top of page
  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Tsuruko Haraguchi: The Strenuous Road to Becoming Japan’s First Woman Doctor of Psychology.

  1. Do Not Interact With Men Easily

  2. Do Not Dance

  3. Go to Church Every Sunday

  4. Spend Money From Home Wisely

  5. Do Not Become as Aggressive as an American Girl

  6. Mind Table Manners Well

Such was the advice bestowed upon the twenty-one year old Tsuru Arai (1886-1915) by her English travel companion when the two parted ways in Vancouver, and Tsuruko headed out on her own into the vastness of the United States, where no aspiring Japanese woman graduate student had ventured before. As counsel goes, it was on the harrowing side, suggesting to the already nervous young woman that the land she would be studying in was a lawless and immoral wilderness that would swallow her whole unless she remained ever vigilant against its seductive wiles.

Over the next five years, as Tsuruko worked towards her PhD at Columbia University, she came to find that all of the fears lurking behind Ms. Philips well-intentioned advice were, in fact, illusory, and that the example of American women, far from being a cautionary tale, was an inspiring one, with many aspects worth importing to her own country, including their capacity for independence, practical self-direction, open-hearted honesty, and spiritual engagement. Unfortunately, she would have but precious time to instill these newly internalized lessons in the aspiring women scholars of her home country, as upon returning to Japan in 1912, she had but three years to live until her tragically early death at the hands of tuberculosis at the age of 29.

Though gone in body, however, Tsuruko Haraguchi remained vibrantly alive in spirit, and scanning the names of Japan’s first generation of university-trained women scientists, it is hard to come across one who does not mention Tsuruko’s story directly as a primary inspiration in deciding their life’s course. That story began on June 18, 1886, just under two decades into Japan’s Western-leaning Meiji era, when Hirosaburo and Tane Arai welcomed into the world their second daughter, Tsuru. Hirosaburo was what was known as a “muko,” which was a man who married into his wife’s family and took up their name, which was necessary to carry on family lines when that family lacked male heirs. Her mother died in childbirth when Tsuru was six years old, and understandably Hirosaburo gave his children more leeway in their youth and adolescence than was traditional, doting on them and encouraging their intellectual and personal growth. In 1902 Tsuru began preparations to enter Japan Women’s University, and in 1903 matriculated there, with a focus on English Literature.

At the time, Japan Women’s University boasted among its professors the nation’s most renowned psychologist, Matataro Matsumoto (1865-1943), who had earned his PhD at Yale in 1899, and spent time studying with that wellspring of modern psychology, Wilhelm Wundt. Matsumoto was uniquely well-disposed towards women’s education, and women’s equal participation in academic life. Inspired by the presence of an eminent individual who not only held the opinion that women should expand their minds, but expressed that opinion readily in public, Arai switched her field of study to psychology, graduating in 1906.

That degree represented the extent of what Arai could expect from the Japanese educational system, and if she wanted to pursue her education further, she would have to travel to a foreign country. She decided upon Columbia University, located in the archetypal “American” city of New York, and featuring such psychological luminaries as James Cattel (who was, like Matsumoto, a former student of Wilhelm Wundt and a foundational figure in American psychology), Robert Sessions Woodworth (a former student of William James and a pioneer in psychometrics), and a young up-and-comer by the name of Edward Thorndike, who would play an important role, a decade later, in encouraging Tomi Kōra to follow in Haraguchi’s footsteps and work towards a psychology degree.

In 1907, accompanied by a Ms. Philips, Arai set out from Japan on the twelve day journey to the Americas. Parting ways in Vancouver, Arai boarded a train that took her through the great breadth and ecological diversity of the land she would call home for the next half decade, before depositing her at last in New York. In order to get a sense of how American women behaved and thought before plunging into her studies, she signed up to participate in the Young Women’s Summer Camp at Altamont, where she experienced sleeping in tents (which she enjoyed), hay-rides (which she did not), and the startling diversity of character exhibited by American women. Instead of the loud, uncouth, materialistic beings she had been warned against, she found them companionable, welcoming, philosophically reflective, self-sufficient and deeply curious, and began to wonder what other stereotypes about American culture she had absorbed from Japanese and European culture might crumble upon closer inspection.

