Hitotsubashi University began as the Commercial Training School (Shoho Koshujo) established privately in the business district of Tokyo in 1875, about twenty years after Japan had emerged from two and a half centuries of national isolation. The founder of this institution was Arinori Mori, who was later to become the first Minister of Education and play a leading role in establishing the educational policy of the new government. In his youth, Mori had studied at University College London, and was later appointed as a Japanese diplomat to the United States. While in London and Washington, D.C., he was able to observe directly the economic prosperity of Western countries, which he realized was due to a rational system of management in commerce and foreign trade, and to the dynamism of their businessmen. Looking at the contemporary economic situation of his own country, which had just started on the long path to modernization, he felt keenly the need to produce businessmen of a more modern kind, who could conduct business on an equal footing with foreign businessmen, and who could take the place of the traditional merchants trained under the apprentice system. With this in mind he established his institution, which expanded gradually with the support of such influential figures as Eiichi Shibusawa and Takashi Masuda. Shibusawa is regarded as the father of modern Japanese industry and established a number of large enterprises still active today, while Masuda was the founder of Mitsui & Co., Ltd. After coming under the administration of the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and then the Tokyo Prefectural Government, the institution became a national school under the direct supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce in March 1884, and changed its name to the Tokyo Commercial School.

1885 was a very important year for the history of Hitotsubashi University. In May of this year, the Tokyo Commercial School came under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, and absorbed the Tokyo Foreign Language School. The School then relocated to the site of the latter institution in an education district called Hitotsubashi in the vicinity of the Imperial Palace. The crest of the present University is in fact that of Tokyo Commercial School and was adopted in the following year. Not long after these events, a succession of commercial schools opened throughout the country, and all of them modeled their curriculum on that of the Tokyo Commercial School, which may thus be said to have set the standards for commercial schools all over Japan.

In October 1887, the status of the Tokyo Commercial School was raised to that of a Higher Commercial School, which became its name until April 1902, when another such school (which later became Kobe University) was established in the Kansai district, and the present School was renamed the Tokyo Higher Commercial School. The progress of industrialization in Japan and the expansion of its foreign trade had created a definite need for institutions of higher education in commerce and economics. The Tokyo Higher Commercial School offered a four-year course, the first year of which was for preparatory studies, and a two-year course of advanced study for graduates; Japan's economic development at this time is said to have owed a great deal to the activities of its graduates. It should be added here that an attached training institute, founded in 1886, later developed into the present Tokyo Institute of Technology, while an attached foreign language school founded in 1897 developed into the modern Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

During World War I, Japan's economy grew remarkably. By this time, the importance of commercial education, which had been neglected during the feudal period when merchants ranked lowest in society, had come to be quite generally recognized, and the social standing of "captains of industry" had become firmly established. Naturally enough, there was a general demand that the status of the Tokyo Higher Commercial School be raised to that of a degree-conferring college, and the Tokyo University of Commerce was finally established in April 1920 as the highest institution of commercial education in the country, having managed to avoid being absorbed into the Tokyo Imperial University (the present University of Tokyo). The new institution offered three courses, each of three years' duration: a preparatory course, a regular degree course, and a non-degree commercial course.

Notwithstanding its subsequent expansion and development, the path that the University followed was far from smooth. The Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1923 destroyed all its buildings with the fortunate exception of the library, which at that time housed some 300,000 valuable books, both Japanese and foreign. In 1930 the University moved to Kunitachi, its present location, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of central Tokyo, where a newly designed campus befitting its status was built. There is a memorable anecdote about Joseph A. Schumpeter (1883-1950), who visited the University in January 1931, just after the new campus had been completed. To the professors who were very apologetic about receiving him in a newly built, unheated room in the depths of winter, Schumpeter said, "A university is not a building." Referring to the example of the University of Bologna in the Middle Ages, he reportedly told the professors that it was unnecessary to be concerned about the buildings because the most fruitful research and education could be conducted even in the very poorest surroundings.

With the growth of militarism in the 1930s, leading ultimately to Japanese participation in World War II, the colleges and universities of this country entered their darkest period, and even the Tokyo University of Commerce, known for its liberal spirit, was no exception. Its students were sent to the battlefield, to munitions factories, or to farming villages, and its buildings were employed for manufacturing airplane parts. Even the name of the University was changed, for a short period, to the Tokyo University of Industry.

However, when the American education system was introduced as part of the postwar education reforms, the University was among the first to adopt the new system. It was reorganized as a four-year university in 1949, adopting the name of Hitotsubashi University.

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