By Heather Howard / Japan News Staff WriterDaughters of the Samurai
By Janice P. Nimura
(W.W. Norton & Company), 336 pages
What a treasure is “Daughters of the Samurai.” By the time we turn the final page in Janice P. Nimura’s history of the first Japanese women ever to study overseas, we don’t just know about these women, we know them — their hopes and fears, their dreams and disappointments are vividly real.
We travel through a rich tapestry of history as well, as Nimura seamlessly blends three women’s individual stories with that of a nation embracing, and struggling with, profound change.
Take, for example, the presence of Kiyotaka Kuroda, who visited the United States on a fact-finding mission and returned to write a memorandum to the Meiji government on the need for greater education for Japanese women. “Kuroda embodied the quantum leap of Meiji leadership,” Nimura tells us, and illustrates that point in memorable fashion. Not long before his travels, we learn, Kuroda had been in the retinue of the lord of Satsuma when a group of British travelers did not dismount their horses as he passed and were cut down for this disrespect.
Kuroda’s advice went over well, and the government ultimately decided to add some girls to the group of students accompanying the Iwakura Mission to the United States in December 1871. Five girls were originally sent, but only three would remain long-term: Sutematsu Yamakawa, Shige Nagai and Ume Tsuda. The last will be most readily known to Japanese readers; she was only 6 when she departed Japan and would not return for about a decade.
Modern eyes will roll at some of the girls’ reception in the United States, though it was surely inevitable at the time. They want the “camouflage” of Western clothing but can’t obtain it at first — their chaperone, the wife of the American ambassador, is enjoying all the stares.
Overall, however, they seem to have met with friendship and love: Ume is adopted by a family in Washington, D.C., for example, whose mother calls her a “sunbeam from the land of the rising sun.” She, Sutematsu and Shige grow up thoroughly American in manner and language, a situation that presents new challenges when it comes time to return to Japan.
Different fates await the three — one will choose an independent life of scholarship, and another makes a glittering marriage that takes her to the pinnacle of Japanese society — though each remains devoted and contributes throughout her life to women’s education and the growth of their nation. Today’s readers, especially women, will find much to empathize with in the battle between family and career ambitions and stubborn social pressure on how women are “supposed” to live.
Surely, however, readers’ final emotion will be bittersweet nostalgia, as each character comes to the end of her life, and we feel as if an old friend has passed away. As the brother of one wrote upon his sister’s death: “Her childish face lingers even now / America-bound, long ago.”
Where to read
In a quiet spot where no one will notice your tears at the end.