Tsuda Umeko (1864-1929)


Christians Who Changed their World


The Tsuda family were low-ranking samurai from Sakura, Japan. Tsuda Sen, the fourth son of the family, went to school at age 15 to learn English, Dutch, and Western learning. With the Meiji Restoration, he joined the government and enthusiastically embraced the Westernization of Japan. He became very interested in the education of girls, and in particular in the possibility of girls participating as exchange students with Western countries. When the Iwakura Mission (1871) was sent around the world to learn about Western ways of doing things, he volunteered his six year old daughter Mume (or Ume, meaning “plum”) to go.

Tsuda Sen probably regarded his daughter as expendable. She was his second child and second daughter, and he was so angry when she was born that he stormed out of the house. In many ways he was and would remain very traditional: he valued sons, and believed that even with education women should hold a decidedly subordinate and inferior position in society. In fact, his first daughter was adopted by an uncle so Tsuda Sen would not have the expense of raising her.

Tsuda Sen attended the Viennese Expo in 1873, where he learned about Western agricultural techniques. He returned to Japan in 1874 and set up the Gakunosha Nogakko (Gakunosha School of Agriculture) in Tokyo; he also continued his entrepreneurial interests by beginning to sell Western vegetables, notably corn, via mail advertising, and began an agricultural magazine. About this time, he converted to Christianity and later influenced the founding of the Friends School in Tokyo in 1887.

Meanwhile, his daughter Ume settled in Washington, DC, in the family of Charles Lanham, the secretary of the Japanese legation to the United States. Lanham had no children of his own, and he and his wife treated Ume as their own child. About a year after her arrival, she asked to be baptized. Although the Lanhams were Episcopalians, they thought it best for her to attend the non-sectarian Old Swedes Church.

Ume Tsuda (as she was known in the United States) studied in America until she was 17. She was particularly adept at language, math, science, and music. When she returned to Japan in 1882, she had serious culture shock: she had nearly forgotten the language, and the inferior status of women in Japanese culture shocked her. The country was experiencing a backlash against Westernization, and thus very traditional Neo-Confucian ideals (including the subordination of women) were being promoted in Japan. As a result, she decided that she would never enter a traditional Japanese marriage, preferring a companionate marriage built on mutual love and respect of the type she had seen in America.

Called to teach
Tsuda was hired as a tutor to the children of Itō Hirobumi, soon to be prime minister of Japan, and in 1885 moved on to teach at the Peeresses’ School, which had been established by the Imperial Household to educate its daughters. This was a bad fit for Tsuda: the school was essentially a finishing school, intended to polish manners and prepare the girls to be wives and mothers. Tsuda began to believe that she had a “unique destiny” to improve educational opportunities for Japanese women, but to do that, she needed more education herself. And so she returned to the United States for further studies.

Tsuda attended Bryn Mawr College from 1889-1892, where she studied English literature, German, philosophy and biology. She also attended St. Hilda’s College, Oxford University. She did so well that Bryn Mawr offered her a fellowship to pursue an advanced degree, but she thought that she owed it to the royal family to return and to improve women’s education.

The only school providing higher education for women in Japan at that time was the Tokyo Women’s Normal School, so Tsuda decided that Japanese women needed the opportunity which she herself had to participate in educational exchanges abroad. Accordingly, she began giving public speeches about the subject and with the help of some Quaker friends soon raised $8,000 to provide scholarships for Japanese women. (By way of comparison, in 1900, undergraduate tuition at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania was $150, with room and board ranging from $185-$250; textbooks were $10-$50).

Tsuda returned to Japan and once again began teaching at the Peeresses’ School as well as at Tokyo Women’s Normal School. She also began writing and lecturing about the status of women.

Girl’s education was expanding at this time, in part because of the Girl’s Higher Education Law of 1889, which mandated that each prefecture establish at least one public girl’s middle school. Unfortunately, these schools continued to focus on girl’s domestic roles.

The Women’s Institute
Tsuda realized that they would never provide girls with the same opportunities for education as boys, and so she resigned from the Peeresses’ School and established the Joshi Eigaku Juku (The Women's Institute for English Studies) in 1900. Following the example of Bryn Mawr, which insisted that students meet the same standards demanded by Harvard, she determined that her school would follow the standards of the very rigorous and prestigious Tokyo University. The Joshi Eigaku Juku focused on liberal arts and discussion of contemporary topics, with the goal of developing the students’ personalities and encouraging creativity.

In 1902, Tsuda became legally independent of her family and changed her personal name to Umeko.

Tsuda had to work very hard to support herself and fund the new school. In addition to teaching at her own school, she took jobs at others, tutored daughters of friends, and engaged in fundraising. Her efforts paid off when, in 1903, the school was approved as a vocational school by the Ministry of Education. Under Tsuda’s leadership, the school’s standards were so rigorous that in 1905, it became the first school in Japan whose graduates did not need to take government examinations in order to obtain a teaching license.

Unfortunately, Tsuda’s unrelenting efforts to support her school and to promote women’s education took its toll on her health. She suffered a stroke and in 1919 retired to a cottage in Kamakura. Her health continued to decline, and she died there in 1929.

In 1933, Joshi Eigaku Juku was renamed Tsuda Eigaku Joku; it became Tsuda College in 1948. It is the oldest and most prestigious private women’s college in Japan. The school has had over 27,500 graduates who have become active in all walks of life.

Tsuda Umeko has been criticized by some feminists because she opposed women’s suffrage and activism, instead preferring that women maintain a more low key, “ladylike” profile in public. But her goal was different from these feminists: she wanted to produce a cadre of highly trained, creative women who could be economically independent as teachers of English, one of the few socially acceptable professions for women, and she thought that a more strident approach would have been counterproductive to that goal.

Like other educational reformers of the period such as Niijima Jō and Nitobe Inazo, Tsuda Umeko recognized the connection between Western learning and Christianity, and she shared with Nitobe a concern for women’s education born from her experience in America and her connection with the Quakers. Her sense of calling based on her recognition of the connection between Christianity, education, and women’s potential inspired, informed, and energized her work.

Next Steps

Read all three of Glenn’s articles on great Japanese Christians from the past. Share them with some friends, and discuss how they challenge you to want to serve the Lord.


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