Gottfried Wagener – Key Contributor to Japan’s Advanced Education and Technology Development in the Meiji Period

Born in Hannover, Germany, Gottfried Wagener first traveled to Japan at the age of 37 in 1868. Urged by the Japanese government, he taught physics and chemistry at the then newly established University of Tokyo and the Kyoto Prefectural Medical School (the present Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine) and was one of the founders of the Tokyo Vocational School (the present Tokyo Institute of Technology). His efforts injected new enthusiasm toward western civilization in the minds of young students of the Meiji era.

Drawing on his accumulated experience as an engineer in his homeland, Wagener contributed to the modernization of Japanese industry by introducing economical European techniques to the field of Japanese traditional crafts, including pottery, while taking advantage of an innate spirit of innovation.

While drawing attention not only to the beauty of Japan’s fine and applied arts, but also its economic value, Wagener strove to present the nation’s crafts to a broader audience in Europe and the United States at world expositions held in Vienna and Philadelphia. From 1883 to 1886, he was the chairman of the German East Asian Society, where he worked tirelessly to fuse Asian and western cultures.

Wagener maintained a keen interest in mathematics and natural sciences from an early age. He studied under the tutelage of Carl Friedrich Gauss, who has been described as the foremost of mathematicians since antiquity, at Göttingen University, and received his doctor’s degree in mathematics at the age of 21. Prior to his arrival in Japan, he resided in France and Switzerland for long periods. Speaking several languages, Wagener was ahead of his time and a true cosmopolitan.

He lived in Japan until the end of his life at age 61 and was buried according to his wishes in Tokyo’s Aoyama cemetery. Wagener is honored by monuments both in Okazaki Park in Kyoto and the Ookayama campus of Tokyo Institute of Technology.