History of UT Women
Last updated: 19 March 2022
Kono Yasui was born in Kagawa in 1880. Encouraged by her parents, aged 18 she entered the Woman’s Higher Normal School (now Ochanomizu University) to study science, where she would go on to spend most of her career. She became the school’s first graduate student in 1905, one of many firsts in her life as a pioneering female researcher, majoring in zoology. One year later she published her research on carp in a scholarly article, becoming the first Japanese woman scientist to do so.
Hired as an associate professor in 1907, she shifted her focus to plant development. Her work caught the attention of Prof. Kiichi Miyake, in the Faculty of Agriculture at the Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo), who agreed to supervise her work on plant cells. This led her in 1911 to become the first Japanese woman to publish in an overseas (British) journal. Eager to study abroad, her request was initially declined by the Ministry of Education on grounds that “a woman was unlikely to achieve anything worthwhile in the field of science”. With support from UTokyo Faculty of Science Prof. Kenjiro Fujii, and on the condition of adding “research in home economics” to her study plan, in 1914 she set off for the United States. She studied at the University of Chicago and Harvard University, returning to Japan in 1916 with expertise in Japanese coal.
Due to limited resources at her alma mater, and with Prof. Fujii’s help, Kono arranged to conduct her research at UTokyo, in exchange for supervising student experiments in genetics. In 1927, aged 48, Kono’s significant work on the carbonisation of plants was recognised by a doctorate in science from UTokyo, no fewer than 19 years before female students were first admitted to the university. Besides publishing around 100 articles, Kono campaigned for the creation of a women’s university for specialised research, which led in 1949 to the conversion of her alma mater into Ochanomizu University.
Speaking about becoming the first woman Japanese Ph.D. holder in 1927, Kono stated: “I have simply plodded along a path of my own choosing".