Two reminders of Brenau University's Japanese connection remain on the Gainesville school's campus.
A weathered stone lantern that once graced Lake Takeda in the area of the present tennis courts now stands in the plaza area in the school's sorority circle off Prior Street. Two Japanese maples beside the Science Building on Washington Street guard another marker donated to the memory of Aya Takeda, who started it all in 1906, according to Brenau's archives.
An American missionary converted her to the Protestant religion, and she began to yearn to study in the United States. She spent six years at Brenau, and made her mark as a modest and courteous student, often wearing her native Japanese clothing. Her mother died while Aya was at Brenau, but her trip to America had taken 30 days by boat, and she was unable to return to Japan to be with her family.
When she completed her degree at Brenau, Aya returned to Japan as a teacher and married a prominent Japanese statesman, G.H. Uyehara. Both were staunch supporters of democratic government and sometimes stood alone in that view in pre-World War II Japan.
As talk of war intensified, their then-controversial positions put them in danger. Aya's husband outwardly opposed war, losing him friends and business. Uyehara's opposition eventually cost him his seat in the Japanese Diet, and he even faced a military court, which fortunately didn't convict him.
Nevertheless, the family suffered, especially young daughter Kazuko, who didn't understand why her father stood up to those who wanted to go to war. The family home burned during the war, and her brother died in the fighting. Despite the hardships, her parents' worldview eventually led Kazuko to become the second generation to attend Brenau in faraway Gainesville, Ga. Her father returned to his place of honor in the government after the war.
When Kazuko arrived, the United States was recovering from its war with Japan and Germany. English was a forbidden language in Japan during the war, so "Kazzie," as she became known, struggled with it at first. Her mother's friends in Gainesville and the Brenau community befriended her to make her adjustment to her new environment more comfortable.
As did her mother, Kazuko succeeded at Brenau, graduating in 1953. She moved to Washington, D.C., and married David Vance. To ease her parents' concern that she wouldn't be marrying a Japanese, the couple vowed to remain in Japan for five years.
They eventually returned to Washington, and Kazuko maintained her family's connection to Brenau. She placed the marker between the maple trees on Washington Street in memory of her mother and in honor of those who befriended her in Gainesville, Desma Pentecost Kenyon, Sallie Waddell Evans and Dr. Heywood J. Pearce, who was college president.
The inscription on the lantern read, "This Japanese lantern, which once stood on the shores of Lake Takeda, now stands as a lasting tribute to former Brenau student, Aya Takeda. It serves to remind us of the love she had for Brenau and of the enduring impression she made on others while she was here. Her journey from Japan to Brenau was truly a voyage of courage."
No Japanese students are currently on roll at Brenau, but many other international students are. They continue the tradition that had begun when Aya Takeda made her long ocean voyage from her homeland to what must have seemed a strange land in a tiny town in North Georgia.
Kazuko Uyehara Vance still lives in Washington with her husband, David.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays in The Times and on gainesvilletimes.com.