted and thenceforth became Arai’s inseparable golf companion."
"Another Japanese whom Arai converted into a golf enthusiast was Inoue Junnosuke (1869-1932), later a leading financier and politician in Japan and at the time manager of the Yokomhma Specie Bank in New York. When Inoue was transferred to Tokyo he took back with him such a love for the game that he got together in 1913 a small group of fellow members of the prestigious Tokyo Club and founded a golf club, with its links at Komazawa in the countryside west of Tokyo. The farmers, whose land was needed for the golf course, were dubious about the whole project, having no idea what golf was, but they were so impressed by the mansion of a former daimyo in which Inoue lived that they agreed to the deal. The golf club at Komazawa was the first in Japan for Japanese, although the English residents of Kiobe had earlier built one for their own use on Mt. Rokko behind the city."
"Although Arai was not a participant in the organization of the Tokyo Golf Club at Komazawa, he had stimulated the interest that lay behind its founding and he became a charter member. Each time he returned to Japan, one of the first things he did was to play at Komazawa with Inoue and other friends. Because of the growth of the city, the golf course was later moved to Asaka in Saitama prefecture. Inoue never got to play on the new course (he was assassinated by a member of a right-wing organization in 1932), but Arai did play there on his last trip to Japan in 1935. He was then eighty, and to the amazement of his younger partners he played eighteen holes with no sign of fatigue."
In America Arai was a member of two golf clubs near New York, one in Stamford and the other in Greenwich, after which he would eat dinner, ending it with a bowl of rice and some Japanese pickles and tea, before playing two games of go with Murai.
Golf however, may have been his downfall. According to granddaughter Reischauer, "In the winter of 1939, Arai had patiently waited for the snow to melt so that he could get out on the golf course. One day in early April, though it was still cold, he played eighteen holes and returned home elated with his good score, though somewhat tired. It turned out that he had caught pneumonia and he never recovered, dying on April 9 at the age of eighty-four."
Arai died in America in 1939, and is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, a service conducted by the First Reader of the Christian Science Church of Stamford, since he had converted to Christianity in 1919. "He was mourned by Japanese and Americans alike," notes Reischauer, "and the American Commodity Exchange paid him the unusual tribute of silence while the funeral was in progress."
There is more to this story than just silk and golf however. Ryoichiro Arai’s granddaughter Haru Matsukata (1915-1998), and biographer, was a journalist who married Edwin Reischauer, President John F. Kennedy’s Ambassador to Japan. Living near the Belmont Country Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her husband later taught Japanese history at Harvard, Mrs. Haru Reischauer wrote the book "Samurai and Silk : A Japanese Heritage" (Belknap Press, Harvard, 1986), a duel biography of her grandfathers, Matsukata Masayoshi, a statesman of the Meiji Era, and Arai Ryoichiro, the pioneer in the Japan-US silk trade. Besides documenting Arai’s love for the game of golf, it is a classic history of early Japanese – American trade relations and the story of the founding of the Tokyo Club and other Japanese – American interests.
So new research indicates the first oriental golfer to play in America, Japanese amateur Ryosuke Arai, was introduced to the game at the Northfield Links, the venerable Atlantic City Country Club, home of many firsts in golf.