Janice P. Nimura • Courtesy Photo
Janice P. Nimura • Courtesy Photo

In Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back, Janice P. Nimura tells the true story of three young Japanese girls who were sent by the Meiji government to the United States in 1871 for 10 years of education and English-language learning.  They were taken in by white American families in Washington, D.C. and New Haven, Connecticut, and educated before returning to a Japan they barely remembered. They could hardly read and write Japanese after their time in the United States. Sutematsu Yamakawa Oyama, Ume Tsuda, and Shige Nagai Uriu shared this childhood and remained friends for life.

Nimura has worked as a book critic, editor and essayist. She is a white American who is married to a Japanese man.  They now live in New York.  She has a master’s degree from Columbia in East Asian studies, and became fascinated by the Meiji period of Japanese history.  Her book is excellent in many ways—stimulating, entertaining, vivid in detail and impressive in scope. One of the things I enjoyed most was her use of the women’s letters to each other, primary documents that were personal and also of a specific cultural moment.

I recently interviewed the author by phone for the International Examiner.

International Examiner:  How did this book evolve?

Nimura: I found treasure in the New York Society Library in Manhattan, which is a reader’s library, not a scholar’s library.  In the second sub-basement, there were the Japan travel books. Everybody who visited Japan in the late 19th century wrote a book about it.  There was this slim, green book, with an understated title, A Japanese Interior, by Alice Mabel Bacon, about her visit to Japan in the 1880s. She wrote of living with “Japanese friends, known long and intimately in America.” She had known them growing up in New Haven.  Sutematsu had lived with her family starting when Sutematsu was 12 and Alice was 14.

Alice was frank, wry, witty, and open-minded.  I loved her voice.  I discovered her first, and then saw her as a character in a much longer story about the three Japanese women, who called themselves the “trio.”

I have been asked if this story is famous in Japan, and certainly, parts of it are; Ume Tsuda, founder of Tsuda College, is famous.  Tsuda College is one of the more prestigious schools for women, with illustrious alumnae, and 4,000 undergraduates now.  The campus is a shrine to her.  Her name is a household name. You can find evidence of them as adults, but Alice knew them as children. And this story has never been told this way.  The three of them meant the world to each other.

IE:  Your subjects were superb letter writers. Where did you find their letters?

Nimura:  The first cache of letters I saw was at Vassar, letters from Sutematsu to Alice during her college years.  Yale has the Bacon family papers, lots of letters from Shige to Sutematsu. Other collections of letters are at Rutgers, which had the first academic relationship with Japan. Many of the young Meiji men studied there.

The trio spoke and wrote in English, and their letters “home” (back to the American families who raised them) are like therapy sessions. When they returned to Japan, they were hobbled physically, emotionally, and linguistically.  They poured out their emotions in those letters.

After Sutematsu married, her letters became more restrained, for reasons of etiquette. It was not seemly, as the wife of a highly placed political man, to blurt out her emotions.

The hardest part for me was in knowing that there were more letters [in Japan] than I had access to. In Japan more than here, the archivist’s job is to protect the legacy, and biography there is usually more hagiography than it is here.

IE: Did you have a favorite of the trio?

Nimura:  I started out seeing everything through Sutematsu’s eyes first. She came from farther up north, a very remote samurai family. The Boshin War of 1868 came through her house, quite literally.  She graduated from Vassar College within 10 years of arriving in America. She had a blazing intellect. She went back and rather suddenly was enclosed in a rigid, lacquered life at the top level of Japanese society. She thought she could do more good, be more influential at that level, than in obscurity.  She married a man her father’s age.  There were times I wished I could be a novelist to deal with this material.

Another character I enjoyed was Mrs. DeLong, wife of the American ambassador to Japan, Charles DeLong.  Elvida DeLong was the girls’ chaperone across the Pacific and then across the American continent.  She was a piece of work. There was much American press attention to the dresses she was buying (for herself); meanwhile, she was not buying Western dresses for the Japanese girls in her care because she enjoyed the press attention they got in their kimonos [despite their pleas for warmer winter clothing on their journey].

IE: What particularly interested you in your research?  Were you surprised by what you found?

Nimura:  I was surprised by everything in my research—surprised by their candor in letters, given their training. I was surprised to find incredibly American ideas coming out of their mouths.  They often sound like white Protestant missionary women. Ume’s letters on Chinese and black Americans are products of their time.

The girls weren’t sent to America so that they could become leaders. They were sent to spawn men of future generations.  The government didn’t think they would “found” institutions. The purpose of educating girls was not to prepare them for leadership in the public sphere, but to give them the tools to be good wives and wise mothers.

I was most riveted by the “cusps”—when the girls first got to Washington, D.C., then when they first got back to Tokyo and two of them were getting married.

IE: Could you talk about the way Americans viewed the Chinese  at the time the Japanese delegation landed in San Francisco, and how their views of the Chinese shaped American views of the Japanese?  

Nimura: Two things were going on in the early 1870s. The Japanese and the Chinese were seen very differently in America. The Chinese were laborers. The Japanese were not laborers—they were quasi-Yankee, up and coming promising foreign students, not seen as leeches on the American system.

Some of that was differences between the West and East coasts. The Chinese sent 100 students on an educational mission, many of them to New England, the same year the girls arrived. The Congregationalists in New England, like Alice Mabel Bacon’s family, saw themselves as part of a civilizing mission, and many families like them had open minds [and volunteered to take in those students].

We may see that as paternalistic now, but there was no shortage of families who wanted to have these boys in their homes, and became very fond of them. Like the Abbott family, with whom Shige lived.  One of the Chinese boys, whom Sutematsu knew, became a protégé and was even funded by one of the American families after he told the Chinese government he wanted to stay and study longer.

For more arts stories, click here

Previous articlePanama Hotel honored as Seattle’s first national treasure
Next articleVietnam War: We need to remember those who have fallen