The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great: ISSEI WOMEN: Shio Sakanishi, a pioneering figure in education


In April 1939, the writer Edward Larocque Tinker offered a laudatory account in his New York Times column of a new book “The Spirit of the Brush,” an anthology of commentaries on art by Chinese classical painters between 367 A.D. and 960 A.D. Tinker noted that the editor of the collection, Dr. Shio Sakanishi, was to be congratulated. He had not only edited and translated the pieces, he had also added a set of richly anecdotal biographical essays on each artist that had explained their work and ideas on art and nature that transformed the Chinese artists from foreign and exotic to accessible.

Two weeks later, Tinker made a shamefaced apology: He had discovered that Dr. Sakanishi was a lady — and a scholar — and not a gentleman as reported! Tinker was not alone in his astonishment at Sakanishi’s gender, for Sakanishi ultimately spent a lifetime challenging conventional ideas of a women’s role and abilities.

Shio (Shiho) Sakanishi was born to a Christian farming family in Hokkaido, Japan in 1896. She first achieved distinction in her early 20s, when she became the first Japanese woman ever hired to teach at a boys’ preparatory school. She came to the United States in 1922, and enrolled at Wheaton College, where she graduated in 1925 with a degree in aesthetics and literature. Even during her time at Wheaton, the young woman gained publicity by a speech at Mount Holyoke College on the need to encourage women writers, and announced that she had undertaken a Japanese translation of a biography of its founder, pioneering educator Mary Lyon.

Shio Sakanishi

After leaving Wheaton, Sakanishi enrolled at the University of Michigan, where she received her doctorate in 1929. In 1930, after a short stint as professor of English at Hollins College in Virginia, Sakanishi was hired by the Library of Congress as a librarian in its Asian reading room, then called the Orientalia section (as a noncitizen, her hiring by the federal government required a special act of Congress).

Her first task was to sort through some 15,000 Japanese books collecting dust on back shelves. She performed so skilled and thorough a job of organizing the collection that in 1935 she was named director of the division. In this job, Sakanishi mixed and grew friendly with government officials as well as intellectuals and writers such as Archibald MacLeish (who became her boss as Librarian of Congress in 1939) and Ezra Pound. In addition to aiding researchers, she offered public programs on such events as Buddha’s Birthday, and gave outside lectures on Asian literature, especially women writers. She also did research into the origins of printing and papermaking, and in her passion to discover the origin of these arts Sakanishi even turned to science. In 1941 she supervised a series of experiments designed to duplicate the process of the “million paper charms,” a set of Buddhist prayer charms printed by order of the empress of Japan in 770 A.D., and thought to be the oldest extant examples of woodblock printing. Sakanishi’s team discovered that the printing was accomplished by baking clay tablets carved with a stylus, then pouring metal over the tablet to create a crude form of type.

Meanwhile, Sakanishi returned to translating, and began selecting outstanding pieces of Japanese literature for rendering in English. Her first effort, a Japanese comedy called “Ribs and the Cover,” appeared in Golden Book magazine in 1932. (Soon after, she undertook a multiyear project with collaborators to produce an authoritative list of translations of Japanese drama into English, French and German, a list which was released in 1935). Meanwhile, she received a contract for a set of translations of modern Japanese poets. The first of her translations to appear was that of Meiji-era poet Ishikawa Takuboku’s “A Handful of Sand,” in 1934. The next year, she brought out a translation of Yasano Akiko’s “Tangled Hair,” while Sachio Ito’s “Songs of a Cowherd” followed in 1936. A small volume of comic playlets, “Kyôgen,” followed in 1938. Sakanishi served as a regular book reviewer of Chinese and Japanese literature for The Washington Post. In 1939, Sakanishi was invited by the New York Times to report on contemporary literature in Japan in a set of articles, “The Japanese Literary Scene.” Both her incisive criticism of literary movements and her polished English prose drew respectful attention.

In addition to her translations of Japanese works, Sakanishi turned to compiling Chinese art criticism, in the process demonstrating an impressive command of classical Chinese. Her first effort in this field, which appeared in 1935, was an English edition of Kuo Hsi’s “An Essay on Landscape Painting,” a short book in which the 11thcentury Chinese landscape painter conveyed his aesthetic doctrines. “The Spirit of the Brush,” Sakanishi’s best-known work, followed four years later.

Although Sakanishi expressed approval of American democratic society, her exalted government position did not isolate her from suspicion due to her Japanese ancestry. As 1940 dawned, war broke out in Europe, and relations between the United States and Japan grew increasingly strained, she found ways to assist her adopted country and ease tensions. First, she engaged in historical research that underlined the ties between the United States and Japan. In 1940, she put out an edition of the private journal of John Glendy Sproston, who accompanied Commodore Matthew Perry on his historic mission to “open” Japan. The following year, Sakanishi edited an edition of unpublished letters of Townshend Harris, the first U.S. consul in Japan.

She also engaged in more confidential intelligence work. In 1941 William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, who had been selected as coordinator of intelligence, began to put together a team (his agency would soon morph into the Office of Strategic Services, wartime ancestor of the CIA). In desperate need of agents to collect information and offer advice on Japanese threats to French Indochina, Donovan recruited as his Southeast Asia regional expert Kenneth Landon, who had recently returned to the United States after serving with his wife Margaret for several years as missionaries in Thailand. (Margaret would draw on her experience in her 1944 bestseller “Anna and the King of Siam.”) Sakanishi immediately offered Landon, a fellow Wheaton College alum, an office at the Library of Congress, and assisted him in his intelligence work.

Despite Sakanishi’s efforts to assist the federal government, she was targeted once war broke out between the United States and Japan in December 1941. Arrested by the FBI, she was detained indefinitely without charge. Archibald MacLeish protested unavailingly on her behalf, while First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote Attorney General Francis Biddle to ask if anything could be done to help her, and to ask whether Naval Intelligence files revealed any suspect conduct. Both her political opinions and the reasons for her custody are unknown, though it is likely that her name figured on a list of Japanese immigrants (plus a few Nisei) whom Tokyo demanded be repatriated. What is certain is that, realizing that the war would be protracted, she accepted repatriation, and in August 1942 sailed on an exchange ship to Japan, where she had not lived for two decades. After her arrival, Sakanishi maintained a low profile, though according to one source she was conscripted into service for Japan’s war effort as a translator and propagandist.

However, following Japan’s defeat, she emerged as a liberal and pro-American voice. She was selected by the Occupation government as an advisor, and was appointed to the foreign affairs committee of the House of Councilors of the Japanese Diet as a specialist on women’s issues and international relations. Drawing on her familiarity with American society (a rare commodity in Occupation-era Japan) she put out a trilogy of studies on American women and popular history: “America no josei” (1946); “Jugonin no Americajin” (1946); and “America shi” (1947). In the years that followed, she produced some two dozen books on social reform issues such as child rearing, young people and women’s rights, plus translations of numerous American books (and also the daily “Blondie” comic strip!). Sakanishi became best known as a broadcaster and television interviewer, quizzing foreign visitors in English and interpreting both questions and answers for her viewers.

In 1963, Sakanishi returned on a triumphal visit to the United States. She died in Japan in 1976. Her unique career and success provide an inspiration, as well as a challenge to easy assumptions about gender roles among Japanese.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans,” is an associate professor of history at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He can be reached via e-mail at robinson.greg@


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *