The tumultuous life of Shiho Sakanishi, a Japanese woman who came to the United States nearly 100 years ago and whose trailblazing efforts helped bring the two countries together, should serve as an example for people in Japan today, especially the younger generations.

At a time when it was much harder for people in Japan to go abroad, let alone land a job in a foreign government, Sakanishi arrived in California in the 1920s when she was in her 20s, earned her doctorate in Michigan and worked as chief of the Japan section at the Library of Congress in Washington before World War II.

Shiho Sakanishi. (Kyodo)

"It was a much more difficult time than now, and I think she was a highly capable woman," said Eiichi Ito, who holds a current post at the library similar to Sakanishi's former role, referring to an era of tensions between Tokyo and Washington as the war neared.

The library keeps many historical documents related to Sakanishi, including her letters. They include a note in which she showed her eagerness to research American diplomat Townsend Harris, who signed the bilateral Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1858, a deal that led Japan to end its pre-modern national isolation.

Among the documents is a 1939 letter in which Shinzo Koizumi, then president of Keio Gijuku, the Tokyo-based academic institute that operates Keio University, asked her to attend its delegation in the United States.

Several decades removed from Sakanishi's death in 1976 at the age of 79, few Japanese know her name or life story, even among those living in the United States.

She was born in 1896 in the village of Shioya, now a part of the city of Otaru, Hokkaido. Her father was a former police officer. The family was not well-to-do, but she was able to attend a girls' school with the help of an American missionary and others.

Sakanishi was associated with Inazo Nitobe, a prominent educator and the first president of Tokyo Women's Christian University whose portrait was featured on Japan's old 5,000-yen bill.

Following her arrival in the United States, Sakanishi studied at Wheaton College in Massachusetts on a scholarship and went on to study aesthetics at a graduate school of the University of Michigan, earning her Ph.D. from the same institution. She was hired by the library in the U.S. capital in 1930.

When talking about Sakanishi, it is impossible not to address her role in the run-up to the Pacific War. Japanese officials, in their haste to gather information about the United States, asked her to help in light of her broad networks of U.S. contacts. The U.S. intelligence community considered her a spy.

Photo taken in May 2023 shows a house in Washington where Shiho Sakanishi lived. (Kyodo)

Ellis Zacharias, an expert on Japan who served in naval intelligence, described Sakanishi in his 1946 book "Secret Missions" as "one of Japan's best operatives in the United States, screening her activities as an employee of the Congressional Library."

She was forced to return to Japan because U.S. authorities arrested her after the war broke out with Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

Some materials indicate Sakanishi tried to hide the fact that she hailed from Hokkaido, apparently due to fear that her record of arrest or surveillance by intelligence officers could affect her relatives.

Manabu Yokoyama, a professor emeritus of Notre Dame Seishin University who is familiar with her life, said in a thesis that Sakanishi did not think she did anything wrong in providing the requested information to Japanese Embassy staff in Washington.

"It seems she believed it should be her role to fill in those who were not well versed in the U.S. society on how Americans typically think and feel. It was part of what she did every day," Yokoyama said.

After the war, Sakanishi became known as a straight-talking critic in Japan. Many of her comments in newspapers reflected her idea that Japan was lagging behind the open-minded, democracy-based United States, a view which must have displeased some. She wrote many books and held many public positions in Japan, including as a member of the National Public Safety Commission.

"She established her place by responding to requests one by one. Her outstanding English language ability and the human skills that endeared her to so many people are amazing," Yokoyama said.

Sakanishi and others like her were trailblazers in cross-cultural understanding. They helped pave the way for growing numbers of Japanese in later generations to come to the United States for educational opportunities that enabled international careers.

In recent years, however, the number of students from Japan seeking degrees in the United States has steadily declined. The annual figure has long since been overtaken by the numbers of students from China and South Korea.

(Toyohiro Horikoshi is Kyodo News Washington Bureau chief)