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Her Shanghai

She penned the novel of a lifetime—her mother’s

Swarthmore College gave Keiko Itoh ’74 an education in more ways than one.

“There I was, this sheltered Japanese student from a convent school suddenly surrounded by all these incredibly socially aware, politically active, very engaged people,” she remembers with a laugh. “It was intimidating but wonderful.”

Initially, Itoh pursued a career at the United Nations in New York and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London. But her inquisitiveness led her to research and write about her family’s unusually international background. 

“When I was little, my mother, a London-raised Japanese woman, used to talk of her time living in China with great fondness. As I grew up and studied history, I realized she had lived in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II,” Itoh says. “And yet she always made that time sound so rosy—I was so curious, I had to learn more.”

Itoh’s exhaustive research has yielded two books: her doctoral dissertation published in 2001, The Japanese Community in Pre-War Britain: From Integration to Disintegration, and her recently published fiction debut, My Shanghai, 1942–1946

Inspired by her mother’s story, the novel traces the journey of Eiko Kishimoto, a London-educated Japanese newlywed in Shanghai whose courage, compassion, and cultural loyalties are tested by the horrors of war. 

“That question has always interested me: What happens to people with multicultural identities and affinities when countries you love are at war with each other?” she says. “That was something I was trying to figure out.”

As she begins her research for a sequel—or another project in the same vein—Itoh remains endlessly inspired by the brave, creative ways women around the world make their way, whether it’s her mother’s journey, her daughters’, or her own.

“The globe is much smaller now,” she says, “but the power of our stories of coming of age remain universal.”