Women, Japan; Continent: Asia, North America

Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back by Janice P. Nimura

  • Consider this engaging narrative about three young Japanese women for your book club, even if your group usually goes for fiction
  • 336 pages (277 pages before Acknowledgements, Notes and Index)

One hardly ever sees a book of Japanese history in the American market that isn’t focused on World War II, so Nimura’s book practically leaped onto the pile I was creating for myself at Barnes & Noble over the holidays.

Shaking off Feudalism

The story begins in Japan of the mid-19th century, a time of tremendous flux for that island nation. Power is shifting among Japanese nobility. Some Samurai families have fallen out of favor, and feuds among upper-class families have led to violence internal to the country. Not only is the ruling class struggling for power internally, but Japan is outgrowing its centuries-old feudal government and ideals as it steps gingerly onto the world stage. This nation can no longer afford to spurn outside influences, as the outside world is coming to it. Reluctantly, her leadership recognizes a need for the innovations available to Japan from the wider world.

In 1871, the Japanese government decides that the rote memorization and limited schooling available to most Japanese children will hamstring their nation’s ability to modernize. Young men and boys from noble families receive good educations—even studying abroad in universities like Yale—but they are the exception. Government ministers decide to sponsor education for some young women in the U.S. No one in Japan is looking for these girls to contribute directly to Japanese society. Instead, the goal is to create a class of educated mothers who will raise the intellectual standards in the home for their future sons.

Odd Girls Out

When the government advertises for volunteer girls from among noble families to receive education in the United States for a ten-year term, there are few takers despite the offer of all expenses paid. A young woman’s value is in her marriageability, not her education. Eventually, five girls are volunteered by their Samurai families. The precocious eight-year-old seems too young to understand her circumstances, but the teenagers who travel with her know perfectly well that none of them has marriage prospects; their families were on the wrong side of the last power struggle. If not someone’s future wife, then they are only an expense. Why not let the Japanese government feed and clothe them? Why not let them go to American schools?

The idea of sending a little political pageantry to the United States makes for good propaganda among Japanese and Americans. The Japanese in particular need the good press, as their government is still stinging from having to accept some pretty ugly trade terms from the U.S. To give the emperor the appearance of relevance to foreign leadership, the Japanese government loads up a steam ship full of politicians and bureaucrats in a mishmash of Western dress…and five girls. The girls are largely ignored by the men, who drink and pretty much do everything you would expect a boatload of bored wealthy guys to do. The girls avoid interacting with them to the extent possible, as propriety demands. One girl is propositioned by a drunken minister, and a mock American-style “trial” ensues aboard the ship for the entertainment of the rest of the male travelers. The young women do experience some kindness from one or two men on the ship, but for the most part, they keep quiet and out of sight.

Once they reach San Francisco, the press swirls around the curious-looking, quiet young ladies, so they get more attention than they care to have. Their nominal American chaperone—a politician’s wife—enjoys showing them off but can’t communicate with them effectively. Several state functions later, it’s off aboard a transcontinental train ride with some major stops along the way. The Japanese government officials are posturing for their American counterparts and the press, while the girls are largely ignored once their curious presence is no longer required for an attention-grabbing photo in each city’s evening paper.

Schoolgirls

Over the next ten years, the girls take up residence with various American families who agree to foster them. The youngest girl comes to think of the American woman who takes her in as a parent, and the others enjoy a deep affection and familiarity with their foster families. With time, they adapt to Western dress and manners. They begin to laugh out loud with girlfriends and enjoy co-ed social events.

Each of the young women Nimura follows proves an excellent student and a paragon of responsibility. Although a reader might consider them rather ill-used by the people in charge of their lives in Japan—fathers, brothers, politicians—each of them maintains a sense of duty to represent Japan in the best way possible. The youngest among them dreams of providing a Western education to young noblewomen back in Japan one day. She wants to give them a more meaningful curriculum than the social and parlor skills that prepare them only for a socially acceptable marriage.

The well-researched story Nimura tells doesn’t disappoint a reader curious about Japanese history, but she also makes sure her readers identify with the young women she describes. She tells you what happens with each of these girls as they reach adulthood and return to Japan. Coming back is just as tricky as leaving was in the first place because no one is really ready for them, in spite of knowing that they would be back eventually. What about marriage for these young women? What about educating Japanese girls? Keep this title in your hip pocket as a suggestion for something your own daughters can read over spring break.

Image: Sutematsu Oyama, one of the young women in Nimura’s story, during her education at Vassar College, c. 1877-1881 Wikimedia Commons, public domain in U.S.

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