I’m continuing my series of Badass Women posts with the discover of this FAB website called Rejected Princesses, which tells many, many stories about kick-ass women in legend and history kind of through the narrative style of Disney. I love it. I forgot who initially recommended this site to me, but I salute you!
Today we are going to talk about Sutematsu Oyama, the daughter of a samurai who, in a weird reversal of the common trope, was forced to go on adventures and go to college instead of being forbidden from it. In the long run, this experience and her later work had massive international impact and led to great cultural exchange and a total reworking of the Japanese educational system.
As my knowledge of Japanese culture and history is shaky at best, please let me know if any corrections or clarifications need to be made. Trigger warning for discussion of battle, explosions, and death.
Let’s back way up.
In 1868, Sutematsu’s family was caught up on the losing side of a civil war which, much like the American civil war happening at roughly the same time, would prove to be Japan’s last ‘war of the sword’. She was involved in the last major battle action, in which enemy forces closed in on Aizu castle, the local samurai estate for which her family were retainers.
Despite being very young, she did her part by running ammunition to the gunners and–extremely dangerously–using wet blankets to smother live artillery shells that landed inside the walls before they exploded. Her sister-in-law was doing the same thing when a shell exploded before she could reach and smother it. Sutematsu caught a piece of shrapnel in the neck, which gave her a major scar for the rest of her days. Her sister-in-law, meanwhile, took the brunt of the explosion and begged the other women to give her quick death. They couldn’t bring themselves to do it, so she died slowly while young Sutematsu looked on.
When the war was over, Japan opened its borders and realized that survival depended on reversing their centuries of isolation. The government offered significant financial rewards for any Japanese citizens who would be wiling to take part in the Iwakura Mission: to live abroad for ten years and promote good international relations and a cross-pollination of cultures.
Despite the large amount of money, almost no one signed up. Without consulting her, Sutematsu’s brother signed her up to go to America. For ten years. She had never left the country, and certainly didn’t speak English. She was 11 years old.
His motives were very pragmatic–it would increase the family’s prestige and it would ease their financial burden.
Sutematsu’s situation was not unusual. She and four other girls, from age 6 to 14, were shipped abroad as the first Japanese women in living memory to go to the west; all of the other girls were signed up without being consulted, either.
They landed in California and made their way to the eastern United States which was only just starting to recover from the effects of the American Civil War. There were a lot of firsts for Sutematsu–as it is pointed out on the Rejected Princesses site, it was the first time she had seen blackface (and it was probably the first time she’d come to understand the concept of racial tensions, or at least racial tension between black and white groups). In Colorado it was the first time she’d seen snow. And the girls had saw the unpleasant aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire when they passed through the city. They were hounded by the press and equally mocked and fetishized by the public. All in all, a totally bewildering, disorienting time for a kid.
The girls, unsurprisingly, clung to each other and isolated themselves–not really surprising given their age, the culture shock, and the fact that their every move was recorded by the press who wouldn’t leave a group of little girls alone. As a result, they had hardly been able to learn any English. The two eldest girls in the group found the strain to be too much and returned to Japan, leaving the three youngest girls to continue on without them.
Then the three younger girls were separated and given over to foster homes. Sutematsu was promptly renamed (“Stemats”) because her American family found “Sutematsu” too difficult to pronounce. Despite her early difficulties with the language, she excelled in school and was the only girl in her class to go to college. She went to Vassar and graduated valedictorian, making her the most highly-qualified Japanese woman living.
After she graduated, she then had to return to Japan–to a family that she hadn’t seen since she was a child and with whom she no longer really shared a language. When asked about how she felt about her return, she said, “I cannot tell you how I feel, but I should like to give one good scream.”
In her time away from Japan, there had been a regressive backlash to the early push for progress that had sent her westward. With the political climate grasping for tradition, Sutematsu realized that she didn’t really have a place in her own country anymore. So she and two other girls, who had also been sent abroad, decided they would need to push forward on their own and change Japan themselves. Their first goal was to open a school for girls. Securing the funding and the social acceptance for such an endeavor was going to be an uphill climb.
Then, out of nowhere, this dude asked for her hand in marriage:
His name was Iwao Oyama, he was almost 20 years her senior, and he was an Imperial Japanese Army General who had also fought at the battle of Aizu, where the then-child Sutematsu had smothered shells in wet blankets.
But he had fought for the other side.
And he was an artillery man. It is entirely possible that he fired the shot that killed Sutematsu’s sister-in-law.
Sutematsu’s family, upon hearing his proposal, said no and gave him his marching orders, no two ways about it. It was, surprisingly, Sutematsu who insisted on the match. She saw in him a chance to accomplish more than she might be able to do on her own. She didn’t love him, but he had the significant prestige to get her girls’ school off the ground.
Through her new husband, she managed to secure funding from the EMPRESS, of all people. The school started out teaching only noble women, but, hey, it was a foot in the door. Of course, such a marriage, such an accomplishment, and such close proximity to the empress raised Sutematsu’s profile even higher than it already was. People got jealous and suspicious and terrible, criticizing her for being too westernized, for being too buddy-buddy with the empress, for being some sort of power-hungry villain set on changing Japan.
In a truly terrible series of events, Sutematsu’s step-daughter got ill and died. That would be a strain on any household. Except it was made ten times worse when one of Sutematsu’s critics decided to write about it, turning the event into a novel, in which the Sutematsu is portrayed as a scheming social climber responsible for the death.
The book was a best-seller.
Over the years, Sutematsu suffered from extreme stress. She said, “My husband grows fatter every year, and I thinner.” After decades of pushing, though, her stress and work paid off. In 1899 it became law that every prefecture must have at least one school for girls.
Her husband died in 1916, but Sutematsu kept working. When the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic reached Tokyo, many others left the city for fear of contracting the illness. And, indeed, it was the same illness that had killed her step-daughter years ago. When teachers fled, Sutematsu stayed on so she could guarantee that the school would continue to run and that girls could continue to learn.
She caught the flu and died two weeks later, having found a replacement for herself at the school before she died. She almost single-handedly changed the structure of the Japanese educational system and was one of the leading figures who introduced Japan to the west.