In September of this year, Vice released an article on badass samurai women, notably featuring those who fought for Aizu during the bakumatsu (幕末; ばくまつ), or the end of the Shogunate government. While that list is full of remarkable women, it left out one standout figure: Yamamoto Yae (山本八重).
Yae was more than a warrior. Trained in both traditional and modern weaponry, she helped defend Aizuwakamatsu Castle against rebel forces. But she also co-founded a university and a girl’s school, and pushed for modern reforms in nursing much like England’s famous Florence Nightingale. Yamamoto Yae wasn’t your average samurai woman, but one who fought many battles, both physical and spiritual, during her lifetime.
Yae’s Early Years and the Boshin Wars
Yamamoto Yae, also known as Yamamoto Yaeko (山本八重子), was born on November 3, 1845 into a samurai family hailing from the Aizu Domain, modern-day Aizu in Fukushima Prefecture. As a daughter of a samurai, Yamamoto Yae was expected to fulfill certain duties as part of her nobility. Women in samurai families ran the household, managed finances, and took care of the children. However, it wasn’t uncommon for these women to train with the fearsome halberd, or 薙刀 (なぎなた; naginata).
But unlike other women, Yamamoto Yae’s father, a gunnery instructor, trained her to use guns. At that time guns were still a novelty in Japan. Since Commodore Perry’s arrival in 1853 forced Japan to open its trade ports, foreign countries were quick to equip certain Japanese political outfits with guns. It was incredibly rare for women to handle this type of weaponry, but this skill soon proved to come in handy for Yamamoto Yae when political tensions boiled over into outright civil war.
In what is now called the Boshin War, the feudal Tokugawa shogunate, along with Aizu Domain and others, were pitted against the Imperial Court and the notable Satsuma and Choshu domains. In 1868 pro-Imperial forces attacked the Aizu stronghold, but instead of fleeing, Yamamoto Yae chose to stay and fight along with other women and men:
At Tsuruga Castle [Aizuwakamatsu Castle] the siege began. Yae fought back, having good command of the Spencer repeating rifles and the Gewehr flintlock guns.
She also helped care for injured soldiers and cooked what little food they had during the siege. Her expertise with guns and her spirit during this battle are still talked about to this day. Unfortunately, her valiant efforts weren’t enough to prevent Aizu’s surrender, and she was forced into hiding as the Meiji Restoration took place.
“Switching Out Guns for Bibles”
When she finally emerged from hiding, Yamamoto Yae made her way to Kyoto, where she reunited with her brother Yamamoto Kakuma, a former Satsuma prisoner of war working for the local government. With his help she secured a job at a girl’s school teaching young girls such skills as sewing, writing, and reading. Through her brother she also made the acquaintance of Joseph Hardy Niijima, a Christian and recently ordained reverend just returned to Japan after ten years in the United States. He was evidently smitten with Yae:
Joe was charmed by the audacious behavior of Yae, a “woman who thinks and acts for herself without being hindered by common sense.”
(JP) Link: Chapter 2: A Handsome Woman, or A Christian Lady
(Note: Link is no longer active)
Now, Christianity holds an especially contentious place in Japanese history. If you’ve read Shusaku Endo’s acclaimed novel Silence or watched the 2016 movie starring Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, you’ll know how brutally the Japanese persecuted Christian missionaries and Christians. Buddhism and Shintoism were the main belief systems of the Japanese people. Even today, few Japanese identify as religious – and only 1 percent of Japanese identify as Christian.
In feudal and modernizing Japan, Christianity was looked down upon as a cultural incursion perpetrated by foreigners intent on assimilating the Japanese to Western ways. For a woman of samurai birth to convert to Christianity, let alone marry a Christian, was not only unthinkable to the typical Japanese person, but abominable. Public opinion didn’t deter Yae, however, and she was engaged in October to Joseph. This ruffled quite a few feathers in Kyoto among Shinto and Buddhist community members:
After receiving pressure from the Buddhist world, Yae was dismissed from the women’s school on November 18. Engagement with the Christian Joe was the beginning of a new battle for Yae, switching out guns for Bibles.
