Monday, March 28, 2011

A Japanese historian muses

Last week we had the thoughts of a French philosopher in Turkey; this week, those of a Japanese historian on a research visit to London.  Chihiro Umegaki specialises in the history of the English Enlightenment and women writers in the 18th century; no surprise, then, that she has written extensively on Mary Wollstonecraft, bringing her to a Japanese audience. She came across this blog, and I promptly invited her along on my jaunt to Oxford to commune with Shelley's Ghost (which closed yesterday). Chihiro was the ideal companion; our obsessions tally nicely. We got out our maps and plotted where exactly Mary's dwelling places would have been, and how many of them might be visitable in a week in London. Plaques, and places without plaques, and Newington Green for the church as well, and the Museum of London for Hidden, not forgetting the National Portrait Gallery....I'll describe our peregrinations in several future posts. For now, let Chihiro introduce herself, and how she came to work with Mary.

Mary Wollstonecraft has been my idol for more than 15 years. I came across her Vindication when I was an undergraduate student in Tokyo. Of course there were a lot of phrases and expressions which I could not understand fully, but I found her arguments very authentic, and fancied that she personally supported me, unsure of my own future academic career in the still male-dominant society of Japan.

My first visit to London was in 2000, when I took my MA course in history in York. I remember how disappointed I was to learn that there were no proper memorial spots of Mary Wollstonecraft. I tried to find her plaques on buildings, but in vain. As an overseas student who spent only one year in Britain, I would be happy enough if I could take a picture of me standing side by side with her statue, and imagine that I was connected with her real life in London…

After finishing my MA, I came back home, and published some articles (in Japanese) about Mary Wollstonecraft and contemporary women writers. I have been teaching British history at a women's junior college in Tokyo for 8 years, and now I am writing an introductory book to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman for Japanese readers. We do have a Japanese translation (published in 1980), but I think ordinary readers still need some guidance to understand the full context of her arguments. My book is intended to be such a guide.

I came to London in March this year partly because I needed some fresh inspiration for the final phase of my writing. Unexpectedly, the Mary on the Green project caught my eyes. It was a very happy surprise, and convinced me that Mary Wollstonecraft’s voice is still heard. I will encourage my Japanese readers to support this project, and hope that some day I can take a picture of me holding my book, standing next to Mary's statue in Newington Green.


  1. Roberta: So many exciting things on your blog at the moment! This is really keeping me going in the third-draft-revision-jesus-is-this-ever-going-to-end phase of writing.
    Chihiro: I'm so excited to find out that we're working on basically the same thing (in different languages!) I'd love to hear more about your experiences writing this book.

  2. If this blog succeeds in bringing Mary fans together, I am delighted. If this blog succeeds in bringing together *paid Mary experts* who did not previously know of each other's existence, I am vindicated. Sandrine and Chihiro, Mary feeds your professional life and thus indirectly your salaries; one day, maybe I too can make my living -- or at least my library fees -- from my Mary lore.

  3. Roberta - Thank you for an inspiring and sunny Wollstonecraft tour around King's Cross on Thursday.
    It was a treat - and at times an excercise - for the imagination to visit some key places of her life.
    With your commentary, effortlessly skipping between the centuries, it didn't matter that we had to look hard for the traces of Mary, she was still there.
    I'm reading her travel journal on her time in Scandinavia now.
    Chihiro - Nice to meet you, best of luck with your writing on MW.
    Will be watching this space.

  4. Sandrine: Yes, it seems we are doing the similar work in parallel in different languages! I'm now struggling with my final chapter, so perhaps you are going much more forward than me. Wish us luck!
    Asa: Nice to meet you too. I'm coming back to Tokyo now. Things are still worrying, but we are trying to get back to our normal life. Anyway I'll send my photostream on Flickr later to your mail address.
    Roberta: Yes, your blog is already the place people use for online conversation on Mary. I'm glad that my attendance to the New Unity Church proved incredibly fruitful!

  5. What a fascinating and timely connection with Japan! Thank you Roberta and Chihiro

  6. One of my regrets is what while living in the UK for a year (grad student), I didn't visit her grave. I hope that someday when I return to the UK, I'll be able to do that.

    Great story Chihiro!

  7. Vertigo -- you have two graves to choose from! One at the end of the Eurostar, and one on the South Coast. They will be described in a future post, already written and queued up.
    Asa -- thank you for your kind comments. I arranged the sunshine just for you! I'd be very interested to hear your reflections, as a Swede, on Mary's perceptions of your country. Perhaps a future guest post?
    Chihiro -- I was going to most of those places anyway, but your fortuitous arrival stretched me, and now I have so much to write about!
    Adie -- yes, isn't it exciting?