Yasui Kono in the Age of Ryosai Kenbo

Japanese women dressed in western fashion by Hashimoto Chikanobu

A west wind went marauding to the east announcing the dawn of a new age: the era of nations and the contest of imperialism had commenced.

The Land of the Rising Sun was mostly in the dark – its closed curtains ensured little light could enter; further dimmed by an eclipse brought by Commodore Perry’s encroachment on its shores. The sun had to be reclaimed.

It was a rude awakening. The Meiji Restoration (明治維新 Meiji Ishin) of 1868 sought to move Japan towards modernity, discarding its feudal fashion along the way. With it, the mode of warfare also had to be changed. The clang of swords must give way to the bang of guns. Bushido alone could not match the power of bombs. Marching to the music of imperialism was essentially modern and strictly military. Japan woke up as a nation with a dream for empire: an empire that will reclaim the sun.

The Meiji government stripped the samurai class of its former prestige allowing the entry of scientists into the bigger arena. After all, empires relied on the power afforded by advancements in warfare and weapons technology. And the conditions were already ripe by then for the arrival and adoption of western science due to two things.

First, Japan’s indigenous belief system Shinto (神道) is based on “natural order” and the appreciation of nature itself – to understand the inner workings of nature and see the beauty in it. Second, despite the isolationism enacted by the Tokugawa period (徳川時代 Tokugawa jidai), an influx of Dutch books entered Japan much to the delight of scholars. Rangaku (蘭学) or Dutch studies was a movement that enjoyed popularity in the Tokugawa period – keeping intellectuals abreast of the latest advancements in the western world particularly in medicine.

Together, these two paved the way for the smooth ingress of new scholarship to thrive in Japanese thought. Science and technology were pursued for the benefit of the nation – the role of intellectuals was now formalized in the plans for empire.

This time, imperial ambitions were written not with the pen, but with the blade of technology. Modernization under the Meiji government emphasized heavy militarization, and with it, the importance of highlighting the participation of men in all forms of social functions for future armed service.

Empire building was primarily a man‘s mission. For women in Meiji Japan, they were encouraged to have an education not to progress themselves, but to achieve an ideal: ryosai kenbo (良妻賢母 Good Wife, Wise Mother). The nation needed its warriors, but warriors needed mothers.

Despite not being seen as warriors, women in Meiji Japan had their own battles to fight, almost always with a handicap. This was especially true to those who wanted better education. One of them was Yasui Kono (保井 コノ [1880-1971]) who broke the mold and shaped her own destiny.

Kono Yasui
Yasui Kono in 1948

Yasui’s early academic years were spent in the prefectural high school in Kagawa. She transferred to Tokyo Higher Normal School for Women in 1898 to start her formal education in science. By the time she graduated she was offered teaching duties for her aptitude and excellence. She had two teaching stints between 1902-1905, both in schools for girls. She then came back to her alma mater in 1905 to enter the science graduate studies program. In that same year Yasui wrote her first academic paper, 鯉のウェーベル氏器に就て (Observations on the Weberian apparatus of carps – translation mine) which was published in the Japanese scientific journal Zoological Magazine. In fact, hers was the first work by a woman to have been published in the journal.


She took up the position of assistant professor upon the completion of her coursework in 1907. By this time, she had already shifted her focus to plant cytological studies, culminating in her 1911 paper On the life-history of Salvinia natans which was published in Oxford’s Annals of Botany. This was both a personal and national triumph – she was the first Japanese woman to have a paper published in a foreign journal.

Then came 1914 when she was one of the 54 scholars chosen by the Japanese Ministry of Education to study abroad. This, however, came with a compromise. The Japanese government’s adherence to ryosai kenbo made them reluctant to allocate funds for a woman’s advanced education abroad. For that to happen, Yasui had to agree that she will also study “home economics research” alongside her scientific work. She had no other choice but to say yes. When an agreement was reached, Yasui began her studies abroad in the University of Chicago to do advanced research in cytology.

