Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back
by Janice P. Nimura.
W. W. Norton, 2015.
Hardcover, 352 pages, $28.

Two days before Christmas, 1871, a delegation of Japanese pioneers left the port of Yokohama on the paddlewheel steamship SS America, bound for San Francisco and points beyond. “Pioneers” is apt; although not the first Japanese to travel to the West, the Iwakura Embassy, named for its leader, ambassador plenipotentiary Iwakura Tomomi, was the most ambitious attempt by the new Meiji government thus far to strike out into the wider world and secure a place for Japan amid the turbulence of an East Asia under the shadow of Western imperialism. The stakes of this mission—to learn from the West in order to strengthen and defend Japan—could not have been higher. Nor could the territory into which the pioneers ventured have been more unfamiliar.

The Iwakura Embassy is now rightly seen as one of the pivotal episodes of modern Japanese history. The pioneers who left the safety of Yokohama brought back with them ideas that helped Japan avoid the fate of neighboring parceled-out China and prostrate Korea. What is often left out of the telling of this tale, though, is that, in addition to the frenzied fact-finding and delicate diplomatic maneuvering in which the Embassy members found themselves engaged, the entourage of politicians, statesmen, and high-minded public intellectuals also included, incongruously enough, five young girls. These girls, who ranged in age from fourteen to a very tiny six, had been charged by the Japanese Empress herself with going abroad to study (they were the first females in Japanese history to do so) so that “When, in time, schools for girls are established,” they should be, as the Empress explained to them, “examples to [their] countrywomen, having finished [their] education.”

Janice Nimura’s Daughters of the Samurai is the story of these five girls. But it is also much more than a biographical account of their lives, extraordinary as they were. The real strength of Nimura’s book lies in her ability to zoom and pan with the smoothness of a master historian, keeping the same degree of information-rich granularity whether focusing on details or giving us the broad sweep of particular moments in regional, national, trans-Pacific, and even hemispheric time. One of the pre-release blurbs on Nimura’s website describes Daughters of the Samurai as “history painted in cinematic strokes.” Indeed. This is a finely crafted book, painterly in its attention to small detail but poised in its ability to deal with the complexities of geopolitical wrangling and great-state diplomacy. And all of this is carried forward by our interest in the characters of the girls, whom Nimura has reanimated in a most impressive way.

To give a sense of how Nimura does this, it is worth quoting a representative paragraph in full. The five girls have just arrived at the Imperial Palace, which, as Nimura points out later, had until very recently been occupied by the Tokugawa shogunate. The shogunate had ruled Japan since 1600, but the governmental situation had been changed irrevocably by the arrival of American ships in 1853 and by the ensuing political ruptures and civil wars that had shaken the country to its core. This is big history, and Nimura gives us deft precis of these large-scale developments. But notice how she also carves out space within this tumultuous historical narrative to bring the reader back down to the human scale of five very nervous young girls about to meet the Empress of Japan:

Imposing timbered gates rumbled open to admit them, and then rolled closed again. Inside, all was quiet. Within this maze of fortresses and pleasure gardens, time flowed more slowly: everything seemed choreographed, from the movements of the guards to the gentle fluttering of each flaming red maple leaf. The girls padded along corridor after twisting corridor, taking small pigeon-toed steps in the gorgeous new kimonos, the finest they had ever owned, each tightly tied with a broad stiff obi in a contrasting hue. Grand court ladies escorted them, hissing instructions: to keep their eyes on the polished floor just in front of their white split-toed socks, their hands glued flat to their thighs, thumbs tucked behind fingers. Floorboards creaked, silk rustled. The subtle perfume of incense wafted from behind sliding doors. Stolen glances revealed screens painted with cranes and turtles, pine and chrysanthemum; lintels carved with tigers and dragons, wisteria and waterfalls; flashes of vivid fabric, purple and gold.

At last they arrived in a cavernous inner chamber. A heavy bamboo screen hung there, though the girls dared not look up. Seated behind it, they knew, sat the Empress of Japan. The five girls knelt, placed their hands on the tatami-matted floor, and bowed until their foreheads touched their fingertips.

