In “Daughters of the Samurai,” Janice Nimura tells the true story of three young Japanese women who came to late 19th-century America, and how they helped develop understanding between Japan and America. Nimura discusses her book Thursday, May 14, at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

Share story

We might call people sent abroad by their government to study in a different culture and language “scholars” or “ambassadors.” What should we call such people if they are lively little girls? The American press called them “princesses.”

In “Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back” (W.W. Norton, 277 pp., $26.95), Janice Nimura has written a superb history of the true story of three Japanese women who came to America as children, were fostered and loved and educated in white American families in the 1870s, and returned to Japan in 1882. Their shared experience made them lifelong friends.

“A hundred years before ‘globalization’ and multiculturalism became the goals of every corporation and curriculum, three Japanese girls spanned the globe and became fluent in two worlds at once — other to everyone except each other,” Nimura writes.

Author appearance

Janice Nimura

The author of “Daughters of the Samurai” will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 14, at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park, 1400 E. Prospect St., Seattle; free, co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).

In 1871, the young leaders of the new Meiji regime, which replaced the feudal and isolationist shogunate in 1868, saw that Japan would have to act aggressively to catch up with the West in technology, industry and military might. Included in a government delegation seeking to alter the unequal trade treaties with the U.S. were five children, all daughters of samurai families who had become impoverished after the regime change. Their families welcomed the chance to have the government feed their daughters. Two of the five girls soon returned to Japan for health reasons.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The reformers foresaw that the young men going abroad for education would need as wives women who could be their intellectual companions, and that Western countries would not accept Japan as “civilized” until its women were more educated.

Ume Tsuda was 6 when she left Japan. She lived with a well-connected, childless couple in Washington, D.C. She returned to Japan at 17, and later returned to the U.S. to study at Bryn Mawr College. In 1900, Ume founded a women’s college in Tokyo that eventually became known as Tsuda College.

Sutematsu Yamakawa, 12, and Shige Nagai, 11, were placed with the families of Congregationalist ministers in New Haven, Conn. They later attended Vassar College. A brilliant student, Sutematsu gave a commencement address in 1882 about the unequal treaties between Japan and Britain — tactfully not criticizing her host country but implicitly doing so — that was noted in newspapers from New York to Tokyo. Soon after her return to Japan, Sutematsu married Iwao Oyama, the middle-aged minister of war. Though academically gifted, she chose marriage to a powerful man as her path for instigating change.

Shige, trained in classical music, taught for many years while raising her seven children.

Nimura draws upon scores of letters back to their American families, all written in English, in which these bright, Western-educated women wrote about their lives.

Nimura gives fascinating context to their samurai origins, their journey by steamboat from nearly feudal Japan to San Francisco, and then across the country on the transcontinental railroad, their immersion in Gilded Age, Christian life in America, as well as their return to Japan, a shift in culture that is impossible to overdramatize. Nimura’s research reveals as much about Americans by their reception of these young Japanese as it does about Japan in an era of tremendous change.

This remarkable and beautifully written story — often as riveting as a page-turning novel — is both scholarly and accessible to non-specialists.