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September 19, 1878

Two young Japanese women, Shigeko Nagai and Sutematsu Yamakawa, enrolled at Vassar. Japan’s 1868 Meiji Restoration inaugurated an era of modernization, mandating that “Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundation of imperial rule.” In 1870, a large Japanese delegation touring the United States, England, Germany and France and studying how Japan might modernize its political, economic, and social systems, had included a group of Japanese girls who were intended to remain in the visited countries as students. Two of the three girls who remained in the United States, Shige and Stematz (their somewhat Westernized nicknames) had lived with American families—Shige in the home of Rev. John Abbot in Fair Haven, Connecticut, and Stematz in New Haven with the family of Rev. Leonard Bacon. A third girl, Umeko Tsuda, stayed in Washington with the family of Charles Lanman, a secretary at the Japanese legation.

Shige enrolled in the School of Music, and studied singing, music theory, piano, organ, music history, music aesthetics, and acoustics. In addition she took courses in mathematics, French and English composition.

Stematz, president of her sophomore class, a member of the Shakespeare Club (reserved for students of formidable intellect) and president of Philaletheis graduated magna cum laude, ranked third in the class and presented her senior thesis, on British policy towards Japan, at the commencement ceremony in 1882.

In later life, Shige Nagai, as Baroness Uriu, was a key figure in the introduction of Western music to Japan. She returned to Vassar on several occasions, speaking to her class on Class Day in 1909. An outspoken advocate of women’s education, she told The San Francisco Chronicle at the time of her return to Japan in October of 1881: “My country will never become advanced until her women and mothers are educated, and our women, as a class, will never be educated so long as they marry so early, for the years from 15 to 20 they should remain in school.”

Stematz Yamakawa studied nursing after graduating from Vassar and, returning to Japan, became Princess Oyama, the wife of the Japanese Minister of War. A passionate supporter of women’s education, she was a trustee of the Peeresses’ School in Tokyo, where her childhood friend, Alice Bacon, taught and where Ume Tsuda headed the English department. She was also instrumental in the creation of the Girl’s English Institute, founded in 1909 by Alice Bacon and Ume Tsuda.

The Years