From this rich reimagination of one of the key moments in the book, Nimura zooms back out to a much broader consideration of the girls’ wider political context. Focusing on Sutematsu, the middle girl, Nimura outlines her provenance in the Tokugawa-allied domain of Aizu, and Aizu’s disastrous defeat in Japan’s own 1860s civil war. Aizu, a strongly conservative region steeped in Confucianism and in the samurai code of honor, remained loyal to the crumbling Tokugawa government in Edo even as Meiji reformers waged war on the “feudal remnants” of old-guard Japan. When imperial forces, led by Aizu’s bitter enemies, the southern clansmen from Satsuma and Chōshū, encircled and besieged the Aizu stronghold of Tsuruga Castle in Wakamatsu, the Aizu samurai resisted for a month before the feudal lord surrendered on September 22, 1868. Sutematsu and all the rest of the surviving Aizu loyalists were sent to a prison camp, and then exiled—on chartered American vessels—to Tonami in the far north.

Nimura weaves this initial, forced uprooting into the fabric of Sutematsu’s story, showing how girlhood dislocation led to the subsequent series of transplantations and ruptures that stand as a synecdoche for so much of the Japanese experience after the end of the Tokugawa. For example, the Aizu loyalists’ ability to prosper even in greatly reduced circumstances in exile led the former Aizu archenemy, Satsuma retainer Kuroda Kiyotaka, to recruit exiled Aizu men, including Sutematsu’s brother, for Kuroda’s scheme to colonize Hokkaidō, the northernmost island of the Japanese archipelago. It was in this connection that Sutematsu first came to the attention of one of the key figures in the new Meiji government, which soon led to her nomination to join the Iwakura Embassy and study in the United States. “Sutematsu” is actually a changed sobriquet—her mother renamed her “discarded pine” to reflect the fact that she was leaving behind her proud Aizu-Wakamatsu lineage forever. It also stands, one feels, for much of the post-civil war attitudes toward the past that one finds in both Japan and in the United States.

What emerges in the rest of Nimura’s book is a multilayered history of two emerging powers: America and Japan. The daring imperial restoration in Japan (1868) parallels quite nicely the inflated governmental power under President Grant (1869–1877), for instance, and the two nations are forced to size one another up across a North American continent and Pacific Ocean both rapidly shrinking as transportation quickens. All of this is seen through the lens of the samurai daughters, which allows us to recognize that, on the human level, there was as much real understanding among the denizens of these disparate realms as there was the inevitable broad stereotyping and cultural slippage that distance and rivalry engender.

For example, the girls are shepherded on their journey by Charles DeLong (1832–1876), the American ambassador to Japan who was only too glad to bask in the publicity afforded by his young charges from the Far East. (His wife, Mrs. DeLong, was even gladder.) These two almost comically self-absorbed characters stand in stark contrast to the shy young girls, of course, but also to such figures as future prime minister Itō Hirobumi (1841–1909), a genial member of the Embassy who showed great personal regard for the girls. Once arrived at San Francisco, Itō and the rest of the Iwakura troupe were embarrassed by the lavish reception they received, but the DeLongs ate it up, reveling in the local press’s labeling of the girls as “Japanese princesses.” Nimura uses these episodes, and the Embassy’s Pacific crossing, to shift into American history mode, explaining that the background to these over-the-top welcomes was the anti-Chinese coolie violence (and subsequent laws) that had left California eager to reach out to Asian visitors who were different than the despised Chinese.

The Iwakura Embassy continued through the eastern U.S. and on to the big powers of Europe, but the girls remained behind once the entire troupe had reached the eastern seaboard. Two of the girls fell ill on the long train ride across the North American continent and had to return to Japan, but the other three—Sutematsu, Shige, and little Ume—remained, taken under the wing of the Japanese chargé d’affaires in Washington, Mori Arinori (1847–1889). Mori, plucking the girls from the smothering clutches of the DeLongs, found them a much more suitable arrangement with his childless secretary Charles Lanman (1819–1895) and Lanman’s wife Adeline (1826–1914). Here, the girls began the real business for which they had come so far: adapting to their new surroundings and learning English, so that they could teach others upon their eventual return to Japan.

