Norms and Texts for Women's
Education in Tokugawa Japan
Martha C. Tocco
The educational reformer Tsuda Ume (1864–1929) is one of Japan's best known “great women” of the modern period. As the endearing youngest member of the first female delegation sent by the Meiji government to study abroad, six-year-old Ume claimed a permanent place in the affections of subsequent generations of Japanese. She arrived at her destination, Washington, D. C., in February 1872, “in a blinding snowstorm, in ill-fitting, ready-made American garments, and wrapped in [a] big red shawl. ” 1 Later that spring she sent her mother what appears to have been her first and last letter home that was written in Japanese. 2 The content was fairly ordinary for a little girl writing to her mother: she wrote of her studies, her teachers, and her friends. But Ume's use of characters, grammar, and honorific language was not rudimentary. Her letter provides evidence of the level Ume's education had reached before she left Japan, and that level was impressive. What remains puzzling is how Ume, born in the late Tokugawa period (1600–1868) before Japan had a modern school system, came by her education.
The education of Tsuda Ume, daughter of a Tokugawa samurai family, began at her mother's side while she was still a toddler. Ume's mother, Tsuda Hatsu (1843–1909), the youngest daughter of a shogunal vassal family and a product of elite Tokugawa female educational traditions, began teaching Ume her “letters” when she was only three. As a result, Ume could read and write Japanese syllabary and Chinese characters by the time she was six. Although Ume was exceptional in a variety of ways, she was only one of many Tokugawa daughters who began their schooling in reading, writing, and calligraphy at an early age. A government nationwide survey of educational conditions begun in 1883 reported that several local schools (terakoya) established before 1868 were managed by women, employed women as teachers, and included girls as students. 3 Tanahashi Aya (1839–1939), one of the original members of the faculty at the government's teacher training school for women, established in 1875, first became a teacher-administrator when she