After teaching a course entitled “Lady Samurai in Medieval Japan”, Dr Tomoko Kitagawa was dubbed the Lady Samurai by her students. This title has stuck as she has pursued her two greatest passions: history and mathematics. Her incredible journey has seen her become a role model for young women in Japan and throughout the world.
Born and raised in the small city of Omuta in Japan, Kitagawa decided to study overseas once she had completed her high school. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Columbia in Canada in 2003, she enrolled to study history at the same university and graduated with a master’s degree in Asian studies in 2006.
“I then enrolled at Princeton University in the United States to pursue a doctoral degree in East Asian Studies. I completed my course work in my first year of study and then went to Japan to conduct field work and research at the Historiographical Institute at the University of Tokyo,” says Kitagawa.
During her time in Japan, Kitagawa worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for eight months and her interest in diplomacy and specifically the role of women in diplomacy (and history) was sparked. “I also spent three months in New York working for the Mission of Japan to the United Nations before I began teaching at Harvard University in 2009,” she adds.
At Harvard, Kitagawa taught Japanese history in her first year, the history of mathematics in her second year and both subjects in her third year. “It was during this time that I decided to offer a course entitled “Lady Samurai in Medieval Japan”, which explored Japanese women’s history – their lives, choices, art and writing.
Kitagawa points out that male Japanese warriors were not the only ones considered worthy of the samurai title. She references two late 16th/early 17th century women who could be called the Lady Samurai through acts of tremendous bravery and diplomacy by using the written word to avert war and promote peace.
“History is traditionally male dominated, so the Lady Samurai course lifted the veil on women’s history in Japan. When I published a book covering the same themes in Japanese in 2012, it became a national bestseller,” says Kitagawa.
From Harvard, Kitagawa moved to Cambridge, UK, and conducted a research on the history of mathematics. She also went to Bonn, Germany where she spent time as a guest researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematical Sciences in 2015, and spent almost two years as a researcher and writer at the University of California, Berkeley. This year, she accepted an invitation to conduct research on global history at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.
On the topic of diplomacy, she says women’s history has been missing from many societies. “The history of women needs to be recovered. This is especially relevant now that the women’s movement is expanding globally. There needs to be a gender balance in historical narrative. We cannot simply ignore women’s presence, specifically the diplomatic role they fulfilled in history through writing, communicating and fostering good social relations.”
Her advice to young women who want to transcend difficult circumstances and make a success of there lives is to challenge the stereotypes of what a woman is expected to do. “It’s very important to challenge the status quo and to talk to people who can help you to attain your goals. Grasp the opportunities that come your way, even if they are not what you had expected – they could just be the first steps on your journey!”
Here, again, diplomacy can play a role. “Look for the people who can help you, whether it’s a family, friend, neighbour, or school teacher. Actively seek out education. If you follow your passion, you will find a way,” she urges.