The White Plum : A Biography of Ume Tsuda

by Furuki Yoshiki

津田 梅子


Umeko Tsuda was a pioneer in women’s education in Japan, in an era when women were either servants or toys, as this writer expresses it. I was really impressed with the life story of this irrepressible powerhouse of a woman.

I actually read the Japanese language version as that is all I have. I borrowed this from a friend who is a graduate of the University founded by Tsuda Umeko, Tsuda Juku.

Ume is the littlest one, held on another girl's lap

Ume is the littlest one, held on another girl’s lap

The youngest in a group of young girls sent to America to study in 1871, Ume was only seven years old when she arrived in Washington. She became the foster child of a childless couple, Adeline and Charles Lanman of Georgetown. Adeline was thrilled to have a daughter and loved her deeply. Ume lived with them for 11 years.

Her American "parents, the Lanmans

Her American “parents, the Lanmans

At the age of eighteen, Ume returned to Japan, having completely forgotten the language. In addition, she experienced deep cultural shock at the position of women in Japan. She could find no employment or any avenue to make use of her extensive education. While the older girls eventually married, Ume remained single and finally began to teach English in an elite girls’ school.

Graduating from Bryn Mawr, 1892

Graduating from Bryn Mawr, 1892

From around this time, Ume realized the importance of educating girls. She thought that it was meaningless to demand that men give women equal rights unless the women themselves first gained awareness of their own situation. She wrote in her diary that Japanese women were ignorant, superstitious, and dull. She went on to say that they were not aware of their inferior status and had no desire to improve their position.

What made this book interesting for me was Ume’s observations upon returning to Japan in 1882. She was basically an all-American girl, brought up to express herself freely and believe in her own worth. I could identify with her as an American coming into this entirely different culture, though she preceded me by 90 years and came into the rigid Meiji era Japan.

In particular, she didn’t like American missionaries in Japan. “They held themselves above us  and didn’t mix with Japanese people much.” She visited quite a few churches and commented that each group focused too much on their own denomination and kept to themselves in their own little group.

Her many thoughts on society were very to the point even after all these years. It was fascinating to read of her ideas and her aspirations to stir  Japanese women into a new awareness.

Umeko, Alice Bacon, Shigeko and Sutematsu, teachers at the school

Umeko, Alice Bacon, Shigeko and Sutematsu, teachers at the school

It became her dream to open a school for girls. She eventually established the Tsuda Juku Women’s College, one of the top universities in Japan today. Her goal was not for women to speak faultless English or simply gain much knowledge, but to learn to think for themselves,  have an awareness of the world and to treasure their own individuality.

In order to open her school Ume needed financial support as well as further education. In 1889, she entered Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia. There Ume came to know the dean, M. Carey Thomas, who later helped immensely to gather donations for her Japanese school.

The Japanese language version

The Japanese language version

Many wealthy women in Philly also formed a committee to raise money for this purpose. Ume succeeded in opening her school and impacted the status of women in Japan greatly. Her legacy continues today.

I highly recommend this biography of an amazing and brilliant woman who devoted her life to changing the world around her.


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