Though too young to understand its implications, Tsuda Umeko was a part of the Iwakura Mission that brought the first female Japanese students to the United States. She was just 6 years old.
Tsuda Umeko, born in 1864 in Tokyo, was the daughter of agriculturalist Tsuda Sen and his wife Hatsuko. This was a challenging time in Japan’s history as its over 200-year period of self-isolation was ending and the Emperor Meiji was making many changes and new ideas. Even the empress and her ladies were now expected to attend lectures as well, and listen closely (Nimura 52). Formerly a symbol hidden to the common people’s eyes, this was a sign of changing times. Part of the Iwakura Mission was a chance for young Japanese girls to live in America for 10 years, all expenses paid, with a stipend of eight hundred dollars a month (Nimura 47).
At first, there were no takers on this opportunity. However, Sen was a long-term acquaintance of Kuroda Kiyotaka, director of the Hokkaidō Development Commission, who believed in the importance of women’s education and who petitioned the government to allow women to study abroad (Tachibanaki). It was Kuroda who recommended Umeko as a candidate. So in 1871, the mission set off for the United States. Umeko, donning a red kimono, was accompanied by four other Japanese girls.
While in the United States, Tsuda lived in Washington D.C. with Charles Lanman, secretary to the Japanese legation and his wife, Adeline, who were childless. “They called her their ‘little sunbeam from the land of the rising sun’ and doted on her,” Janice P. Nimura, author of Daughters of the Samurai, said in an interview with the Washington Post (Kelly). After confessing to the Lanman’s of her desire, Tsuda was baptized in July 1873 and the Bishop originally intended to baptize her as an infant, but it is recorded that she was so determined that he baptized her as an adult (Tsuda University).
When the Georgetown girls’ school she attended held its commencement in June 1874, Tsuda was awarded prizes in composition, writing, arithmetic and deportment (Kelly). And when students rose in turn to read aloud, Tsuda was the only one to have memorized her selection: a poem called “The White-Footed Deer” by William Cullen Bryant. Although she hoped to enter university, after 10 years abroad, and facing financial pressure, she opted to return to Japan (Tachibanaki). However, she would not stay for long.
Now in her 20s, she thought of going back to the United States. Opportunities commensurate with her abilities were hard to come by so she accepted her best offer and was hired as a part-time English teacher at a girls’ school and then as a tutor to the daughters of Itō Hirofumi, who went on to become Japan’s first prime minister (Tachibanaki). She still dreamed of starting her own school which is what made her finally decide to study abroad in America again (Tsuda University). By 1889, she returned to the United States to study at Bryn Mawr College, a women’s liberal arts college established in 1885, in Pennsylvania. It is noteworthy that, while she majored in education and English, she also followed in her father’s footsteps in studying biology and even cowrote papers with her advisor, Dr. Thomas H. Morgan, a prominent academic who when on to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1933 (Tachibanaki). She graduated and returned to Japan in 1892, at the age of 28, with the hopes of opening her own school.
It was in 1900 when Tsuda established Joshi Eigaku Juku in Tokyo. This is after facing many obstacles like securing funding, lack of demand for women’s education, and the difficulty of finding capable teachers due to the lack of institutions for women (Tachibanaki). She used her connections to arrange to hire American educators including Alice Bacon and Anna Hartshorne. Both women she had become acquainted with while living in the United States. Sutematsu Oyama and Shigeko Uryu, who were also a part of the Iwakura Mission, assisted in the founding of the school as well (Tsuda University). The school’s main focus was English language studies and the students excelled under the passionate training of Tsuda and the other faculty (Tachibanaki). Tsuda was a pioneer for Japanese women and made sure all her efforts went to her passion.
On August 16th, 1929, Tsuda passed away from illness at the age of 64. The school was renamed Tsuda Eigaku Juku in her honor and is now referred to as Tsuda University today (Tachibanaki), Tsuda’s legacy will go beyond the university she founded. In 2019, it was announced that the portrait of Umeko Tsuda will be used on the 5,000 yen note. These notes will be in circulation by 2024.
Daughters of the Samurai (2015) by Janice P. Nimura
The White Plum: A Biography of Ume Tsuda, Pioneer of Women’s Higher Education in Japan (2015, originally published 1991) by Yoshiko Furuki
Umeko Tsuda ~The international student who became a banknote~, a TV Asahi drama broadcast in 2022
Umeko Tsuda, a short video by NHK for School (in Japanese)
Celebrating Umeko Tsuda, Google Doodle on November 10th, 2020:
Kelly, John. “In 1871 Japanese Schoolgirl Ume Tsuda Came to Washington and Revolutionized Her Country - the Washington Post.” web.archive.org, 30 Mar. 2020, web.archive.org/web/20200330061214/www.washingtonpost.com/local/in-1871-japan-sent-a-7-year-old-schoolgirl-to-washington-to-learn-about-america/2020/03/28/877b234a-6f93-11ea-a3ec-70d7479d83f0_story.html. Accessed 15 Nov. 2023.
Nimura, Janice P. Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back. W. W. Norton & Company, 4 May 2015.