Faculty Spotlight: Professor Noriko Ishii a specialist in American Studies and American Women’s History.

Professor Noriko Ishii lived in San Francisco for four years during elementary school. Those experiences lingered with her after coming back to Japan and she continued to concentrate on studying English, eventually entering our own Department of English Studies at Sophia University. After graduating from Sophia University, she completed MPhil and PhD programs at George Washington University while raising her children. As a mother, a graduate from Sophia University, and a professor of the English department, Prof. Noriko Ishii told the Angles editors powerful and inspiring stories.

image001Angles Editors: Could you tell us about your background before you entered university?

Ishii-sensei: First of all, I’m a graduate of this department. So, I have a special love for the students here, who are my kohais. And in retrospect, I feel that growing up in San Francisco from 3rd to 7th grade was influential in my own choice of studying American Studies and U.S. history later in my life.  I happened to attend an elementary school with the highest ratio of white children in San Francisco when the city was becoming the center of anti-Vietnam war movement and the counter culture movement. As a result, San Francisco municipal government started the so-called “busing” policy, bringing busloads of African-American children to the school, and my school’s case was covered on the front page of the local newspaper. So, in retrospect, I feel that these experiences were crucial in selecting my field.

Angles Editors: How did you get started in your field?

Ishii-sensei: I first went into the field of international relations when I was an undergraduate student at Sophia because at that time, they offered a fascinating interdisciplinary program with leading scholars in different disciplines. Without much background knowledge in political science or economics, however, I ended up trying a disarmament seminar in my junior year and transferring to the comparative sociology seminar in my senior year. Thus, I finally discovered that I was interested in the experiences of ordinary people, how they interacted and challenged their surrounding environments to “make history” when I was about to graduate as an undergraduate from Sophia. Thus, at that point, I went into the job market instead.

Angles Editors: Oh, you did.

Ishii-sensei: Yes! I ended up joining a Japanese banking firm specializing in the foreign exchange business and international finance. I chose that firm because I felt I could take part in international business using English and because they offered excellent working conditions for women. They had female executive managers, assigned and sent women to overseas branch offices, and allowed 24-month maternity leave for every child you gave birth to.  Amazingly, this was before the amendment of the equal employment law for men and women in Japan.

I was perfectly satisfied with my job, but unexpectedly, my life changed towards pursuing graduate work in U.S. history at a U.S. graduate school a few years later. I discovered that I was fascinated in this field because I accidentally had a chance to audit both undergraduate classes and graduate seminars at Princeton when my spouse was doing his graduate work there. Thus, when I learned that my spouse was assigned to Washington, D. C., for three years, I decided to apply for graduate schools.

Angles Editors: How did you choose where to study?

Ishii-sensei: Still in the process of framing my own research questions, I applied to three institutions in different disciplines and decided where to go after I made visits to each campus.  Speaking with the department chairs, I finally chose the Department of American Studies at George Washington University, because I realized that I was interested in the workings of human beings as a whole, how mankind interacted with and shaped the society and culture.I wanted to look into the historical processes from transnational perspectives.

Angles Editors: Wow, that is very interesting. The whole story of how you went back to graduate school was much different than we expected.

Ishii-Sensei: Yes, I think it’s very different from the stories of many other professors. And the message that I want to convey to you from this story is to leave your opportunities wide open! You never know what happens in future.

Angles Editors: You raised your children in Washington while you were going to graduate school?

Ishii-sensei: Yes, when I started graduate school, my daughter was 20 months-old. She was just a toddler. That’s how I started. Then, I had my second child when I was doing the research for my dissertation proposal.

Angles Editors: What was the biggest challenge you had in your career?

Ishii-sensei: The biggest challenge took place after I came back to Japan after 3 years at graduate school.

Angles Editors: After you graduated?

Ishii-sensei: Not yet. I was still a student, in the latter phase of the Ph.D. program. The biggest challenge for me was to complete the Ph.D. program overseas when I was having my second baby and raising two young children in Japan. Literally this was supposed to be possible, because George Washington University allowed students to do the latter phase, or the dissertation research and writing phase of the Ph.D. program “off campus,” if you had already completed the course work and the comprehensive exams. In reality, however, it was much harder than I expected; to shape ideas and write my dissertation away from my advisors, when the internet or emails were not so common as they are today. We communicated by regular mail and fax machines. I was lucky to have a wonderful advisor who never gave up writing to me and who had an incredible amount of patience to support and inspire me throughout those trying years.

This challenge, however, brought me gifts, too. One of the reasons why I chose my dissertation topic of the educational work of the American women missionaries in late nineteenth century Japan was a practical one; because I thought this would ease the difficulty of completing my Ph.D. overseas, assuming that I could do research both in Japan and in the United States.  Thanks to that decision, I am still thrilled with the research topic of the transnational Christian networks of American and Japanese women and women from other countries around the world.  When I wrote my dissertation, I never dreamed that I would be pursuing the research of female missionary networks for so many years.  The more I do research, however, I am discovering how deep and encompassing their activisms and legacies are and am fascinated by the ways how this topic is engaging me into transnational women’s history.

