Mito-sensei, as everybody lovingly called her, was a gentle woman. And like Dian Fossey, she is one of the greatest primatologists the world has ever known.
Mito-sensei was born in Hiroshima in 1914. She married in 1934 and moved to Korea where they had three daughters.
Her husband died of a sudden illness in 1940. World War II was raging at time, and life was not easy. At 26 years of age, she took her daughters and went to Dalian, China where she found work as a school teacher.
The war ended in 1945 and Dalian was occupied by the Russians. Barely surviving and longing for home, Mito-sensei took her daughters and moved back to Hiroshima in 1947.
And then things went from bad to worse.
Story of Survival
I had the good fortune on meeting Mito-sensei in 2007, when I took a group visiting Miyazaki to her house, walking distance away from Kōjima island in southern Miyazaki.
She gave us a tour of the island and her amazing workshop, chock-full of books and a station where she administered urgent care to monkeys in need of medical attention.
It was there that she told us about her amazing life story.
1947 Hirsohima was nothing like she had ever known. The city had been obliterated by nuclear bombing and there was wide-spread misery.
People told her to move as far south as she could. Mito-sensei packed her meager belongings, took hare daughters and left for the relative safety of south Kyushu where she got a little place next to the tiny Kōjima island.
The island was declared protected by the government in 1934. However, during the war most of the monkey population was wiped out by people hunting for food.
The few remaining ones looked miserable. They were all in poor health and in imminent danger of extinction.
The sight of the desperate monkeys was too much for Mito-sensei to bear. She began to care for them, shared what little food she had and nursed the sick ones back to health in her humble adobe.
Little by little, things got better, and the monkey population bounced back.
By 2007, she told me there were about 400 monkeys on the island, the maximum the island’s ecology would naturally sustain.
And she know every single one of them by name!
Mito-sensei dedicated her life to her (as she called them) monkeys. Her research and publications have made enormous contributions to the science of primatology.
She has published several books and closely cooperated with the Primate Research Institute of Kyoto University. Her work is heavily cited by the researchers in the field (see a few references below).
We miss Mito-sensei; so do the grateful primates of Kōjima, I’m sure.