Sutematsu Oyama, the First Japanese Woman to Study Abroad

Year: 1860-1919

Sutematsu Oyama (right side in the first image) is known as one of the first Japanese woman to study abroad, as well as the first to receive a college degree. She was also a prominent figure in the advancement of women’s education in Japan. Born Saki Yamakawa to a samurai family of the Aizu clan in Fukushima Prefecture of Japan, she was chosen in 1871 as one of the five girls to travel to the United States as part of the Iwakura Mission, a project led by the Japanese government to strengthen political ties and to study western culture and modernization. Among the other four girls was Umeko Tsuda, who later became known as Japan’s pioneer in education for women. In the U.S., Sutematsu stayed with the Bacon family in Connecticut. There she met Alice Bacon, who became a life-long best friend. She attended Vassar College, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree, the very first earned by a Japanese woman (the second image: Graduation of Vassar College, 1882. Fifth from left in third line is Sutematsu Yamakawa). She returned to Japan in 1882 after 11 years of living in America. Sutematsu married Count Iwao Oyama, the Japanese Minister of War, and quickly became a society belle – a woman fluent in foreign language and knowledgeable about western culture and customs. Sutematsu was also eager to devote herself to women’s education in Japan. She supported Umeko Tsuda in establishing Joshi Eigakujuku (now known as Tsuda University), an institute of higher education for women. The college is still one of Japan’s most notable women’s universities today. Sutematsu died in 1919 from influenza.

  • Sutematsu with women’s educator Alice Bacon in 1900. From left to right Umeko, Alice, Shigeko and Sutematsu. (Property of Tsuda University)
  • The Vassar College class of 1882 (Sutematsu in the fourth row, fifth from left)
  • Commemorative photo of five girls taken with Mrs. De Long (wife of Minister De Long) in 1871 shortly before the departure to the U.S.   (Sutematsu on far left)
  • Sutematsu as a student at Vassar College around 1880
  • Sutematsu in her dress, about to attend a ball at the Rokumeikan around 1888
Source: Akiko Kuno (Author “Unexpected Destinations – The Poignant Story of Japan’s First Vassar Graduate"):
Added Date: 03/15/2023