For this week’s Women of History feature, I’ve decided to go out of my knowledge base. I’m more well versed in Euro-American history and wanted to expand my horizons. So after asking around it was suggested I look into Yamamoto Yae, a Japanese woman who served as a nurse during Russo-Japanese war and was decorated for her service to Japan. She continuously advocated for what she thought was needed, and did not let the cultural ties keep her from doing so.
Yae was born on December 1, 1845 in Aizu, located in the Mutsu province of northern Japan. It is located near the Fukushima Nuclear plant that was destroyed during the 2011 Tsunami. Her father, Yamamoto Gonpachi was a Samurai and gunnery instructor in Aizu, and her brother’s followed suit. At that time, education and training of their sister was considered unnecessary and the cultural norms of the time held to this. However, civil war changed that for the Yamamoto family. Her brothers went to war, and Yae was left to defend her hometown of Aizu. She would take the skills she learned from her older brother Kakuma and teach it to others left behind. She would defend Aizu, gaining a reputation as a sharpshooter and a local hero. In the end however, Aizu was taken over, and Yae was taken as a POW along with her male counterparts. The war had changed many things. Her father had passed away, and her short marriage to Shonosuke Kawasaki came to an end in 1871.
After the war, she, her mother and Kakuma (who had been a Prisoner Of War) relocated to Kyoto where Yae became an instructor at a girl’s school. Through her brother she met Niijima Jo (sometimes known as Rev. Joseph Neesima), a former samurai who had become an evangelist. The two married in 1875 in the first Christian wedding in Kyoto. They had a good relationship, and considered the other on equal terms. Their religious beliefs put them at odds with their local community and Yae was let go from her job as an instructor.
She, her husband Jo, and Kakuma advocated for education, insisting that the style of education Jo had experienced in the United States was a better method of teaching. Together they founded Doshisha, a private school at the time, in 1875. A year later Yae was part of the establishment of Doshisha Girls School. Promoting education would be one of Yae’s lasting legacies. The two schools would later develop into Universities.
She also advocated for the last Samurai warriors. She employed some of them in her schools, and otherwise sought to care for the warriors by speaking for them. Her father had been a Samurai, and she had earned through her actions the respect of one within the Samurai circles. She was often brought in as a consultant on local meetings.
Yae’s military service was not over yet. War returned to Japan in 1894 with the Sino-Japanese War. For the last century, relations with China had soured over various trade agreements Japan had made to its territories, such as Korea. The war would last only eight months, and Yae would serve as a nurse with the Red Cross during that time. She was stationed in Hiroshima, which would later see war in perhaps in one of its worst forms. Japan would later, in 1904, fight another war over Korea and the surrounding lands but this time with Russia, in the Russo-Japanese War, which still has some conflicting results today. During this war, Yae once again suited up as a Nurse, serving in Osaka. She not only helped the wounded soldiers, but also advocated for better treatment of the nurses she worked with.
For her time, she was awarded several awards, and became the first decorated woman outside the Imperial house to be decorated. She received two ORders of the Precious Crown (Seventh and Sixth Class) and the silver cup at the inauguration of the Emperor in 1928. The Order of the Precious Crown was traditionally given to women of the Imperial House, with only six classes. However the Seventh and Eighth Class were later added, but were abolished in 2003. The Honor is now given to women of the Imperial house and distinguished foreigners as the Order of the Rising Sun has been opened to both female and male recipients.
Despite her advocating for change, Yae had a strong respect for the traditions of her country. She studied and became a Kado (the Japanese art of Flower arrangement) instructor in 1896. Previously she had qualified to become a Master of the tea ceremony, using the ‘art name’ of Niijima Sōchiku. Yae wanted to improve things, but not completely change Japan.
Yamamoto Yae died on June 14, 1932 in Kyoto, Japan.
Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian (Historian; Blog)
Sharpshooter, Educator, Nurse, Hero: The 19th Century Gutsiness of Yamamoto Yae by
Nyri A. Bakkalian
The First Sino-Japanese War (The History of War.Org)
Badass Ladies of History: Yamamoto Yaeko
Author’s Note: I was late in publishing this essay because I wanted to find more further reading sources. However, a lot of what I found was either about the TV movie about her life or about her husband Jo. I recommend doing your own search and also the blog of Dr. Bakkalian. She’s a historian with a specialty in Japanese military history and has researched Yae more extensively than I have.
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