IN DAUGHTERS OF THE SAMURAI, Janice P. Nimura achieves the elusive dream of the historian, producing a work that will engage and satisfy academic and non-specialist audiences alike. The author offers both sets of readers a magnificently and meticulously detailed account of three women whose lives epitomize key features of the changing landscape of late 19th and early 20th century Japan. 

Infused with insight from Nimura’s experiences as the American wife of a Japanese-born man in contemporary Tokyo, the book’s immediate inspiration was the author’s serendipitous discovery of a single provocative source. Published in 1893, A Japanese Interior recounted Connecticut schoolteacher Alice Mabel Bacon’s yearlong sojourn in Tokyo in the late 1880s as an instructor of English. Bacon ventured to Japan at the invitation of her friend Ume Tsuda (1864–1929), remembered today as the founder of the prestigious Tsuda College. It is Ume and the women she comes to regard as sisters — Shige Nagai and Sutematsu Yamakawa — who are the subject of Nimura’s book.

The initial chapters focus on Sutematsu, born in 1860 into a high-ranking samurai family in the domain of Aizu (in present-day Fukushima prefecture, now infamous for the nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011). In 1868, the Aizu clan aligned itself with the ruling Tokugawa shogunal government against competing armies seeking power in the name of the Japanese emperor. Along their way to victory, the imperial forces laid siege to Aizu castle — an event that Nimura describes in all its vivid and tragic details. Hit by a piece of shrapnel, Sutematsu bore a scar on her neck for the rest of her life.

The defeat of the Tokugawa also shaped Sutematsu’s life in more significant ways. Following the proclamation of the Emperor Meiji as head of state, his advisors embarked on an aggressive campaign to preempt colonization by remodeling Japan as a modern, Western-style nation-state. To learn how best to undertake this task, more than a hundred leading statesmen and students under the aristocrat Iwakura Tomomi departed for two years of educational travel around the world, beginning with the United States. Impressed by the public role of women in the West, the so-called Iwakura Mission also determined to select a few young girls to study abroad for 10 years. Upon their return, they might serve as teachers and exemplars for a new model of Japanese womanhood. The impoverished and humiliated family of 11-year-old Sutematsu, seeing few prospects for the child, volunteered her for the task. Four other girls joined her: Ume, age six, Shige, age 10, and Ryo Yoshimasu and Tei Ueda, both 14.

Sutematsu’s very name, changed by her mother upon the eve of her journey to mean “discarded pine,” suggests the disposability of the children from the perspective of the statesmen in charge of their future. Five were planted in the expectation that some might not thrive. Indeed, Ryo and Tei, ill and homesick, returned to Japan within a year, all but disappearing from the historical record and even the recollections of the three younger girls. 

The Iwakura Mission sailed across the Pacific and traveled the breadth of the American continent. While the statesmen attended elaborate banquets and parades in their honor, the first Japanese females to travel abroad in an official capacity hid in their hotel room in San Francisco, shivered in thin kimonos in the mountains of Utah, gawked at Native Americans on the Great Plains, and sampled unfamiliar foods like butter and roast beef in the train dining car. Ume found a home in Washington, DC, with a childless wealthy couple, to whom she remained attached for the rest of her life. Shige and Sutematsu were placed with socially prominent families in Connecticut, where they mastered upper middle-class New England Protestant household norms along with the English language. Eventually both enrolled at Vassar College, the first American institution to grant BA degrees to women. Shige earned a certificate in music while Sutematsu became the first Japanese female to graduate from college. By American as well as Japanese standards, they were among the most educated and accomplished women of their day.

Successfully acclimatizing to the United States, Sutematsu, Shige, and Ume experienced their departure in 1881 as a loss of “home” from which they never quite recovered. Nonetheless, all three were eager to discharge their responsibilities to the nation of their birth. The vague nature of their obligations, however, compounded the trauma of their return. After an initial welcome, the Japanese government seemed to have little idea of how to use the three repatriates. 