Angles Editors: What new ideas or recent discoveries in your field excite you the most?

Ishii-sensei: What excites me the most is, as I said earlier, that thanks to the development of women’s history and transnational history, scholarly attention has revived in the history of women’s missionary networks from new perspectives of transnational and global history. The Protestant foreign missionary movement from the late nineteenth century to the interwar years was the largest women’s movement in American history. Now historians explore the relationship among religion, empire, race, nation-building, modernity and gender in different interactions of missionary networks around the globe. Furthermore, what is happening in the past decade is that more attention is paid to uncover the “local” responses in the mission fields.  This is an effort to change the unbalanced Euro/American centric scholarship in the past that resulted from scholars working only on English-written primary sources written by the missionaries and their U.S. based sending boards. To examine how women around the world challenged crossing different borders of language, religion, race and nation-state/empire and shaped their activism, recent scholarship focuses more on working on sources written both in English and in native languages so that we can incorporate the “local” perspectives.  To this end, we are now working on different collaborative projects with scholars from around the world, who would study about women’s transnational missionary activisms in different locations around the world, including China, Korea, Japan, Philippines, Middle East and India. Therefore, I am excited that I am taking part in this newly thriving field that the transnational history interest had sparked.

Another new discovery that excited me was the inspiration I gained from the students here at Sophia when I took on the challenge of designing a new course called 海を越える女性史. This was an enormous challenge for me because I expanded the scope of my “transnational women’s history” to women’s transnational activisms of women around the world, not limited to those of American and Japanese women. I discussed different topics using keywords including religion, education, empire, modernity, consumerism and reproduction.  This was a wonderful learning experience for me because discussions among students from diverse departments and faculties inspired all of us to open up new ways to frame the questions and shape new perspectives. I look forward to working with the students to further develop my courses.

Angles Editors: What are articles or books you would recommend to students interested in learning more about your specialty?

Ishii-sensei: I would recommend the following two books: Judy Tzu-Chun Wu’s Doctor Mom Chung of the Fair-Haired Bastards: The Life of a Wartime Celebrity (2005) and Ian Tyrrell’s Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire(2010). 

Wu’s Doctor Mom Chung is a fascinating story about a transnational woman, crossing many borders of race, gender, profession and war. Madame Chung is a remarkable Chinese American woman, who cross-dressed as male when she worked as a medical physician in Chinatown in California during the late nineteenth century but supported American male soldiers as their adopting “mother” when they were fighting Japanese during the Second World War.  Wu’s work is a wonderful work of art using a case study of one particular figure to explore important questions of the interactions of race, gender, nation-state and sexuality in relation to the changing historical landscape of U.S. as it emerged as a transpacific empire.  The book is a highly readable page-turner, unusual for a scholarly history book; I am sure you would enjoy it.

On the other hand, Ian Tyrrell’s Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire (2010) is a path-breaking book, addressing a non-Euro-American centric perspective to transnational history. Tyrrell is an Australian scholar who pioneered in shaping a theoretical framework for the newly emerging discipline of “transnational history.”  He also raised important criticisms against Euro-American centered scholarship of the history of empires and transnational history. Encompassing global histories of politics, economy, empires and transnational networks as well as the case studies of the individuals, he demonstrates how powerful the moral empire was in American culture and how much this constituted the soft power of American influence around the world.  He also argues that women were central to this and that such transnational women’s activism was distinct in American history.

Angles Editors: What are some of the ideas/experiences you hope students take away from your classes?

Ishii-sensei: I want the students to gain the perspective that the notion of gender is not given but is socially and culturally constructed. In other words, it’s not embedded in our genes, hereditary or biological, but it’s something that is created in the culture, by society. So, I’d like all the students to be critical of what’s happening around you. Students tend to respond saying, “Oh, that was too bad in the 19th century. I’m so lucky to be living today.” But even today we are bound by gender perceptions, it’s still there. Gender perception does not disappear; it’s always there and is subject to change over time. I want the students to be aware of this and be critical of all the preconception that people are bound by. That’s the direct message I have. 

I also want the students to learn the importance of challenging themselves by trying new experiences.  Four years of undergrad days is a wonderful period of life to expand your views and to expand your possibilities. Be open to new experiences, may it be meeting new people, books or activities. Keep your eyes wide open and catch the info from all the many rich opportunities around you. You will find a wealth of lectures, book talks, workshops, exchange programs and student conferences on and beyond campus. This is a luxurious time in life. Challenge yourself to try new opportunities and broaden your perspectives! We are all wishing the best for you. 

Professor Ishii teaches English Skills, American studies, American women’s history and North American history. She is on sabbatical until the spring of 2020, but to learn more about her ideas please read her books and scholarly articles or take her courses when she returns next year.