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Great Single Women in History: Ume Tsuda May 8, 2020

Posted by Onely in Great Onely Activities, Honorary Onely Awards.
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A woman–an unmarried woman at that–was sitting in judgment of men.

–Janice P. Nimura, describing Ume Tsuda




I feel annoyed when people make assumptions about me because I’m not married. Onely is full of such stories. Recently, though, when reading Janice P. Nimura‘s gripping book Daughters of the Samurai (WW Norton & Co, 2015), I was reminded that despite today’s pervasive marital status discrimination, in the late 1800s in the US and Japan, singlism was much worse. This is the story of my new historical hero, Ume Tsuda.

Ume Tsuda was one of five young girls sent by the government of Japan to the U.S. to receive a Western education. The intent of both the Japanese and U.S. governments was that the girls would return as adults to Japan and help introduce possibly useful Western ideas about education and women’s role in society. Three of the girls ended up growing up in the U.S. and became fully Americanized until, as young adults, the time came for them to return to Japan and essentially pay back the Japanese government’s investment in them. The two older girls still remembered how to speak Japanese, but the youngest, Ume, no longer spoke her birth language. Even so, at eighteen she was eager to return to Japan and try to share some of her learning over there, as was expected of her. But she would soon discover a whole additional set of expectations.

All three girls felt the pressure not only to somehow impart their American education to Japan, but to do it while sensibly and honorably married. Ume’s two friends married soon after returning to Japan, for complex and almost unavoidable financial and societal reasons. Ume, however, had never wanted to marry. She thought it would interfere with her dreams of contributing to Japanese education and culture by starting a school. She was right. But staying single in late 19th century Japan was a lot, lot harder than she’d thought it would be.

Nimura writes,

Her privileged Georgetown girlhood had left her unprepared for her own future. Marriage was abhorrent; anonymous teaching, a thankless grind. . . “I want to have my school, and never marry, though I do not say I shall never do so, because it is so hard, so very hard, to get going alone.” (191)

Even Ume’s fellow American transplants, Sutematsu Yamakawa and Shige Nagai, tried to convince her to get married, as they had. But Ume saw their lives overtaken by obligations to their husband and their husbands’ social circles, as well as to children and step-children. She preferred to focus on setting up her school. About her friends’ situations, Ume wrote to a friend in America, “Such a life is killing to me. . . I get quite provoked with these horrid men, and yielding women, who surprise me so much!”

Nimura writes,

Sutematsu’s life might be full of parties and servants, but Ume claimed not to be tempted. “I am much more happy in my work, I am sure. . . I shall have all the comforts and luxuries that Sutematsu has,” she wrote with satisfaction, “Of course, temporarily, without marrying for it as she did.” (196)

Feedback from friends in both Japan and America threatened Ume’s preternatural confidence. Many thought she should marry, and they said so repeatedly.  But Ume remained convinced marriage would only distract her. Already she had to deal with her teaching career stalling because her (Japanese) mother was expecting and Ume was obligated by custom to return home to help (203).

Ume did end up establishing a successful school and had several audiences with the empress. Yet she could not shed the stigma of her single status, especially combined with her gender.

Nimura writes,

On the holiday celebrating the emperor’s birthday that November, citizens of her rank were required to pay their respects at court–a privilege that Ume had craved since her return to Japan, and to which she looked forward with nervous anticipation. But. . . Ume was the only woman of her bureaucratic rank. It would not do to have an unaccompanied woman among the men at the imperial audience. “So they asked me privately, you see, not to come, for the would not know what to do with me,” Ume told [her friend] Mrs. Lanman, covering her disappointment with a show of relief. On the appointed day, when her colleagues went to the palace, Ume had the day off–“far nicer than to bow one’s head off at court,” she insisted staunchly. (207)

At one point during her education career in Japan, Ume returned to the U.S. to get her college degree at Bryn Mawr. Here the attitude toward single women was more liberal.

“Our failures only marry,” the college’s imposing dean, Martha Carey Thomas, was heard to say. Here, at least, no one was going to question the path Ume had chosen, or try to find her a husband. (227)

Ume returned to Japan, continued teaching and planning her own school, and promoted a new scholarship fund. And yet. . .

Sutematsu and Shige were still trying to play matchmaker. Ume was twenty-seven years old. When would her closest friends finally accept the path she had chosen? [Ume’s friend Alice in the U.S. wrote] “I am afraid it is a fault of married women all the world over to patronize the unmarried and try to marry them off. . . Don’t be worried by it. When you are as old as I am, even [Sutematsu] and Shige will give you up.” (235)

In another correspondence with Alice, Ume complained that Sutematsu and Shige weren’t as engaged in activist causes as Ume would have liked. To this, Alice responded,

“. . . a married woman is handicapped and has her husband’s wishes and her children’s future to think of while independent old maids like you and me can do as we choose and at least harm no one but ourselves by our enthusiasms or our mistakes and failures.” (235)

While I don’t necessarily agree that single people are inherently more free than marrieds and that our actions have less consequence, I do appreciate Alice’s unabashed scorn and pity for married women. Ume recieved so much scorn and pity during her life as a professional unmarried woman in turn-of-the-century Japan, it’s nice to see her getting a little bit of ammunition from progressive Alice.

Ume was the only woman appointed to the Board of Examiners for the English Teaching Certificate. As Nimura says, “A woman–an unmarried woman at that–was sitting in judgment of men.” (263) Ume wrote later, “It really was a great responsibility, and it is something to be proud of, something to add to my record that for once I did what has never been done by a woman before.” (263) In fact, Ume had been a trailblazer in many ways. She “took legal steps to establish her own household, removing her name from her father’s household register–an unheard-of step for a single woman.” (266) As evidence of Ume’s competence and influence, Nimura gives the following anecdote:

. . . a letter addressed [only] to “Ume Tsuda, Educator, Tokyo” would reach its mark. Ume had chosen a far steeper path by remaining stubbornly single, but she had at last found her place.” (263)


Photo credit: Ume Tsuda, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons


1. Margarita - May 8, 2020

It’s a very interesting article! I’m an unmarried
woman and I’m happy with my choice. I feel identified with it! 👍

Onely - May 19, 2020

I think ultimately Ume was happy with her choice too, but it was interesting to watch how Nimura selected parts of Ume’s letters that indicated she did struggle to stay true to her single dreams and it wasn’t all a clear-cut path.

2. Barbara Payne - May 9, 2020

A lot of guts, Ume had, along with her passion. Great story. Thx for sharing.

Onely - May 19, 2020

Thanks for reading! I HIGHLY recommend Nimura’s book if you want to learn more about Ume and the other girls/women who made the journey(s) with her.

3. Craig Wynne - May 9, 2020

I love this! Ume’s story is inspiring!

Onely - May 19, 2020

I know. Obviously because of the time and place(s), her experience with singlism was so different from mine, and yet so similar.

4. Cybertopia | Mayersonia - May 11, 2020

[…] single in late 19th century Japan was a lot, lot harder than she’d thought it would be.” Great Single Women in History: Ume Tsuda, by Onely, 8 May […]

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