Regular readers of our blog may remember "The Story of Niijima Jo" that we posted in June, and may recall that every year we are visited by 90 Japanese middle schoolers from the Kyoto school Neesima founded. I, myself, enjoy telling people about the Neesima story and explaining the unlikely connection this library shares with a school 6,830 miles away (give or take a few miles).
Neesima's story has all the ingredients one needs for a really good tale: stowaways, the kindness of strangers, native son made good, prodigal son returning home, a hero serving a higher purpose. What I didn't know is that Neesima's wife, Yae, has an equally interesting and compelling story.
Yae was born in 1845 in Aizu (now known as Fukushima). Her father, Yamamoto Gonpachi, was a samurai and gunnery instructor, and Yae learned marksmanship at an early age — an unusual activity for a woman in her era. When the Boshin War (an anti-government civil war) began in 1868, 22 year-old Yae joined the defense and fought against the Meiji government in the Battle of Aizu.
Yae went on to become a teacher at a school for girls established in Kyoto by her brother. Her brother encouraged Yae to study with Joseph Neesima and six months later Yae was baptized and she and Neesima were married. It was the first Protestant wedding in Kyoto. Yae went on to teach at the Doshisha founded by her husband, and assisted him in his role as pastor in the first Protestant church in Kyoto.
When Joseph Neesima died in 1890, Yae went on to serve in the First Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War as a nurse. She was later decorated by the government for her role in nursing Japanese soldiers, becoming the first woman who was not a member of the Japanese imperial family to receive such an honor. This was not unusual for Yae who, as the Japan Times observed, "def[ied] Japanese society's stereotypes of women." Yae died in 1932.
Yae's life is the focus of a historical drama airing on NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) this year called "Yae no Sakura".
photograph of Jo and Yae Niijima, ca. 1876, courtesy of the Doshisha University Archives Center, via The Japan Times
drawing of Niijima Yae, 1886, via Wikipedia.