An Interview with Janice P. Nimura

In Daughters of the Samurai, the author resurrects the remarkable, long-buried story of three Japanese girls sent to America in the 1870s.


Newly available in paperback, Daughters of the Samurai by Janice P. Nimura was named by the New York Times as one of its notable books for 2015. Its subtitle, A Journey from East to West and Back, touches on the characters’ struggle to bridge the values and expectations of their upbringing in America with the traditional way of life in their native Japan.

“Though they were, each of them, purebred daughters of the samurai, they became hybrids by nature,” writes Nimura, a book critic and Asian-studies scholar in New York. She says her understanding of that cultural dislocation a century ago was informed in part by her own experience as a foreigner living in Tokyo with her American-raised Japanese husband.

You’ve said this book emerged from a manuscript you found in an archives. What was it about this story that drew you in? Had you previously heard about these three Japanese girls in America?

I found a book by accident that became a portal to a whole set of extraordinary lives. I had just finished a master’s degree in East Asian studies, focusing on the Meiji period of Japanese history, 1868-1912, when Japan made its precipitous lunge toward modernity and Western ideas. It was a time of fascinating cultural turbulence, an identity crisis on a national scale. As a New Yorker who had spent three years living in Tokyo, I was also interested in the West’s first impressions of Japan.

Then I got lucky. I was browsing the Japan travel section of the venerable New York Society Library, deep in the sub-sub-basement: dusty accounts by intrepid Victorian sojourners dazzled by the strange picturesqueness of the Land of the Gods. Among them was a slim green volume titled A Japanese Interior by Alice Mabel Bacon, a spinster schoolteacher from Connecticut who had written of a year spent teaching at a girls’ school in Tokyo, circa 1888. I was captivated by her dry wit and clear-sightedness, so different from her neighbors on the shelf. She had lived, she wrote, not among foreigners, but with “Japanese friends, known long and intimately in America.” Which was weird. How had she made Japanese friends in Gilded Age New Haven? Turns out she had grown up with a Japanese foster sister, Sutematsu Yamakawa, the oldest of the three samurai daughters who became the subject of my book.

As an Asian-studies scholar, you have a good grounding in Japanese history. Was there anything in the girls’ story that surprised you?

Not anything: everything. The very fact that they were sent by the Japanese government on a 10-year homestay in America was bizarre, an unprecedented one-off afterthought. Each of the three girls then landed in a family — two in New Haven, one in Washington’s Georgetown — that treated her like a beloved daughter, as opposed to some sort of missionary project. Each was raised to scale the heights of intellectual achievement — the two older girls went to Vassar College — at a time when even American girls were not encouraged toward higher education.

Then, after 10 years of growing up American, none of the three balked at returning to Japan, even when it became clear that the Japanese government had no clear idea how to use their hard-earned cross-cultural skills and was beginning to retreat from its enthusiastic embrace of all things Western. And yet this trio managed to achieve extraordinary things: Tsuda College, founded by Ume Tsuda, the youngest of the three, remains one of the most prestigious women’s colleges in Japan.

The book describes the “good wife, wise mother” role that was the chief identity of most Japanese women in the late-19th century. You’ve lived as an American woman and mother in Japan. Have things changed? We read a lot about how young Japanese women are refusing to marry to focus instead on their careers. Was Ume Tsuda their spiritual godmother?

Good-wife-wise-mother persists. There’s been a lot of talk in Japan about “womenomics” — the idea that Japan’s shrinking economy can only rally if women join the workforce in greater numbers — but the cultural norm still dictates that women take care of their own children as well as their aging parents and in-laws. Japanese women with big careers tend to be single.

Ume Tsuda is one of the very few female icons of the Meiji era, but she would have recoiled in horror at the idea that her example might inspire women to remain unmarried. Though she was in the vanguard of women’s education in Japan, it’s a mistake to see her as a proto-feminist. In her mind, women’s education needed to remain firmly in the service of the domestic ideal — her own solitary path was an anomaly that her students should not follow.

Raicho Hiratsuka, one of Japan’s first feminists, studied briefly with Tsuda; Tsuda thought Hiratsuka and her radical activist crew were terribly selfish and called them “agents of the devil.” Still, despite her personal convictions, Ume Tsuda was proof that a Japanese woman could forge an accomplished professional life without a husband. When faced with a challenging exam or a job interview, today’s Tsuda College undergraduates sometimes visit Tsuda’s grave — located in a corner of the campus — to ask for her help.