During the decade-long absence of the girls, moreover, Japan had adopted a more critical eye toward Euro-American culture. No longer unequivocally admiring of all things Western, social and political leaders of the 1880s encouraged a renaissance (and in some cases reinvention) of practices such as tea ceremony as sources of national pride. The simultaneous adoption of a female prototype captured in the phrase “good wife, wise mother” was also incompatible with the type of publicly visible woman that Ume, Sutematsu, and Shige had become and wished to nurture as a social ideal. Having internalized expectations that they would be a force for progressive development in Japanese society, the women struggled with restrictive gender norms, cultural isolation, and the indifference of their sponsors.

Shige, described as less ambitious than Sutematsu and Ume, settled in swiftest. Shortly after repatriating, she married naval officer Sotokichi Uriu, to whom she bore six children. Nonetheless, Shige retained the imprint of her years in the United States, supporting her family during her husband’s frequent illnesses by teaching at the newly established Tokyo Music School. She was, as the author notes, a “‘working mother’ … generations before the term was coined.”

Meanwhile, the elegant Sutematsu received an unexpected offer of marriage from Iwao Oyama, a decorated battlefield veteran and oligarch in the Meiji government. Although Oyama was an unprepossessing man nearly twice her age, she viewed the union as a path toward both national service and self-fulfillment. Ensconced at the head of one of the most powerful families in Meiji Japan, a mother and stepmother, Sutematsu became a sort of consultant on Western customs, manners, and practices for Japanese elites until her death in 1919.

Of the three women, Ume alone resisted the conventions of family life to pursue a career as a teacher and reformer. Though Ume is justly revered today for her efforts to advance women’s education, Nimura also illuminates her less vaunted submission to certain ideological conventions. Ume’s wish for social change was genuine, but she was limited by the characteristic class preoccupations of her time. In her view, social connections were the real basis for public influence; the role of education was to channel the energies of the well-born in a progressive direction. Ume was critical of Sutematsu, yet the latter, whose education had attracted her husband and positioned her to make an impact, ironically embodied her ideal female prototype.

In keeping with the prevailing attitudes of the time, Ume never seriously considered a career outside education. Her dreams culminated in the 1900 establishment of the Women’s Home School of English (Tsuda College). Early 20th century graduates of this institution included many of Japan’s most prominent women, including some whose transgressions of gender norms made Ume uncomfortable. For example, she condemned the “New Woman” archetype represented by her student Hiratsuka Raichō (1886–1971) as selfish, “bent on confirming the establishment’s worst fears about educated women forgetting their place.” (In her autobiography — recently translated into English by Teruko Craig and published by Columbia University Press under the title In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun — Raichō remembered Ume’s stern warnings against expressing “subversive ideas” in her journal Bluestocking.) In fact, though, Ume and Raichō were perhaps more similar than either would have liked to admit: trailblazers who insisted on the right of women to economic independence and self-fulfillment, yet who also upheld the importance of their domestic contributions.

Nimura’s fascinating tale of the daughters of the samurai is undergirded by deep and close engagement with published and archival primary sources and secondary scholarship. The author relies heavily on correspondence to connect Shige, Sutematsu, and Ume to the major events and figures of their day, while simultaneously highlighting their individual personalities. Writing in Japanese remained a lifelong challenge for the trio, while the formalities of composition and cultural norms discouraged certain kinds of self-expression. In their letters to American friends and supporters, by contrast, the women emerge as pithy, emotional, and reflective by turns. Yet Nimura is careful to subject their letters to the same scrutiny of self-fashioning and representation that characterizes her use of less personal historical sources. Struggling to choose a wedding present for Shige, Ume wrote to her adoptive mother, “If only [Sutematsu and I] had known we could have brought her a lovely present in America.” As Nimura points out, however, the pair had been advised of the forthcoming union well before they left the United States. It was their ambivalence regarding the marriage of their friend, and their own futures, that hampered their selection of a gift. 

An additional advantage of Nimura’s reliance on letters is the reconstruction of a transnational “sisterhood” that did not always speak with one voice, but was nonetheless committed to challenging the gender norms of the age. Though Nimura frequently refers to Sutematsu, Ume, and Shige as a “country of three,” they were in fact embedded in and abetted by a larger network of resolute, brave, and capable women in both Japan and the United States. Daughters of the Samurai is, perhaps, less a story of Japanese out of place in their country, than of women ahead of their time.

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Miriam Kingsberg is an assistant professor of modern Japanese history at the University of Colorado Boulder.