Tuesday 12 November 2019

Umeko Tsuda and Gender (In)equality in Japan (Part 1: History)

First, many apologies to my regular readers for the long gap since the last post - now is a horribly busy time for most university teachers in Japan. Actually, Japanese has a wonderfully evocative phrase that captures the unrelenting nature of the autumn term: jitensha sōgyō (自転車操業)literally "bicycle work", a phrase which suggests you have to keep pedalling furiously just to keep on top of things - with the implication that if you stop, even for a minute, you crash to the ground! In an attempt to keep pedalling, today's blog post stays close to home, focusing on the founder of the university where I work - Umeko Tsuda. I'm going to split the post into two parts: part 1 (this post) introducing Umeko and her historical role as a pioneer of female education in Japan and part 2 (coming soon - I hope!) focusing on gender (in)equality in Japan today.

Umeko age 9
Friends and family in the UK often act with surprise when they find out I work at an all-female university (joshi-dai=女子大). In the UK, female-only institutions are rare: when I was a student at Durham University there were two women-only colleges but these have since turned co-ed, as have most other places in Britain - it seems that today only three colleges at Cambridge University remain single-sex in the UK. The U.S. has more, with over thirty active women's colleges - and apparently three men-only colleges - but the trend is firmly moving away from gender segregation. In Japan, in contrast, women-only higher-education institutions remain ubiquitous: this page lists seventy-eight four-year universities (including two national universities funded by the government) and over one hundred two-year colleges known as tanki-daigaku (短期大学).

In a country that was ranked by the WEF in 2018 at 110 on its gender gap index the first instinct is to conclude that such institutions are a reflection of - and reinforce - gender inequality in Japan. Certainly, there are over-protective parents who look to keep their "young-lady" (ojōsama) "locked-in-a-box" daughters (hako-iri-musume) away from the real world by sending them to female-only higher education institutions. On the other hand, there are universities like Tsuda whose motto is empowerment and which promote the advancement of women in society. To mark 90 years since the death of its founder, the university is currently holding a special memorial exhibition at the University Archives (pamphlet right) which includes many of her personal belongings, including the red kimono she wore when leaving Yokohama Port for the U.S.  (seen in the image below - Umeko is second on the left, the youngest of five).

The story of Umeko Tsuda who founded the university (originally the "women's institute of English studies") in 1900 is rather fascinating. In December 1871, 6-year-old Umeko left for the United States (volunteered by her father!), the youngest member of the diplomatic push known as the Iwakura Mission (岩倉使節団) whose goal was to modernise Japan and renegotiate the "unequal treaties" with the West. The departure of the young Umeko is captured in the beautiful painting by Tadashi Moriya (守屋多々志) on permanent display outside two of the lecture theatres. She eventually returned in 1882 after becoming a Christian and having forgotten the Japanese language. Thereafter, she threw herself into the promotion of women's education and the raising of women's status in Japan; after further trips to the U.S. and England which included much fund raising she returned to her native country to establish the first private school of higher education for women in Japan. Today her voice is still heard - in the form of an audio recording - at the graduation ceremony and students can also visit her grave on campus, which is reached by passing along a small plum orchard: plum is ume in Japanese which was also her original name before she changed it to Umeko. Be careful though: the superstition goes that those who visit Umeko's grave - she never married - will never be able to marry themselves!