Luther Gulick was born and spent a large part of his youth in Japan, an experience that helped mold his character and would serve him well later on in life.
A short-tempered child, Gulick began to change when he was taken under the wing of the grandfather of the family’s maid. The man used to be a retainer of the local Shogun when Japan was still a closed society; as Gulick recounted:
“… he showed me his old ceremonial sword. He said a good retainer was brave, able to ignore pain, and never lost his temper because that was not only a sign of weakness but handicapped a man in meeting any challenge. These Zen virtues, and his tales of old Japan, made a great impression on me.”
A lack of suitable schools left Gulick to be privately tutored; however, the boy had great difficulty at first, until it was discovered that he could not see properly. At the age of eight, Luther was sent to Tokyo for an eye exam and to acquire his first set of eyeglasses; eye problems would be a recurring factor for much of his life. While in Tokyo, Gulick took the opportunity to pick-up his first bicycle, proudly reporting that he was able to ride through Tokyo’s traffic — which at the turn of the 20th century consisted of rickshaws, oxcarts, and pedestrians — with “only one spill.”
Christmas Card and Calendar Sent to Gulick from Japan
Fluent in English, Japanese, and later German, Gulick was sometimes called on to act as an interpreter for visiting westerners. In one case he recalled acting as a translator for the writer Jack London:
“My first exposure to Western prudery came when I managed persuade the managers of the Dogo Hot Springs to let Jack London use the most sacred bathing pool for his bath. As he lolled in the translucent and steaming water, in came a maid with tea service. Such a panic and scramble for cover. ”
Gulick’s fluency allowed him access to areas where other foreigners living in Japan normally did not have permission to enter. In one case Gulick was able to walk into a Russian prisoner of war camp where POWs of the Russo-Japanese War were kept. Becoming friendly with the Russian officers confined there, Gulick promised to mail their letters for them, much to the horror of Sidney Gulick, Luther’s father, who had the correspondence burned.
Luther Gulick’s Speech, Partially Given in Japanese.
In 1904 Gulick’s father was offered the position of professor at Doshisha Theological Seminary. He accepted with the stipulation that he be allowed to engage in studies for two years in Europe and the United States, taking Luther and the entire family with him. While many were sad to see the elder Gulick leave, his son’s hijinks were less missed. One of the missionaries working with his father was purported to remark: “Yes, Dr. Gulick’s departure will be a great loss to the Mission. But after all, he will take Luther with him.”
Luther Gulick would eventually return to the land of his birth but it was to be a defeated, broken Japan. Gulick will be among those working to try and rebuild that nation, but that is a story for another post.