Beyond Boulder: Retired CU professor was first American woman to earn PhD in Japanese history

Published: April 17, 2017 By

Black and white image of Joyce Lebra Born in 1926, Joyce Chapman Lebra’s early memories are of the scent of flowers, burning sugarcane and the sea. Her father was an entomologist whose career would move the family to the Territory of Hawaii in 1928. Over the 10 years the Chapman family lived in Hawaii, Lebra became increasingly aware of ethnic and class distinctions.

As she grew to adolescence, she sympathized with the indigenous Hawaiians and with the Asian immigrant populations—exploited for their labor in the pineapple and sugar plantations. She would later surmise that her early years as a child of the territory provided the impetus for her life’s mission to give a “voice to the voiceless” as a historian, author and educator. 

I have always been on the side of the people who were oppressed, people who hadn’t been heard—the voiceless, whose stories needed to be told. Not only the oppressed—I was always attracted to anyone fighting for independence.

In 1958, Lebra became the first American woman to earn a PhD in Japanese history, after a two-year Fulbright residence in Japan from 1955 to 1957. Four years later, she came to CU Boulder as the university’s first female history professor—and remained the only one for the next 15 years—teaching Japanese and Indian history. Lebra taught at CU for 29 years, earning the title Professor Emerita.

Shortly after being hired at CU Boulder, Lebra received a second Fulbright Fellowship for 1965-1966 to study the creation of the Indian National Army during World War II and its contribution to Indian independence in 1947. The grant and subsequent research stemming from it would form the core of her most significant research and publications for many years and establish her as a highly distinguished international historian. Her research was conducted in the Netaji Research Bureau in Calcutta, the India Office Library in London, the National Archives in Delhi, India, and in the War History Library located at Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Headquarters in Tokyo.

At least 30 years ahead of the conventions of academic history and during the most intense conflicts in Asia during the height of the Cold War, Lebra would allow Asian voices to speak. The resulting book, Jungle Alliance: Japan and the Indian National Army, remains an essential work on this overlooked part of history. Subsequent work stemming from this research include the books, Japanese-trained Armies in Southeast Asia in 1977 and Women Against the Raj: the Rani of Jhansi Regiment in 2008.

Shortly before leaving on her extended Fulbright scholarship on May 7, 1965, Lebra participated in an all-night protest dialog about the Vietnam War held at the Glenn Miller Ballroom. The Rocky Mountain News reported some 2,000 students attended.

“I said there was no way the U.S could win against Asian nationalism, stepping into failed French imperialist shoes,” she said.

Five years later campuses across the country were electrified when four students were shot by National Guardsman at Kent State University. Classes were canceled at CU, and a huge rally was planned on the west side of Norlin Library. Professor Lebra was asked to speak the night before. She relates in her unpublished autobiography:  

“I agreed, and as I took the microphone the next day, I was standing before several thousand students and faculty. I’m certain this was the largest audience I’ll ever address. I spoke about the Japanese student movement during the ‘sixties in which police had followed strict rules of confrontation and exercised restraint so that only one student was killed during the entire decade of demonstrations. I still regard myself as a liberal, and I believe strongly in speaking up for my convictions.”

Undaunted by traveling in Japan, India and Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, Professor Lebra went wherever her research and her curious mind took her. “Why should I not go where I wanted?” she asked.

Her interest in feminism and women’s history was ignited in 1975, and she has continued to “give voice to the voiceless” as a feminist historian, novelist and lecturer. She led three research teams to Asia to research women’s roles in the workforce and edited the resulting books: Women in Changing Japan (1976) Chinese Women in Southeast Asia (1980) and Women and Work In India (1984.) Using research gained during a semester-long appointment to teach women’s studies in Hawaii, she published Women’s Voices in Hawaii in 1991.  

CU Legend Series

Joyce Chapman Lebra is the fifth in the University of Colorado Libraries CU Legend Series. The event, with talks by History Professors Fred Anderson, Mithi Mukherjee and Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, will be held from 4:30 to 7 p.m. April 24 on the fifth floor of Norlin Library. The exhibit will be prominently displayed in the southwest hallway on the second floor of Norlin Library for two years.

Lebra graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and earned her doctorate in Japanese history from Harvard/Radcliffe. She has received many awards, including Fulbright Fellowships to India and Japan, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship to Japan and Australia, a fellowship from the American Association of University Women, and a visiting professor fellowship to the Australian National University. She has published more than 15 books, written chapters in three books and about 50 articles in scholarly journals.  

Now in her 90s, Lebra is still researching and writing. Last year she had two books published: Solo Cooking for a Sustainable Planet and an oral history of Japanese settlement in Colorado titled We Chose Colorado: Japanese American Voices. “I knew I was extremely lucky, but I didn’t really think about it,” she said of her career. “I just knew I was doing my purpose in life. But, I think I’ve done my work on the planet now.”