A well-known phrase: “Boys, be ambitious!”

A well-known phrase: “Boys, be ambitious!”

  Lately, the number of searches for words related to the widely known phrase “Boys, be ambitious!” has been increasing. I have tried to ascertain the reasons for this, and have found that a number of high school and junior high school textbooks carry the following words:

“Boys, be ambitious! Be ambitious not for money or for selfish aggrandizement, not for that evanescent thing which men call fame. Be ambitious for the attainment of all that a man ought to be.”

  These words seem to have spread from an edition of the “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” column from March 16, 1964. The column referenced a book, Research on Educational Thought in the Early Meiji Period (1944) by Eijiro Inatomi, and introduced its translation of Dr. Clark’s words; “Boys, be ambitious. Be ambitious not for money or for selfish aggrandizement, not for that evanescent thing which men call fame. Be ambitious for the attainment of all that a man ought to be.”

  In the column, the concept of ambition was described as an ethical question that denies wealth and honor in favor of internal virtue. These ideas relate to one interpretation by people who emphasized their orientation to God and said, “Boys, be ambitious in God.”

  However, there seem to be several points that suggest it is unreasonable to attribute these words in full to Dr. Clark. First, “Boys, be ambitious!” is said to be the parting utterance of Dr. Clark, who was on horseback at the time, to students seeing him off in Shimamatsu on his departure for home (as described in books written by Masatake Oshima, a student who entered Sapporo Agricultural College in its first year). Considering the situation, these words were regarded as an alternative form of farewell. It is actually doubtful that the students would even have been able to hear his words. Secondly, Dr. Clark had never disregarded wealth and honor as being sordid. For example, in his speech at the Sapporo Agricultural College opening ceremony, he encouraged students to attain positions in which they could amass suitable property and immortal fame as well as the highest honor and responsibility. This means he pronounced that there were no obstacles to students becoming capable resources for the country through their untiring efforts in the Japanese society of the time, which had just broken away from a traditional class system, and that he expected the students to have youthful (or “lofty”) ambition. Dr. Clark particularly stressed the necessity of diligence and abstinence in achieving this, reflecting a Puritan mentality whereby people commit themselves to secular occupations and believe in the grace of God.

  The question now arises as to who added the extra sentences, and here we have very little to go on*. In Inatomi’s book cited in the “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” column, he did not indicate the source of the words, but it is likely that he was referring to a section describing Dr. Clark written by Tokiomi Kaigo in Dictionary of Education (1936) published by Iwanami Shoten. Kaigo may have written the section based on an account of Dr. Clark by Kosuke Kobayashi in an enlarged and revised edition of Comprehensive Dictionary of Education (1918) published by Dobunkan. In relation to the quotations from the English original, Kobayashi mentioned that the added sentences were to explain what Dr. Clark intended to say in his words “Boys, be ambitious” (referred to as BBA). However, Kaigo describes the whole of the English utterance as a farewell by Dr. Clark, which may well be the cause of the later confusion.

  In conclusion, I would like to briefly outline how BBA was recognized during the period of Sapporo Agricultural College. Inexplicably, this now-widely known phrase seemed quite unfamiliar even at Sapporo Agricultural College until around the middle of the Meiji period (late 1880s – early 1890s). It is, for example, not even certain that Kanzo Uchimura – a student who entered the college in its second year and later made speeches on the phrase – knew of it during his schooldays. He posted an essay entitled “The missionary work of William S. Clark” to the Christian Union (an American newspaper) on April 22, 1886, just a month after Dr. Clark had passed away, but did not mention the BBA phrase in his description of the send-off in Shimamatsu. Although this does not necessarily mean that he was unaware of it, it does at least indicate that the phrase had not been emphasized at that time.

  The earliest known reference to BBA in literature was in 1894 in an article in Keirin (Vol. 13), a journal of the agricultural college’s Literature Association written by a preparatory course student called Ikusaburo Ando (who later became the Director of the Japan-Brazil Takushoku). The article was entitled “William S. Clark,” and included the description, “After a while calmly riding his horse, he looked back at his students and shouted, ‘Boys, be ambitious like this old man.’ And then he whipped the horse and hit the dusty road.” The expression “like this old man” has many connotations, but has a rather theatrical ring to it. There is also the question of whether Dr. Clark – a man in his early 50s – would refer to himself as an old man. In any case, Ando’s article seems to tell us that the BBA phrase was not well known among students back in those days in many ways, including the actual sound of it.

  In 1898, the Literature Association edited a book called Sapporo Agricultural College (published by Shokabo). The tome bore the phrase “Boys, be ambitious” as the title on its first page, and described the scene of Clark’s departure in the text as “It is said that he whipped the horse, and within a second was gone. Indeed, the phrase “Boys, be ambitious” that appears on the first page of this book was his parting shot, and ……”. This book was written in an ornate and stately style, and gained popularity to the extent that a third edition was developed. It was after the publication of this book that the BBA phrase started appearing in the publications of the agricultural college. Whatever the case, the phrase seemed to be recalled and given special significance once Sapporo Agricultural College had laid a firm foundation, and self-confidence and pride had developed among its students after being buried for a long time. (Toshiyuki Akizuki)

*Based on research by Dr. Roland, an English instructor at the Agricultural College of Tohoku Imperial University.

(Reprinted from the Yuin Hokkaido University Library bulletin Vol. 29)