In the following year, she moved to Harvard University to study coal. She came back to Japan in 1916 and found herself a position in Tokyo Imperial University as a researcher, continuing her coal studies until 1927. The result of her research led to her doctorate paper Studies on the structure of lignite, brown coal, and bituminous coal in Japan (1928) which was received by the university, in turn awarding her the title rigakuhakushi (理学博士 Doctor of Science). Adding to her tally of “firsts” as she was the first Japanese woman to earn a doctorate in science.

Having firmly established herself as a national scientific authority, Yasui’s next move was to consolidate Japan’s cytological studies into one organized platform. Along with other scientists, Yasui helped found the Japanese cytology journal Cytologia in 1929. Aside from being a regular contributor, she was also the journal’s secretary, then becoming a part of its editorial board in its later years.

Debris and destruction in Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake. ©Corbis-Bettmann

Around this time, Japan was still recovering from the global economic depression from the aftermath of World War 1. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 worsened the matter by escalating massive unrest and violence between ethnic groups residing in Japan. Calls to revive the glory of the nation were pervasive once again, and this time, to more aggressive and potent extremes. Science, as well, took another turn when its focus was shifted to unlocking unknown potentials in the physical sphere, punctuated by Albert Einstein’s 1922 lecture-series in Japan. Setting the stage for the likes of Yukawa Hideki (湯川 秀樹), the first Japanese Nobel Prize winner (1949) for his work on theoretical physics. Japan would also revolutionize aerial warfare with the engineering masterclass Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter engineered and designed by Horikoshi Jiro (堀越 二郎).

Sharing the spotlight with the rising stars of Japanese physics was especially difficult as a biologist, and even made more difficult by being a woman. But despite the lesser fanfare, Yasui pushed forward and published profusely: her biography in the archives of Ochanomizu University says that she published a total of 99 scientific papers.

The main gate of Ochanomizu after its reestablishment. 1936. ©Ochanomizu Univerisity

(About Ochanomizu University: Yasui’s high school alma mater was destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake. It was rebuilt and reestablished in 1932 then gained university status by 1949, adopting the moniker Ochanomizu University. One of its first professors was Yasui.)

Her post-war years were spent studying the effects of nuclear fallout on plants in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. She also worked to raise the quality of women’s education in Japan’s school system. Inaugurating a scholarship scheme for women showing excellence in research in the natural sciences, known as the Yasui-Kuroda Scholarship Fund (namesake shared with Kuroda Chika [黒田チカ] who was the second Japanese woman to earn a science doctorate). This was made possible thanks to the monetary grants Yasui received from her many awards and prizes; and apropos of accolades, she had plenty. Upon her retirement in 1951 from Ochanomizu, Yasui was greeted with a flurry of awards.

In 1955 the Japanese government awarded her the Medal with Purple Ribbon for her outstanding contributions to Japanese science. Then in 1965 she was decorated with the royal Order of the Precious Crown, Butterfly, further solidifying her place among the greats of Japanese science.

A lifelong devotion to science was rewarded with a retreat to rest and relief, as Yasui lived to a fulfilled life of 91 years. The social template from which she rose made it difficult for her to begin a scientific life, yet, that did not deter her from chasing her scientific pursuits. She fought her own battles and won for women and science.

Her death in 1971 was a dark day in Japan. Darkness from the loss of a bright light. From the gloom of the Meiji-era to the dark times when Japan was crawling from the debris of multiple wars, Yasui was there to light the way for women scientists. She gave birth to a new generation of women Japanese scientists and nurtured them to break the confines that forbade women from seeking knowledge.

In the age of ryosai kenbo, Yasui was not a wise mother, but she was more than that. For many women, she was their sun.



(Check out http://www.oldphotosjapan.com for more amazing classic photos.)


Haines, Catherine M.C. International women in science: a biographical dictionary to 1950. ABC-CLIOCalifornia: United States. 2001

Kono Yasui (1888-1971) Japan’s first woman doctor of science. 2011. Retrieved from http://archives.cf.ocha.ac.jp/en/researcher/yasui_kono.html


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