95-year-old Boulder woman receives honor from Japan for long career in historical research

Joyce Lebra has committed most of her 95 years to researching Indian and Japanese history, and she is being recognized by the Government of Japan for that work.

On Wednesday, Lebra was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon.

“It’s overwhelming, really,” Lebra said. “It’s such an amazing way to end my career and my life.”

A news release from the Consulate-General of Japan in Denver said Lebra is being honored for her “contribution to promoting academic exchange and mutual understanding between Japan and the United States.”

Lebra said she had “a natural interest” in Japan and from ages 3 to 13, Lebra lived in Honolulu, Hawaii, which has a large Japanese population.

She received her bachelor’s and master’s from the University of Minnesota in Asian Studies, and in 1958 became the first woman in the U.S. to get her PhD in Japanese History.

Lebra said that she wasn’t focused on making a difference, but rather continuing to conduct research that was “fascinating” to her.

“I just did what I did,” Lebra said. “I was focused on what I was interested in and pursued it with focus and wasn’t thinking ‘Oh my God, I’m the first woman to do this.’”

Throughout her career, Lebra wrote several nonfiction and historical fiction books about Japan and India. She lived in Japan for 10 years (over a period of 50 years) and in India for more than three years. Her historical fiction is set in these cultures, as well as Australia and Southeast Asia.

Of her published work, she said that “Jungle Alliance: Japan And The Indian National Army” had the biggest impact on the academic community.

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“I think it was because I was the only one who focused on the relationship between Japan and the fight for freedom,” Lebra said.

After getting her PhD, she became a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder teaching Japanese and Indian history. Lebra made history there, too, as the school’s first female history professor.

“I was able to interview most of the leading participants in these events (being researched), so at times I was very lucky in my timing,” Lebra said. “I had a lot of support from various people along the way and it was very important in Japan to have good connections. … and I had a lot of good luck in that.”

For her accomplishments and trailblazing ways, CU has dedicated an exhibit to Lebra as part of the the University’s Legend Series. This display can be viewed at the Norlin Library for the next two years.

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