In 2024, Japan will introduce its new 5,000-yen bank note, featuring a portrait of a onetime Washington schoolgirl. Her name was Ume Tsuda, and her story is part fairy tale, part geopolitical diplomatic assignment.

Tsuda arrived in Washington in 1871, one of five girls sent by the Japanese government to learn the ways of the West. At just 7, she was the youngest of the group, which included a 10-year-old, an 11-year-old and two girls in their midteens.

Little Ume brought with her pictures of her house and family in Tokyo and one of her hand resting in the hand of her mother — “and this,” wrote a journalist, “seems to be a pleasant picture to the little wanderer.”

Presumably, the little wanderer kept the photos with her for the decade she spent living in Georgetown under the care of foster parents Adeline and Charles Lanman. Charles Lanman, the subject of a recent column, was an artist and author. As interesting as his life was — he served as Daniel Webster’s assistant, compiled directories of Congress and assembled the first White House library — Tsuda may have made a bigger mark.

Why send a child 7,000 miles away to live with strangers in a strange land?

When Tsuda arrived, Japan had recently emerged from a civil war that had seen the ruling shogunate fall to supporters of the emperor. The new government was eager to learn about the West.

“Suddenly they’re reversing the closed-country philosophy and throwing themselves wide open,” said Janice P. Nimura, who wrote about Tsuda and the other girls in her 2015 book, “Daughters of the Samurai.”

As part of this newfound curiosity, Japanese diplomats traveled the world on a two-year fact-finding mission known as the Iwakura Embassy. The mission included arranging to drop off five girls in Eastern U.S. cities.

“All five of these girls came from families from the losing side,” Nimura said. “In some cases, their families were starving. They’d lost everything.”

By offering their children, these elite, financially strapped families could lighten their burden while also earning prestige.

Japan’s leaders were eager to learn about American agriculture, industry, jurisprudence and culture. There was also the recognition, Nimura said, that women were treated differently in the United States from in Japan and that this might be a factor in America’s success.

The thinking, Nimura said, was, “Maybe we should educate our women so they could spawn an enlightened generation of men to lead Japan.”

Tsuda and the others were test subjects.

“The girls were dropped off with no instructions,” Nimura said. “No one really knew what to do with them.”

Ume was lucky to be with the Lanmans, who were childless and lived in a house at what is now 3035 P St. NW. Adeline Lanman came from Washington’s wealthy Dodge family. Charles Lanman was the secretary to the Japanese legation.

“They called her their ‘sunbeam from the land of the rising sun’ and doted on her,” Nimura said. “She had a much better life as a pampered only child in Washington than she ever would have had in Tokyo.”

Tsuda was an object of fascination in Washington.

“She was very bright and very gregarious,” Nimura said. “She was up to the challenge socially.”

When the Georgetown girls school she attended held its commencement in June 1874, Tsuda was awarded prizes in composition, writing, arithmetic and deportment. And when students rose in turn to read aloud, Tsuda was the only one to have memorized her selection: a poem called “The White-Footed Deer” by William Cullen Bryant.

In 1882, Tsuda went home to a country she didn’t recognize. She no longer spoke Japanese and had converted to Christianity. After a few years, she returned to the United States and attended Bryn Mawr, where she developed the idea of founding her own school in Japan.

Said Nimura: “Tsuda got a sense this was a thing you could be: a single woman with a career. There was no model for that in Japan.”

In 1900, Tsuda opened a school in Japan to teach female instructors of English. That school has grown into Tokyo’s Tsuda University, a sort of Seven Sisters of Japan.

Before founding her school, Tsuda toured the United States seeking funds. She wrote that she was “struck particularly with the position American women hold — the great influence they exercise for good; the power given them by education and training; the congenial intercourse between men and women, and the sympathy in the homes between brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. Why cannot such things exist in my own country?”

It’s arguable whether such conditions really existed for most U.S. women in the 1870s — or whether they exist in Japan now. But soon, Tsuda will be on the money.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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