Exchange Students as Cultural Ambassadors

The Forgotten Story of Japanese Women Who Studied in the United States, 1949-1966

Student Yoko McClain at the University of Oregon, 1952.

Between 1949 and 1966, at least 4,713 Japanese students studied at American universities. This group included 651 women. Among them were future leaders in fields as diverse as literature, medicine, athletics, and political science. The story of these women is one of history, memory, and empowerment.

Few women could afford to attend higher vocational colleges or universities in Japan, particularly before the 1947 Fundamental Law of Education (Kyōiku kihon hō). The opportunity to study abroad was open to a tiny number of women born under certain family financial circumstances. Women’s access to higher education was also hindered by beliefs that women’s life courses should prioritize marriage and motherhood. Especially before 1947, the few Japanese women’s colleges established in the early twentieth century were generally equivalent to vocational schools or junior colleges. Many women who received scholarships after 1949 came to the United States for graduate school and planned to pursue careers.

At a time when the housewife was being solidified as a middle-class ideal, many of these women became professors, university chancellors, authors, and translators who played a significant yet overlooked role in the establishment of Japanese Studies in the United States, thereby challenging the conventional narrative that the field was founded by American men who worked for the U.S. military in Japan. They promoted knowledge of Japan in the United States at a time when Americans were interested in Japan for political and cultural rather than financial reasons. Japanese things, from sukiyaki restaurants to Zen Buddhism, were in vogue because they seemed “exotic.”

Curated by Associate Professor Alisa Freedman (Department of East Asian Languages), this exhibit of UO Libraries materials examines how exchange students formed a bridge between the United States and Japan in the early Cold War era and were a forgotten but major force in women’s advancement.

This event is free and open to the public. Accommodations for people with disabilities will be provided if requested in advance by calling 541-346-3056, or email