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First Female College Graduate

Ichiro Suzuki 2022 marks the140th anniversary of the first Japanese woman’s earning a bachelor’s degree. Sutematsu Yamakawa not only was in the Class of 1882 at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, but also graduated magna cum laude. (Her older brother Kenjiro Yamakawa was the first Japanese man to graduate from college, earning BS from Yale University in 1875. He would become the University of Tokyo’s president at the turn of the 20th century.) A revolution turned Japan upside down in 1968. Under intense pressure, the last Tokugawa Shogun returned the authority to govern the country to the Emperor. Bright, young and ambitious revolutionaries who established a new government with the Emperor’s blessings had no idea about how to run a modern country under what kind of institutions. In an attempt to emulate the countries that already took off in the modern age and went through an industrial revolution, the new Meiji government sent a large delegation of over 100 men to an around-the-world grand tour between 1871 and 1873. The delegation was called Iwakura Mission, after a 46 year old leader of the tour named Tomomi Iwakura, who was not a samurai but a man of noble origin. Five girls also crossed the Pacific with the delegation for the purpose of studying in the U.S. Kiyotaka Kuroda, the new government’s high ranking official who would later become a prime minister, thought that women needed to be educated in a modern country, and decided to send very young girls to the post-Civil War U.S. The girls were aged between 6 and 16 at the time of departure from the port of Yokohama. While two of the five returned to Japan early, unable to fit themselves to life in America, others stayed in the U.S. for ten years without coming back home once. Sutematsu Yamakawa left the country at 11 and earned her degree at Vassar at 22. Sutematsu Yamakawa and Umeko Tsuda returned to Japan in 1882 on the same boat, with hopes of becoming pioneers for Japanese women in a new modern age and fulfilling moral obligations to the new government that allowed them to study in the U.S. for such a long time on its expenses. Umeko was only 17 at that time. What awaited the two, however, deeply disappointed them. There were no jobs for them in the public service area, which would have allowed the government to take advantage of their experiences in the U.S., including language skills. The government gave little thought to what they would do upon their return, unlike the cases of men sent overseas paid by the government. In addition, their Japanese, which was supposed to be their first language, had completely rusted after having been hardly used for a decade, and was well below levels required in the workplace. Having realized there was not yet any place in Japan for highly educated women, Sutematsu chose to marry Army General Iwao Ohyama, a year after returning to Tokyo. The general, 18 years older than she, had lost his wife and was left with three little girls. He was educated in Switzerland, sent by the Army, and was no ordinary Japanese man. As a general’s wife, Sutematsu’s stock soared, shining in the society that was artificially created by the new government in the 1880s to emulate the one in the West. Putting what she learned in the U.S. into practice, Sutematsu led upper-class Japanese women in charitable works in a land where such a concept was totally foreign. On the other hand, Umeko Tsuda pursued her passion of teaching English to Japanese women. After several years of teaching English in Tokyo at a school for upper class girls, she returned to the U.S. to study again. At the end of her first 11 year stint in the U.S., she was still too young for college education. In 1889 Umeko entered Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, as a special status student not on a regular program. She was focused on biology, as an assistant to Professor Thomas Hunt Morgan, who would later win a Nobel prize in medicine and physiology as a Columbia University professor. She co-authored an academic paper with Professor Morgan. It would be on the Quaterly Jounanal of Microscopic Science, to makes her the first Japanese woman to have her paper published in an academic journal. Umeko Tsuda did not earn a degree for what she did at Bryn Mawr because of her status as a student. After two and a half years there, however, Bryn Mawr asked her to stay on to continue her research. Working under Professor Morgan, she might have left her footprint in a field of biology. Umeko returned to Tokyo because she was on paid-leave from the girls’ school. In 1892, she returned to the school and started teaching again. In 1899, Umeko Tsuda started her own school to teach English to young women, making her dream come true. Duchess Sutematsu Ohyama vigorously assisted her effort, since it was at one point a her career goal, too. She was a formidable fund raiser for the school and sat on its board. The school Umeko started is thriving today as Tsuda Women’s College. 140 years after Sutematsu’s graduation from Vassar College, Japan is hardly a country kind to highly educated women, placing 116th in the 2022 gender gap rankings, dead last in the G7. This is especially true in the corporate world while the government bureaucracy is a touch better. In tune with the trend in the 21st century, Corporate Japan has been making a strong push to make their companies friendlier places for women. Institutionally, Japanese companies have made commendable progresses in making themselves accommodative not only to women but also to minorities of other kinds, as LGBTQ has become a popular buzzword. Such values, however, may not be shared at all level of Corporate Japan by all people (especially among men). A chance for capable women to rise to the top is hopelessly smaller than for men of comparable ability. There remains a massive gap to be narrowed. In 2019 the Ministry of Finance made it public that Umeko Tsuda’s portrait would be on newly designed 5,000 yen banknotes that the Bank of Japan issues, replacing novelist Ichiyo Higuchi who is the first woman to be on BOJ notes. The government recognizes Umeko’s outstanding leadership and contribution that lifted women’s place in a rigid Japanese society. Umeko Tsuda’s new notes begin circulation in 2024.


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