Published: June 7, 2021

First American woman to earn a PhD in Japanese history (and first female professor in CU Boulder history department) recognized for trailblazing scholarship

Joyce Chapman Lebra, a pioneering professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder, has been honored by the Japanese government for her lifelong scholarly work on Japanese history.

In April, the Consulate-General of Japan in Denver announced that Lebra was being recognized for promoting “academic exchange and mutual understanding between Japan and the United States.”

Japan honored her with the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon.

“It’s overwhelming, really,” Lebra told The Denver Post shortly after the announcement. “It’s such an amazing way to end my career and my life.”

Lebra, now 95, was the first American woman ever to earn a PhD in Japanese history in 1958, after a two-year Fulbright residence in Japan from 1955 to 1957. She became CU Boulder’s first female history professor four years later—and remained its only one for the next 15.

Joyce Lebra

Joyce Chapman Lebra taught Japanese and Indian history at CU Boulder for 29 years.

Lebra taught Japanese and Indian history at CU Boulder for 29 years before retiring. Here, she published groundbreaking histories of the Indian National Army and the Empire of Japan during World War II, works based on deep research in Japanese military archives that few Western scholars—and no women—had ever seen.

Lebra spent much of her childhood in Hawaii, where 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 propelled her to give a “voice to the voiceless” as a historian, author and teacher.

Shortly after being hired at CU Boulder, Lebra received a second Fulbright Fellowship for 1965-66 to study the creation of the Indian National Army during World War II and its contribution to Indian independence in 1947.

The grant and research stemming from it formed the core of her most significant research and publications for many years and establish her as a highly distinguished international historian.

She conducted her research 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 allowed Asian voices to speak. The resulting book, Jungle Alliance: Japan and the Indian National Army, remains a watershed work on this overlooked part of history.

Subsequent work stemming from this research include the books Japanese-trained Armies in Southeast Asia and Women Against the Raj: the Rani of Jhansi Regiment.

It’s overwhelming, really ... It’s such an amazing way to end my career and my life."

Lebra graduated from the University of Minnesota with bachelor’s and master’s degrees and earned her doctorate in Japanese history from Harvard/Radcliffe. In addition to her Fulbright Fellowships, she won 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. 

In her 90s, Lebra published two books: Solo Cooking for a Sustainable Planet and an oral history of Japanese settlement in Colorado titled We Chose Colorado: Japanese American Voices.

In 2018, Lebra’s colleagues honored her in a CU Legends event organized by University Libraries. At that event, which is preserved on YouTube, history Professor Bob Ferry praised her this way:

“Way more than just being the first woman hired by history, Joyce was the embattled founder of the effort for gender equity in our department. Probably progress would have been made in any event, but the context of that progress at CU was all about Joyce Lebra, and we owe her a lot.”

Kenna Bruner, lead writer and editor in Strategic Relations and Communications, contributed to this report.