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Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back

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By Janice P. Nimura

New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015

336 pages, ISBN: 978-0393077995, Hardcover

Reviewed by Daniel A. Métraux

Deep in the western suburbs of Tokyo in the city of Kodaira lies Tsuda College, a private school of about 2,500 students where, since its founding in 1900, female students have received a broad education in the liberal arts and languages. It is a beautiful, leafy campus with an abundance of impressive trees and flowers. It is a rare treat to visit in late March or early April, when the cherry trees are in full bloom. My own school, Mary Baldwin University, has a long tradition of receiving exchange students from Japan. Some of my best Japanese students have been young women from Tsuda who either came as juniors in search of a degree from an American college or as graduates of Tsuda seeking an additional BA in the United States.

Tsuda College is today a living, flourishing memorial of a bold experiment by the fledgling Meiji government in 1871 to send five young Japanese girls to live and study in the United States for a period of at least ten years. Their stated mission was to immerse themselves in Western culture and education so that they could later return to Japan to share what they had learned. The girls’ stories both in the United States and later in Japan are lavishly chronicled by historian Janice P. Nimura. Her book, Daughters of the Samurai, was selected by The New York Times as one of the 100 best books of 2015. I agree with this appraisal. The book is beautifully written and is characterized by deep research. Nimura really knows and admires her subjects, and is able to bring them to life for the lucky reader. This work will benefit American teachers and students because it reflects the great benefits that come from study in foreign lands and cultures. These girls from Japan would never have gained much studying about the West in textbooks. They were able to act as true bridges between the United States and Japan because they had gained a comprehensive view of life in the United States.

Nimura clearly demonstrates that even in the early 1870s Japanese leaders recognized the importance of international education as the key element in modernizing the nation and that education had to be universal for both boys and girls. They realized that education had to include an appreciation of the world outside Japan and that, to accomplish this, many young Japanese students had to be sent to study in the West. The fact that the Japanese government sent five young women to not only study in the United States but also to become fully immersed in American society for a full decade indicates its realization that Japanese women, as well as men, needed to understand the world around them.

The girls, who ranged in age from six to fourteen, were all daughters of samurai and were picked at random for the mission. Two of the oldest girls found life very difficult in the US and returned within a year. The remaining three younger girls—Sutematsu Yamakawa Ōyama (1860–1919), Ume (ko) Tsuda (1864–1929), and Shige Nagai Uriu (1861–1928)—stuck it out. They traveled by ship and then train with the famed Iwakura mission, a diplomatic foray by the key leaders of the Japanese government to see the West for themselves. After leaving Iwakura, they lived with prominent foster families in such places as New Haven, Connecticut, and Washington, DC. They studied in local schools, and Sutematsu graduated from Vassar College in 1881, the first Japanese woman to receive degrees from an American university. Shige also attended Vassar for a year as a special student of music. The Japanese government covered most of their expenses. By the time all three returned to Japan in 1881, they had become very American and were true aliens in their own land. Ume, the youngest, was too young to go to college upon her return to Japan, but she graduated from high school and some years later returned to the US to study biology at Bryn Mawr near Philadelphia.

When the three girls returned to Japan, government officials wondered what to do with them. Sutematsu and Shige married prominent Japanese military and political figures, and settled into lives among the nobility of Japan. They produced their share of children, but also had time to foster women’s education in Japan. Sutematsu, who was a close friend of Japan’s first prime minister, Itō Hirobumi, was instrumental in founding the Peeresses’ School in Tokyo and taught there for many years. Shige, who was preoccupied with her many children, worked as a music teacher at the Peeresses’ School.

Tsuda Ume, who never married, was the most influential of the three returnees. She began her teaching career as a tutor for the children of Itō. She later taught for some time at the Peeresses’ School and elsewhere, but around 1900 resigned from her various jobs and founded her own school for women in Tokyo. After a slow start, the school gained a reputation as one of the nation’s finest institutions for young women. She offered a wide curriculum that included not only language, but also a broad introduction to the liberal arts. The school was renamed Tsuda College after Tsuda’s death. Tsuda is not the oldest college for women in Japan—places like Doshisha Women’s College, founded in 1876, are older—but it has always had a reputation for the high quality of its students.

Daughters of the Samurai was selected by The New York Times as one of the 100 best books of 2015.

These three women led long and productive lives. They were among the very first professional women in modern Japan and were true champions of women’s education. Their impact as founders of and teachers at women’s schools was immense. Their success as students and later as frequent visitors to the United States who often contributed articles to American magazines and journals gave many Americans their first view of young Japanese. Sutematsu’s close American friend, Alice Mabel Bacon, also taught women for brief periods in Japan and wrote several very popular books and many articles about Japanese women for a broad American audience.

I especially appreciate this book after my several stints teaching at Doshisha Women’s College. Today, Japanese women are among the best-educated in the world, but they still find it very difficult to attain many meaningful professional and leadership roles in Japanese society. These three Meiji women helped pave the way for the current educational boom for women in Japan, but Japan’s male establishment must now do more to open additional career avenues for today’s educated Japanese women.

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