The camp having concluded, Arai reported to Columbia, where she met with Thorndike himself to go over her potential schedule. She believed that she wasn’t smart enough or fluent enough in the language to try for anything more than a Master’s Degree, but Thorndike encouraged her to try for a full PhD, and when the departmental administration called him to question her qualifications, he insisted that she be allowed into the program. Thence began her dual education, one in the ways of experimental psychology, and the other in the ways of American culture. As to the latter, she soon found that dancing was an entirely respectable occupation, well-organized and supervised, and indeed essential to social functioning in a society that didn’t partake in arranged marriages, that one-in-the-morning secret sandwich making parties in her fellow students’ dorm rooms were pretty fun actually, that sleeping on a roof in a snowstorm will not kill you, and that Americans will talk about anything, at any length, at any time.

As to her academic path at Columbia, Arai began in 1909 to conduct the research that would lead to her PhD three years later. Reading through her dissertation today, the punishing and monotonous routine she subjected herself to in the name of experimentation is well-nigh inconceivable. Her main area of research was mental fatigue, and for the first three major experiments of her study, she had nobody but herself to act as a test subject. To test the effects of mental fatigue, of course, requires a person to become mentally fatigued, to which end Arai would, for eleven hours at a stretch, mentally multiply four digit numbers by each other (reasoning that this task had no accompanying physical component that might muddy the causal waters), measuring changes in her temperature, heart rate, solution time, and accuracy as she did so, and then, as if eleven hours of mental multiplication were not enough, she would then subject herself to further hours of mental challenge performing translation and memorization tasks to see if the fatigue accrued in one task transfers over to other tasks, or if the change of task type “resets” the brain in some significant way (spoilers: sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t).

Having straightened out the kinks in her procedure, it was time to open up the experiment to other test subjects, and in 1910-11 Arai gathered information about mental fatigue from 27 poor hapless souls who themselves had to experience the mind-numbing hours upon hours of mental mathematics and memory testing required for her to probe the outer edges of human mental strain. In 1912, she defended her thesis successfully before a committee that included Thorndike and Cattel, and thereby became the first Japanese woman to earn a PhD in any subject. She graduated on June 5, 1912, and went straight from the PhD ceremony to her wedding, marrying Takejiro Haraguchi, a graduate of the Hartford Theological Seminary.

The couple returned to Japan in 1912, where Arai (now Haraguchi) published her thesis in Japanese in 1914, gave birth to a son in 1913, and a daughter in 1914, and prepared a Japanese translation of Francis Galton’s Hereditary Genius (an 1869 volume that was among the first to attempt to scientifically investigate the heredity of genius), and a book recounting her experiences in America, Tanoshiki Omoide (My Happy Memories), both of which were published in 1915. All the while, however, her health was in a state of precipitous decline that puts one in mind of the tragic fates of Anandibai Joshee or Srinivasa Ramanujan following their return from foreign study. On September 26, 1915, she succumbed to tuberculosis, exiting her life of often self-imposed mental strain, and entering Japanese history as a prodigious example of what can be accomplished by a woman possessed of a desire to know the world better, and a community supporting her in that journey.

FURTHER READING: In 2006, Yoko Kamei translated My Happy Memories, and it is just a wonderful book. Most of the middle section is devoted to informing Japanese readers about the habits of American men and women, and what their society and institutions are like, which are interesting but less personal, while the beginning and the end represent valuable resources for how she navigated American academic and social life. Her book Mental Fatigue is available online for free through Google Scholar. In Japanese, Izumi Ogino’s 1983 biography of Haraguchi is the wellsource from which most biographical information seems to flow, but best of luck finding a copy!

And if you want to read about more great women in the history of psychology and neuroscience, keep your eyes peeled for my History of Women in Psychology and Neuroscience, which is coming in the Spring of 2024 from Pen and Sword books!


bottom of page