Mori soon noticed that having all three girls together in the same house led them to spend most of their time conversing with one another in Japanese. He took it upon himself to have Ume remain with the Lanmans and Shige and Sutematsu (now beginning to sign her name “Stematz”) sent to the home of Leonard Bacon, a prominent Congregationalist minister in New Haven, Connecticut. Once settled, the girls began living—and thinking and acting—more and more like Progressive American young ladies. The youngest, Ume, would eventually forget Japanese almost completely, while Sutematsu would never feel entirely at home in her native language again. Shige, for her part, married a promising young Japanese naval officer and returned to Japan at the end of her American decade to raise a family. But for Sutematsu and Ume, their American upbringing would imbue them with the same confidence in reason, scientific Christianity, and progress that defined the Gilded Age United States. When the girls visited the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in the summer of 1876, Ume would even remark on the picturesque queerness of the Japanese exhibit, which, as another visitor put it, was staffed by “quaint little people” with “grave and gentle ways,” their “eyes set awry in their heads,” and with a curious ability to “make such wonderful things.”

When their long sojourn in the United States was over—Sutematsu having obtained a degree from Vassar College, Shige having graduated from Vassar with a certificate in music, and Ume destined to return to America in order to complete a postgraduate course at Bryn Mawr—the girls reluctantly began their trip home to Japan. Here they encountered all the same problems of acculturation that they had faced during their outbound journey in 1871, compounded now by the girls’ conversion to Christianity and the constant worry over whether, and whom, Ume and Sutematsu would marry. Japan had itself also changed in their absence, and here Nimura details the shift from earlier scrambling to catch up with the West to a more conservative regard for Japanese tradition and a redoubled determination to end the unequal treaties that had long kept Japan in second-rate status among the world powers.

The girls were caught up in this abrupt changing of political gears. Sutematsu married Field Marshal Ōyama Iwao (1842–1916), who played a key role in Japan’s defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05) and the country’s subsequent meteoric rise to the rank of world military power. In contrast, in a determined refusal to abandon her very American ideas of progress and industry, Ume remained unmarried, founding an English school (which still exists) and recruiting her old American friend, Alice Bacon, to come to Japan to help with the teaching. These conflicting tendencies would remain in perilous tension in Japan until the final crisis of the 1940s swept the conservatives from the field as handily (we are often told) as the Meiji forces had overrun the Tokugawa in the late 1860s.

This leads me to my sole substantial criticism of Daughters of the Samurai, which is over the author’s occasional and uncharacteristic tendency, especially in the latter half of the book, to fall into the Progressive triumphalism that so dominates the standard treatments of pre-1945 history in both Japan and the United States. For example, Nimura frames Ume’s English-language school as a “counterweight to government conservatism,” important as never before because of “imminent war” with Russia and the “attendant surge of nationalism.” (The assumption, one feels, is that nationalism is bad, and that government conservatism is even worse.) Mrs. Shimoda, the traditional-minded directress of the Peeress’s School, is drawn as a vaudevillian figure, ridiculous in her clinging to the old ways of education in Chinese classics and an overall unfortunate obstacle to the “forward-thinking idealism” of (now-Education Minister) Arinori. All of this was for the sake of attempting to teach the “stupid” girls of the nobility—“human dolls” whom Ume doubted could ever really “learn much.” If the court and its attendants were really so stupid, we end up not knowing, for we have only the prejudices of the American-trained teachers and Western-minded ministers to go by.

And yet, this cavil should not be allowed to detract from the success of Nimura’s project, which, as I understand it, has been to write a history of these five remarkable girls that also tells the story of two nations rising from civil wars to assert themselves on the world stage. Nimura has done a truly impressive amount of archival research for this task, and the degree to which she has read and absorbed long-buried documentary treasures is evident on every page. Nimura is also to be commended for the imaginative powers she has brought to bear on her historical thinking. In the end, it is Nimura’s imagination, disciplined by the bevy of archival facts that she has marshalled, that makes the daughters of the samurai live again, and their entire age, across two hemispheres, stir back to life with them. 

Jason Morgan is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.