Becky Krystal covers food for The Washington Post’s Going Out Guide and the Weekend and Food sections.
Being a teenager is hard enough. Now imagine being a Japanese teenager in America — in the 1870s. If your imagination needs a little help, look no further than Janice P. Nimura’s engaging “Daughters of the Samurai.”
The book revolves around a trio of Japanese girls caught up, at least initially, in plans and goals beyond their control. After centuries of isolationism and under the patronage of a new emperor more willing to embrace the West, in 1871, the Japanese government sent Sutematsu Yamakawa, Shige Nagai and Ume Tsuda, ages 11, 10 and 6, for a decade of study in America. (Two other girls initially made the trip but went back to Japan before the year was out.) The goal was to educate them so that, upon their return, they would teach in girls’ schools that would mold not career gals, but informed mothers and wives. Before the girls’ departure, the emperor said, “How important the education of mothers, on whom future generations almost wholly rely for the early cultivation of those intellectual tastes which an enlightened system of training is designed to develop!”
But first came a trying ocean voyage and a cross-country train trip. Not understanding English and outfitted in traditional garb, the girls were welcomed by and gawked at by crowds and officials. Nimura perfectly captures the children’s feeling of being strangers in a strange land, and through their eyes we witness all the oddities that would be just as foreign to any modern reader plopped into 19th-century America.
Ume settled with a doting couple in Georgetown and Sutematsu and Shige with families in New Haven, Conn. The trio thrived in their new surroundings, turning into sociable, intelligent and well-liked young women. So on returning to Japan, they felt just as out of place as they had a decade earlier, when they arrived in the United States. As Nimura says of Ume, “She identified as a Japanese but thought more like an American.”
For years, the three women were largely thwarted because of a backlash against Western culture. Both Shige and Sutematsu married, doing their best to balance growing families with duty to their country. Ume never wed, devoting her life to educating Japanese women. She eventually founded a flourishing English school in Tokyo, in part thanks to the support of her American friends, a few who, in a fitting reversal, made the journey to Japan to teach for a while.
Nimura, a book critic and scholar, gives ample voice to the threesome’s struggles and accomplishments by use of their fascinating, diary-like letters. But Nimura’s own voice is just as eloquent. Her descriptions of landscapes are poetic, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a novelist who is as deft at portraying relationships and inner thoughts as Nimura.
The three women spent most of their lives caught between two worlds, but Nimura has no such conflict. She skillfully bridges Japanese and American cultures, using the seemingly small story of three young people to tell a much larger tale of another time.
By Janice P. Nimura
Norton. 336 pp. $26.95