BOOK REVIEW | Reflections on Tsuda Umeko: Pioneer of Women’s Education in Japan by Minako Oba

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Umeko Tsuda (1864-1929) is currently in the spotlight, in particular because his portrait will appear on the front of the new Japanese 5,000 yen note which will be issued in 2024.

The little-known Umeko was one of the first five Japanese women to study in the United States. When she was just seven years old, she left her parents’ home and spent eleven years studying in the United States. After returning to Japan and working as a teacher, she decided to return to America and spent 4 years studying biology at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

Umeko later became a pioneer of female higher education in Japan and founded Tsuda University in 1901.

The author of this biography of Umeko Tsuda, Minako Oba, is a novelist. This biography was originally published in Japanese in 1991. However, the subsequent English translation by Oba’s daughter, Yu Tani, is the subject of this review.

Tsuda University main courtyard with pond.

Attic letters

Oba was born a year after Umeko’s death and experienced World War II. She then studied at Tsuda College from 1949 to 1953. In other words, this book is a reflection of a university graduate on the founder of her university.

Oba portrays Umeko’s life from her own perspective, quoting extensively from actual letters that Umeko herself wrote in English over a 30-year period to Adeline Lanman, her “American mother” who took care of the youngster. Umeko. These so-called Attic Letters were found in the attic of the university’s main building in 1984.

In the original Japanese version of the book, Tsuda Umeko (Asahi Shimbun Publishing, 2019), Oba translated the English letters into excellent Japanese, which shows her creative talents as a novelist.

In the English version of the book, however, Umeko’s letters were quoted as written, without translation. Readers can therefore enjoy the exact words written by Umeko herself in English. Therefore, the English translation offers a more direct expression of Umeko’s voice as a young woman.

The cover of the Japanese edition book with obi announcing that Tsuda’s image will be on Japan’s new 5,000 JPY banknote.

A Feminist Perspective on Meiji Japan

These letters contain Umeko’s views on the situation of women at the time and some historical insights from that period.

At one time, Umeko lived in the house of Hirobumi Ito, who was Japan’s first prime minister. She had unique experiences, such as teaching English to his wife, parties at Rokumeikan, a hall used to entertain foreign dignitaries, and observing the domestic side of Ito’s family.

She writes:

They [Ito’s wife and daughters] seem to revere their father, and his word is the law of all, but his faults and morals don’t seem to trouble them much, if at all. Alas, too often such flaws are glossed over, and for the woman there is no help… (page 140)

Her reviews are fascinating because they give us a behind-the-scenes historical glimpse of a politician who ruled Japan during the Meiji era, in addition to Umeko’s feminist perspective.

Tsuda’s influence on the author

However, a unique feature of this book is that it can be read not only as a biography of Tsuda Umeko but also as a story of Minako Oba’s awakening as an author. For example, in the book, she overlaps Umeko’s awakening as an educator with her own awakening as a novelist:

But the idea [to establish a private school] was there, nascent, since she [Umeko] became aware of the world for the first time, or at least from the age of seven. When it was impressed in his young mind that his mission was to learn about foreign lands for the sake of the future of Japanese women, this idea had germinated and matured and was finally in a state of fermentation. Umeko was thirty-six when she made the decision to found a school.

My mind goes back to my own long road as a writer. I too have carried this thought in my mind for as long as I can remember… I was also thirty-six when I wrote Three Crabs, but I had been writing manuscripts in my spare time for over twenty years before. It seems to me that it was my destiny to become a writer… (p. 201)

As such, this book is an autobiography of a Japanese woman, Minako Oba, who was inspired and empowered by Umeko Tsuda.

Front view of Tsuda Universityy.

For students following

The title of the last chapter, “Sowing”, is evocative. This chapter describes Oba’s college days and his search for a way of life. She went to Tsuda College after the war when the percentage of women pursuing higher education was still remarkably low. In 1954, the percentage of women going to college was 2.4% and the rate of women going to college was 2.2%.

Oba recalls that the students “shared a strange devotion” to the founder of Tsuda College and weren’t afraid to choose what they wanted to do because they had “the power of people like Umeko” to back them up.

In his book, Oba introduces his fellow graduates, such as Liberal Democratic Party politician Mayumi Moriyama and former Minister of Education Ryoko Akamatsu, among many others. Their stories suggest that the seeds into which Umeko poured “every bit of her body and soul” have germinated and will continue to germinate for the countless women who follow in their footsteps.

Oba aimed to portray Umeko Tsuda as “not as a public historical figure, but as a living, breathing woman” in her book. By overlapping her own life with Umeko’s life, she succeeded admirably.

About the book

Title: Reflections on Tsuda Umeko: Pioneer of Women’s Education in Japan

Author: Minako Oba

Translator: Yu Tani

Editor: Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture and Industry (Japanese Library)

Date: March 2021

ISBN: 4866581816

Size: Hardcover and digital.

To buy: on Amazon at this link.

For more information: See the publisher’s website, here.

Reviewed by: Professor Mayuka Sato, Ph.D

Professor Mayuka Sato (Ph.D) is a member of the Faculty of Humanities, English and American Culture at Musashi University in Japan. She specializes in British history, particularly the history of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain and Japan. (Photos provided by the author.)

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