The education of women and girls was dismal throughout most of human history. Girls were (and still are in some cultures) barred from schools. More enlightened societies conceded that girls needed to be educated to raise useful sons.
In “Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back,” that pattern is packed into the true story of three unlikely 19th-century feminists — little girls taken from their vanishing Samurai life in Japan and sent to America for 10 years to learn the ways of Western women. They came home neither Japanese nor American. They had been liberated and educated only to return to a Japan that had no use for them.
Author Janice P. Nimura animates the lives of Sutematsu Yamakawa, Shige Nagai and Ume Tsuda, who were just 11, 10 and 6 years old in 1872 when they were sent to America.
They were daughters of Samurai families — the warrior class that served the Japanese emperor until the 1869 Boshin War in which the Samurai rebelled against the emperor’s first attempts to open Japan to Western trade. (That civil war is portrayed in the movie “The Last Samurai.”) Defeated in battle, the Samurai became refugees with no skills to support themselves. When Emperor Mutsuhito looked for girls to go to America to be imprinted with Western culture, the Samurai eagerly offered their daughters.
The reader sees America in the late 19th century through the eyes of the bewildered girls, including a stopover in Utah on their way to the East Coast. Their train was snowbound for three weeks in Ogden, so the girls and the rest of their diplomatic delegation hunkered down in a Salt Lake City hotel. Brigham Young invited the Japanese men to visit him in his home, which they saw as an insult as they felt he should come to them. Then they learned Brigham Young was under house arrest, and their diplomacy took a delicate turn.
When the girls returned to Japan after 10 years abroad, they remembered how to use chopsticks but little else remained of their childhood; Ume, who was the youngest, couldn’t even speak Japanese. Sutematsu was an oddity as the first Japanese woman with a college degree. Their Vassar and Bryn Mawr educations had primed them to lift Japanese women out of oppression, but they were quickly relegated to traditional roles.
The story of the women’s next four decades and their determination to remain faithful to their original mission is engagingly told by Nimura, not as a feminist manifesto but as a poignant tale of ordinary girls who made history.
There book contains no foul language or sexual content and has minor references to violence in the context of war.
Daryl Gibson is a freelance writer and book editor living in Cedar City.