The Agnes Irwin School recently ran a full-page color advertisement in the Inquirer with photos of this year’s graduates. It made me recall Agnes Irwin’s brother Robert, and an unusual bit of Philadelphia history.

I became aware of it in 1972. The Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence were meeting in Philadelphia, and had a luncheon at the Franklin Institute. I was invited by a descendant I knew.

Dozens of tables were spread out below Ben’s giant statue. Someone read the names of the signers, and each descendant stood up.

Benjamin Franklin’s name was called. Among those who stood up was a lovely Japanese woman! I talked to her later. Her name was Yukiko Irwin. She gave me her address and phone number.

In a few days, my wife and I were having tea with Benjamin Franklin’s Japanese great-great-great-great granddaughter in her apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan.

Here’s the story: Ben Franklin’s daughter, Sarah, married Richard Bache, a Philadelphia businessman who succeeded Ben as Postmaster General.

One of their eight children, Sophia, married William Wallace Irwin, a former mayor of Pittsburgh and former Congressman. President John Tyler appointed Irwin charge d’affairs at Copenhagen, and his son Robert was born there.

Two of Robert’s three sisters, Agnes and Sophia, founded their school for girls in 1869. (In 1894, Agnes went off to become the first dean of Radcliffe College.)

Robert had gone to Japan in 1866 as agent for an American steamship company, only 12 years after Commodore Matthew C. Perry signed the first United States treaty with the Japanese, whether they liked it and his big battleship or not.

Irwin helped organize one of Japan’s major businesses. He visited Philadelphia once, with the Japanese attending the Centennial Exhibition in 1876.

In 1882, Irwin married Tachechi Iki in the first legally sanctioned marriage between an American and a Japanese. Their six children were educated in the United States.

Two boys, with Princeton degrees, went back to Japan and married Japanese girls. One of them was Yukiko Irwin’s father.

Growing up, Yuki was told that her American ancestor was one of the founders of the United States and she should be proud of it. She was a teenager during World War II, a disturbing time to be half American in Japan.

She came to the United States in 1953. She studied social work at the University of Indiana and Boston University. She went to New York, and married an American. They lived in Europe and the Middle East.

After a divorce, she came back to New York in 1961, worked for a Japanese investment firm, and was a practitioner of shiatsu, a form of Japanese massage. She died in New York in 2014 at age 89.

One story she told: Robert once sent the Irwin sisters in Philadelphia a box which, he wrote, contained a special tea that was a favorite of the emperor.

The Irwins gathered some of their Philadelphia society friends for a tea party. Sophie carefully scooped some powder from the box and brewed it.

After a few sips, the ladies were gagging and grimacing. Agnes declared that they were all excused from drinking the vile tea.

Afterward, a servant discovered a small, fancy box inside the larger one. It contained the tea. The fashionable Philadelphia ladies had been drinking a broth brewed from some unknown Japanese packing material.

Visit columnist Jim Smart’s website at

comments powered by Disqus