Daughters of the Samurai is beautifully written. Has descriptive writing always been a strength of yours, or did that style evolve for this book? Did you have any particular authors or models in mind for the kind of book you wanted this to be?

I wanted to write what I like to read: deeply researched nonfiction with enough narrative momentum to transport you to another time and place and leave you wanting more. I like to learn history through stories, not textbooks; I like to get my vitamins as part of a feast rather than choking them down like medicine. I’m thinking of books like Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea or Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. I love great historical novelists like Hilary Mantel and Geraldine Brooks, too, but I’m not good at making stuff up.

I was lucky to have a high-school English teacher who insisted on the importance of journaling, with an emphasis on detailed observation. It’s easier to imagine yourself in another era if you have a sense of colors and sounds and textures and smells — think of the time traveler in Jack Finney’s wonderful novel Time and Again. I wanted my reader to be able to feel what these girls felt both physically and emotionally as they navigated their doubly uprooted lives.

Another craft question: You tell both the intimate personal story of the girls and the broad, complex story of Japan’s social and political turmoil in the late-19th century. Yet most readers likely come to this book with little knowledge of Japan. How did you address these challenges in a book of reasonable length written for general readers?

The story fell naturally into three parts: Japan, America, Japan, east to west and back. The hardest section was the first, because it had to do the heavy lifting, setting the historical context of Japan’s relative isolation from the early-17th through the mid-19th centuries, followed by the political upheaval and mad rush toward modernity that launched the girls on their journey.

I tried to use the story of the oldest of the three girls, Sutematsu Yamakawa, as a narrative thread in that first section. She was born in Aizu, a stronghold of traditional samurai culture where the last battle against the resurgent imperial forces was fought. She wrote vividly of her early family life, and also of dodging cannon fire and enduring the hunger and cold of exile when her domain was defeated. You can deliver a lot of history when your way in is an 8-year-old girl struggling to make sense of her toppling world.

In the second section, the voices of the two other girls joined Sutematsu’s, so I had three perspectives to use. I brought the narrative back to their lived experience as much as I could, trying not to leave too many long, arid stretches of exposition between the oases of their colorful memories. When I’m researching, I feel like a magpie, always looking for the shiny detail that casts new light on the story.

You clearly love the process of research and drew on a lot of primary source materials. What were some of your best finds (apart from the manuscript that sparked the book)?

All three women left letters and journals and articles, and they were unusually good writers. Ume Tsuda in particular started writing to her American foster mother from the day she left Georgetown to return to Japan, and didn’t stop for decades. Once back in Japan, these women were technically “home,” but they felt homesick for their American childhoods for the rest of their lives, and poured that yearning into their letters.

But my favorite artifact was an autograph book I found in the New Haven Museum. It had been the property of a classmate of Sutematsu’s and Alice’s in 1874, and both girls had signed it in their own inimitable ways. Sutematsu turned her page on its side and wrote her name in Japanese in purple ink, kanji characters marching boldly down the page, undaunted by the contrast they made to every other page in the book. And Alice, not shy about her own intellectual prowess, signed her page in ancient Greek. Translated, it reads, “Cease your chatter, and follow me!” I really wonder whether the owner of the autograph book ever understood what Alice had written.

It’s tough in the publishing world these days. Did you get a generally enthusiastic response to your book idea, or was it a slog to find an agent and publisher who believed in it as much as you did?

This story had so many hooks: the turmoil of 19th-century Japan, of course, but also the birth of women’s education, Gilded Age America, multiculturalism, the concept of home…not to mention the horrifying idea of sending little girls halfway around the world for 10 years in the service of a project they barely understood. Even if you don’t have any interest in Japan, everyone knows — or has been — a 6-year-old.

I felt at many points as though the story had found me, that I was just the vehicle for getting it told — and it was a remarkably smooth ride. My agent, Rob McQuilkin at Lippincott Massie McQuilkin, was an extraordinary champion, at least as excited about this project as I was, and he seemed to know exactly which editors it would resonate with. Alane Salierno Mason at W.W. Norton was masterful in helping me shape the material. I’m grateful every day for such allies — I know just how lucky I am.

[Photo by Lucy Schaeffer.]

Diana Pabst Parsell is a DC-area writer and editor now working on a book about the 19th-century journalist Eliza Scidmore, who reported extensively on Japan and pushed to bring flowering cherry trees to Washington. Visit the book-related website at www.agreatblooming.com.

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