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Meiji Women's Educators as Public Intellectuals: Shimoda Utako and Tsuda Umeko

From: U.S.-Japan Women's Journal
Number 44, 2013
pp. 67-92 | 10.1353/jwj.2013.0012

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Although Shimoda Utako (1854-1936, born Hirao Seki) and Tsuda Umeko (1865-1929, born Tsuda Ume) are known primarily as women's educators, they contributed more broadly to Meiji-era discourse as public intellectuals who led organizations and published widely on issues of social and political reform. Like the predominantly male members of the new middle class whom David Ambaras has described as having "established themselves as authorities on issues of relevance to the nation state and the daily lives of its people," Shimoda and Tsuda engaged in the public discourse on modernity and the nation by articulating the importance of women's education in broad terms and advocating expanded opportunities for women to achieve economic self-sufficiency. In this study of Shimoda and Tsuda's role as public intellectuals, I examine the factors that contributed to their successful professional careers as women's educators, analyze their educational philosophies and the institutions they established to implement them, discuss their leadership of women's organizations, and evaluate their contributions to a gendered conception of the new middle class.

While their careers intersected only briefly, Shimoda and Tsuda shared many similarities that suggest both the opportunities and the constraints that shaped women's participation in public discourse during the Meiji period. Both Shimoda and Tsuda used nationalism as their authorizing discourse; and both interpreted the status of women as an indication of national progress and strength. Both articulated a rationale for educating women in terms of collective rather than individual benefit, although both claimed it necessary for women to develop the capacity for economic self-sufficiency. Neither woman, however, asserted the equality of men and women, campaigned for female suffrage, or argued for the expansion of women's political rights.

Developing Careers of Distinction

Shimoda and Tsuda were mentored by individuals who recognized their academic ability, envisioned their potential for professional careers, and prepared them to take advantage of the new opportunities available to women in the Meiji period. As was frequently the case with male members of the new middle class, according to David Ambaras, Shimoda and Tsuda shared an intellectual inheritance from fathers who had served in government: "While imbibing new ideas of success and career goals [they] inherited traditions that stressed the importance of intellectual and moral cultivation geared to public service and improvement of the peoples' lives." With their fathers' initial influence, both women built academic careers based on their expertise in languages, literatures, and cultures; their outlook was cosmopolitan, and their careers were significantly shaped by foreign travel and international connections.

Shimoda's scholarly reputation was initially shaped by her study of kangaku (Chinese learning), which had dominated education during the Tokugawa period and was, in the Meiji period as well, regarded as the hallmark of a good education. Born into the Hirao clan of kangaku scholars (as the oldest child of Hirao Jīzō), Shimoda was educated in the Chinese classics and gained a reputation as a prodigy in the writing of waka (poems of five lines and thirty-one syllables). Central to the "feminine" tradition in Japanese aristocratic culture, the writing of waka was considered an important part of a woman's education. Thus Shimoda's reputation was based on academic and literary achievements that carried the connotation of traditional feminine scholarly accomplishments.

In contrast to Shimoda's classical education, Tsuda's English-language fluency and familiarity with English literature represented modern forms of knowledge and new national priorities. Her father, Tsuda Sen, a rangaku (Dutch learning) scholar, is identified by Ambaras as one of the samurai Christian intellectuals who brought Western learning to a broader Japanese audience. Sen was a leader in networks of Japanese Christians, missionaries, and international Christian-led reform organizations, assisting in the establishment of several educational institutions, each of which emphasized a Western curriculum with a Christian influence. Illustrating the importance he placed on the experience of living in the United States and obtaining English-language fluency, Sen took the audacious step of arranging for his six-year-old daughter to study in the United States for a ten-year period. In a memoir she later wrote for Joshi sekai (Women's world), Tsuda recalled that at the age of...



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