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Educator, Japan scholar and trailblazer Joyce Chapman Lebra passed away on Oct. 10 in Boulder, Colorado, still wearing the Order of the Rising Sun medal and ribbon she had received in a ceremony a month prior. She was 95.

“She wore that award every single day after she received it,” her longtime friend David Wagner tells The Japan Times. “It meant a tremendous amount to her, a long overdue recognition.”

The conferring of state honors upon Lebra by the government of Japan on Aug. 27 was the culmination of a lifetime spent carving out her own path as a woman in a male-dominated field, one that saw her give voice to women in Asia through her writing and scholarly pursuits.

Lebra was a pioneer in many regards. She was the first woman in the United States to receive a doctorate in Japanese history, which she got from Harvard/Radcliffe in 1958, and she was the first female professor hired in the history department at the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder, where she taught Japanese history for 29 years.

“American academia wasn’t geared at that time for ambitious young women,” said CU Boulder professor emeritus Fred Anderson, a former colleague of Lebra who spoke at an event honoring her life and career in 2017.

At the same event, Anderson described how Lebra grew up in Hawaii and experienced the last vestiges of what he called “American imperialism,” citing that Hawaii in the 1930s was a place in which wealth was extracted by exploited native and imported labor. Lebra then moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, as a teenager where she was able to notice the contrast of white society on the mainland with the Hawaiian sugar plantations of her childhood.

“I can trace my interest in Japan back to my time in Honolulu because in the ’30s, Japanese were the largest ethnic group there. There was Japanese culture all around me,” Lebra said. “I remember being so proud that I could count to 100 in Japanese.”

Among her achievements were also some impressive anecdotes. For example, Lebra was apparently the only non-Japanese person to witness the final speech of Yukio Mishima before the literary icon attempted to overthrow the government, which eventually led to his suicide by ritual disembowelment. Her eyewitness account was published in the Nov. 28, 1970, edition of The New York Times.

“The whole headquarters was in chaos, with newsmen swarming everywhere and 10 helicopters circling overhead,” Lebra wrote in the Times. She had been doing research in the military archives at the Ground Self-Defense Force garrison in Ichigaya at the time. When she heard the racket, she went outside to see what was going on. Mishima was delivering the speech. “I glanced around, saw that I was the only foreigner present, and a tall blond woman at that, and began to feel uncomfortable. I saw some soldiers pointing toward me and decided to head back to the library.”

Lebra bore witness to other moments of Japanese history, like when she first came to the country in 1955 and found a nation still coming to grips with the trauma of war.

“There were still black markets around the allies in those days,” Lebra told Wagner during an interview he conducted with her and noted Japan scholar Donald Keene in 2012. “We’d see soldiers and veterans with their limbs missing at almost all the train stations or sleeping in boxes at night in the winter.”

Throughout her career, Lebra wrote more than 15 books, dozens of articles and around 50 papers on Japan and other parts of Asia. Some are considered seminal works, particularly those focusing on her research into the intersection of Japanese empire-building and Indian independence such as “Jungle Alliance: Japan and the Indian National Army” (1971) and “Japanese-trained Armies in Southeast Asia” (1977).

She also wrote many novels, both fiction and nonfiction, about the plight of women in Asia, such as “Women in Changing Japan” (1976) and “Women Against the Raj: The Rani of Jhansi Regiment” (2008).

In her fictitious 2009 novel, “The Scent of Sake,” Lebra sets the main character, Rie, in 19th-century Japan where she has to navigate a world of female oppression and heavy familial obligations. While Lebra grew up in a different time, she undoubtedly would have been familiar with some of the themes.

​​“The sexism and misogyny she experienced and the fight she carried on against (both) was a long-lasting lesson for me at the time,” said Bob Ferry, a colleague of Lebra’s at CU Boulder in the 1980s. “Her struggles to get salary equity and fair treatment made the principles of gender equality very real to all of us at CU.”

Marcia Yonemoto, a Japanese history professor at CU Boulder and current chair of the department, credits Lebra for better working conditions.

“By the time I was hired in the department in 1995, the faculty was about half women, many of them senior in rank, which was unusual for history departments at large research universities,” she tells The Japan Times. “In fact, in my 26 years on the faculty there have been more women chairs of the department than men, and although there are many reasons our department hired women, Joyce is certainly one of those reasons.”

Joyce Chapman Lebra taught Japanese and Indian history at CU Boulder for 29 years. | COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO BOULDER
Joyce Chapman Lebra taught Japanese and Indian history at CU Boulder for 29 years. | COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO BOULDER

Still, of her many accomplishments, she was particularly proud of the Order of the Rising Sun honor.

“Many people who have gotten the Order of the Rising Sun award have done a lot less than (Lebra) has done,” says Wagner, who personally lobbied the Consul-General of Japan in Denver, Midori Takeuchi, to consider Lebra for the distinction.

“When I first brought it up to Takeuchi-san, she said, ‘Who’s Dr. Joyce Lebra?’” Wagner recalls. “And why would she know who Dr. Lebra was? In the 30 years when she was a scholar, she was only recognized by academics in the know.”

To Takeuchi’s credit, however, she purchased every one of Lebra’s books in order to research the necessary information to make the recommendation to the Japanese government that Lebra should be given state honors.

“As an official imperial award, there is an incredible amount of bureaucracy to go through to get the official recognition,” Wagner adds. “It is thanks to Takeuchi that Joyce was finally recognized.”

Lebra’s story is one that deserves to be honored, not only for her “firsts” but for the amount of hard work she put into educating the world on Japan. Wagner recalls the joy she felt after receiving such recognition from the country she devoted her career to.

“You did it, Joyce, you crossed the finish line,” Wagner recalls telling her after she received the honor. “And after everything she’d done, she crossed the finish line smiling.”

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