Aside from their Christian beliefs, their married life wasn’t at all traditional by Japanese standards. In his time in the United States, Joseph had adopted a liberal view on women’s rights. Their relationship was one based on companionship rather than traditional Japanese family dynamics. Yae affectionately called him “Joe” in public and he often referred to her as “handsome.” She was always concerned about his heart condition, and took care of him when he fell ill. They wrote each other letters whenever he was away gathering donations for his school. In a country where men had the say of what their wives could and could not do, this relationship was considered somewhat scandalous, yet befitting to both Joseph and Yae’s personalities and ambitions.
Building an Educational Legacy
Yae’s husband’s dream ever since his return from the US was to build a school based on liberal and Christian values. In 1875 Doshisha English School was born. In one of his letters he wrote that his goal was “not only to equip students with a general knowledge of the English language, but also to cultivate in students virtue, enhance their integrity, and help them discipline their mind.” Despite her limited education experience, Yae enthusiastically helped him lay the framework for what is now Doshisha University (同志社大学) and adopted a “grandmotherly” role for the first students:
Yae occasionally invited Doshisha students to her home and treated them to Western cuisine, assisted them with necessary things for everyday life, and enjoyed the karuta tournament during the New Year with them.
However, her husband’s school only permitted boys. As you can imagine, that didn’t sit well with Yae, so in 1876, alongside American missionary Alice J. Starkweather, she established Doshisha Girl’s School, now known as Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts (同志社女子大学). Like her husband’s school, Christian values made up the better part of the school’s foundation, with an emphasis on women’s rights, liberal arts, and internationalism.
Japan’s “Florence Nightingale”
Yae’s life took a dramatic turn when Joseph died in 1890 at the age of 46, presumably from his lifelong heart condition:
Niijima Joe passed away after his last words to Yae, “Don’t be dismayed. Goodbye. We’ll meet again.”
After his passing, Yae’s position at Doshisha became tenuous as relations among her colleagues grew strained. There were students and faculty from Satsuma and Choshu who harbored ill will towards Aizu-born Yae. With the school founder no longer present, people no doubt took full advantage to be openly hostile to Yae and her non-traditional ways.
Rather than stay amid these tensions, Yae chose to leave and focus her energies in the nursing field. She started working for the Japanese Red Cross Society when the first Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1894, and again when the Russo-Japanese War began in 1904. She led a team of 40 nurses and helped nurse injured soldiers back to health. She was also involved with the Atsushi Women’s Nursing Association, working with other women to help combat the barriers female nurses faced in the medical field, such as discrimination from male colleagues. Her selflessness and leadership attracted quite a lot of attention:
Naturally, it was befitting to describe her as “Japan’s Florence Nightingale.” She was the first woman outside of the royal family to receive a decoration by the Japanese government in recognition of this series of labors.
The awards Yamamoto Yae received were the Order of the Precious Crown, an order established by the Meiji Emperor and mostly reserved for female recipients. For Yae to receive two of these in recognition of her nursing work just goes to show how dedicated she was to bettering the conditions of working nurses. Given her firm values and go-getter attitude, it’s no surprise that she garnered such admiration from others.
On June 14, 1932, Yamamoto Yae passed away at the age of 86 from acute cholecystitis, or gallbladder inflammation. To this day, Yamamoto Yae continues to hold a special place in Japanese and Aizu history. As of 2017, Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts boasted a student body of 6500, and continues to promote education for women based on Christian philosophy. Despite all the hurdles she had to navigate, Yamamoto Yae overcame them with determination and grace, never letting what others said about her deter her from what she felt was right. That’s something I think everyone can admire – and aspire to.
同志社社史資料センター. 新島八重の生涯～進取と矜持～. https://www.doshisha.ac.jp/yae/doshisha/event/index.html. Accessed November 14, 2018.
同志社少女大学. 第III期 日本のナイチンゲール―会津魂再び. http://www.dwc.doshisha.ac.jp/yae/profile/03.html. Accessed November 12, 2018.
NHK. 歴史秘話ヒストリア – NHK. http://www.nhk.or.jp/historia/backnumber/4.html. Accessed November 10, 2018.