Michi Kawai (1877-1953) was an educator, a Christian activist, and a proponent of Japanese-Western ties before, during and after World War II. The daughter of a Shinto priest, Kawai attended a school run by a Presbyterian missionary and was then encouraged to travel to the U.S. to study. She entered Bryn Mawr in 1900, and in 1902 attended a YWCA Conference at Silver Bay. One account notes:
“She saw how American girls from many different colleges could play and think and plan together like lifelong friends. She treasured up this memory to transplant later in Japanese soil.”
Photo from My Lantern (1939) by Michi Kawai
In the first of her two books in English, My Lantern, she wrote:
“In the summer of 1902 I was invited to the Y.W.C.A. conference at Silver Bay on Lake George, in New York State; and what a feast of fresh impressions and new experiences and ideas I enjoyed! Here I saw in practice the co-operation which Dr. Nitobe had told me about when we landed at Vancouver. The nearly four hundred girls from thirty or so colleges played together and prayed together without rivalry, each wanting to improve her own college by learning what other colleges were doing. This was something new to me. At that time there were few girls’ high schools in Japan; and instead of friendliness and cooperation there was envy and rivalry, the students of one school not speaking to those of another but looking down upon them, each considering her school the best. Even mission schools were not free from this condition. And I, seeing girls from all over America gathered together in a spirit of love and mutual helpfulness, craved this spirit for our Japanese girls.
“One evening there was a sunset meeting out under the sky, when a Vassar girl — who was she, I wonder? — stood on the green knoll, her face beaming as she told us that she was going to China, because, ‘The world is my field,’ she said. What a wonderful new expression! … Silver Bay gave me a glimpse of the bright, happy maidenhood of American girls in their upper teens, a period which seems to be left out in the lives of Japanese girls; for, carefree and happy though we are in our early teens, womanhood descends upon us suddenly. I coveted such a joyful experience, recreational, social, spiritual, for our girls. But who should bring it to them? I sat one day in the boat[house, watching the girls swimming and boating, and my heart was lifted up in prayer to God that he would use me for the girls of my country, to bring them together for mutual helpfulness.”
At Silver Bay, Kawai also met Caroline Macdonald, a young Canadian. Kawai returned home after graduating from Bryn Mawr in 1904, and in 1905 Macdonald was sent to Japan to found the YWCA there. The two women reunited and made the YWCA of Japan a reality. In 1907, they led a conference in Aoyama, Tokyo, patterned after the Silver Bay conference, with morning Bible study, afternoon recreation and more informal evening “heart to heart” sessions.
Michi Kawai became the first National Secretary of the Japanese YWCA in 1912, and in 1927 she founded a Christian school for young women in Tokyo. But in this, as in so many other things, she was moving against the currents of history.
In 1934, she came to the U.S. on a speaking tour to promote Japanese-American relations. On the eve of Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, she traveled to China. In 1941, she returned to the U.S., and while in California was awarded an honorary doctorate from Mills College. She later wrote, “‘This is a gesture of American goodwill to Japan at this critical moment,’ said my soul to me, ‘therefore accept the honor, not for yourself, but for your country, and pledge yourself to stand for the cause of peace and friendship in this hour of tribulation.’”
Michi Kawai returned to Japan. Before the year was over, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Throughout the war, she maintained her Tokyo school’s strong Christian focus in spite of government disapproval. And immediately following the war, she played a surprising role in the establishment of peace: Gen. Douglas MacArthur, head of the U.S. Army of Occupation, had a vital, but complicated, use for the Emperor of Japan. If plans for a peaceful occupation were to be successful, the Emperor needed to be portrayed as deceived by the military, humanized, and put to work as a facilitator of peace.
Gen. Bonner Fellers, MacArthur’s former head of psychological warfare, was to lead the revision and re-creation of the Emperor. For this, he needed a contact within the Emperor’s inner circle. To make this contact, he approached a woman he had met in 1920 in Japan: Michi Kawai. She introduced him to a high palace official, Sekiya Teizaburo, who, like the American Generals, was eager to portray the Emperor as a lover of peace who had been cruelly misled. And so it came to pass; the Emperor followed the script; the Japanese people followed his lead.
Michi Kawai spent her last years rebuilding schools and writing about her experiences.
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Silver Bay quote from Ten Against the Storm (1957) by Marianna Nugent Prichard and Norman Young Prichard