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The Daughters of the Samurai, by Janice Nimera.

August 4, 2016

The Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back, by Janice P. Nimura.  W. W. Norton & Company (2016),  352 pages.

by Janice Nimera.

4 stars

A fascinating account of the young Japanese girls who were sent to the United States to study for ten years in 1871 as part of their government’s attempt to modernize their nation.

Janice Nimera was born and raised in Manhattan and graduated from Yale.  After marrying a man from Japan, she spent three years living with him and his family in Japan.  When they returned to America, she earned a master’s degree at Columbia in East Asian Studies focusing on the nineteenth-century history of Japan.  She also acted as an editor and wrote articles and book reviews for major U.S. newspapers.   Browsing in the stacks of the New York Society Library, she came across a book by Alice Bacon, a friend of the Japanese women who came to study in the United States.  Bacon had been close to them in America and later joined them in Japan, helping them educate other women in Western culture and language.   The story of these women became the core of Daughter of the Samurai.

 Knowledgeable in Japanese history, Nimera is able to provide readers with a clear picture of what was happening in Japan and why the girls were sent to the United States.  In the 1600s, Japanese rulers were upset by the first wave of Europeans to touch their shores.  They decreed that their land would not allow the entrance of  foreigners, and until the 1850s they were able to enforce their isolation.  Then American Matthew Perry sailed into their ports, and sailors from other countries soon followed.  The Japanese emperor was deposed as factions fought for power.  The Meiji won and began massive reforms in Japan.  The new elite believed that their nation needed to study abroad to gain knowledge of the rest of the world.  Almost as an afterthought, five young girls were sent along with several men to stay in America for ten years at government expense .  The girls chosen all belonged to families sympathetic to Western culture and needing a way to reestablish their power in the world of Meiji reforms.

When the girls arrived in to the United States none of them knew any English, had never worn Western clothes, and were not even accustomed to sitting in chairs.  The two older girls, Ryo and Tei, were both age 14.  They returned to Japan after only one year and lost contact with the other girls.  The younger girls were Sudematsu, age 11, Shige, age 10, and Ume, age 7.  Sutmatsu and Shige lived with the family of leading ministers in New England, and Ume stayed in Georgetown with an ambassador and his wife.  The three younger girls bounded strongly with the families who fostered them. For a decade they lived and were generally treated as daughters of upper-class American family. Sutmatsu and Shige attended Vassar and were among the first generation of women to attend college. All three moved among the growing number of women who were choosing professions and singleness as adults.

Shige returned to Japan after nine years in New England to marry a Japanese man she met when he was studying at the U.S. Naval Academy and to teach in a Japanese Music School.  Sutmatsu, who had graduated from Vassar, and Ume, who had graduated from an American high school, had a harder time readjusting to Japanese life.  Although they had fantasized about teaching Japanese women, there were no jobs open for them.  Eventually Sutmatsu married an older, military leader because she came to believe that she could best help in the education of Japanese women by doing so.  Ume was able to teach in the Peeress School, for the daughters of the court.  Conservative ideas reigned in the school, however, and Ume was restless there.  She returned to Bryn Mawr, newly opened by M. Carey Thomas, for more education.  She became friends with American women willing and able to raise funds for the more modern school for women that she had dreamed of opening in Japan.  With their help, and the help of Sutmatsu and Shige, she was able to create a school which focused on teaching the English language and Western culture to girls.  Eventually her school grew into a college, still highly regarded today.  Although Ume, and American friends who taught with her, remained single, the school was grounded in Japanese Confucian morality which stressed the importance of women’s education as future wives and mothers rather than as individuals.

Nimera has written a well-researched biography of a unique group of women.  Her own background enables her to provide the context for their lives in both Japan and America.  While there are no footnotes, abundant documentation is provided by page number in the back of the book.  The Japanese women she describes underwent transitions far larger than most of us today, but her carefully-told account reveals problems many of us still have around issues of marriage or singleness, family or profession.  It is pleasure to read.  I strongly recommend the book to other readers, especially for those curious about women’s history globally.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2016 5:33 pm

    What an extraordinary story! I can’t imagine what made them select a 14 year old girl for this bizarre ‘mission’.

  2. August 5, 2016 12:46 am

    It’s amazing how people find these gems of history to being to our attention.

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