Episode 89 – Janice Nimura

Originally published on January 25, 2019
[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. On this episode, I’m talking with Janice Nimura, author of Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back, published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2015. Janice, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Janice Nimura: Thank you so much for inviting me.

TG: You published this book about the women of the Iwakura Mission, and before we talk more specifically about that, I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about how you got into the project?

JN: Well, I live in New York but in college, I met a boy who had been born in Japan. After we got married, we moved to Japan for a few years, and when we came back to New York City (this was in the mid ‘90s), I got some very good advice from a wise woman who popped up at the right moment and said: “Don’t go to graduate school in writing. Go to graduate school in what you want to write about.” And since the most interesting story in my life at that point had to do with Japan, I went to Columbia and did a masters in East Asian Studies, where I got fascinated with the Meiji era and all of the incredible cross-cultural turbulence that was part of that moment, and read everything I could, tried to find forgotten stories of that moment of people from America going to Japan, and people from Japan coming here.

Then I stumbled upon this story which turned out to be a perfect and unusual lens through which to look at Meiji. I found a memoir called A Japanese Interior by a woman named Alice Mabel Bacon who was a Connecticut schoolteacher who had spent time alone in Japan in the late 1880s teaching, which was weird enough. Most single women teachers didn’t take themselves to Japan in the 1880s, but what she said in her book was even stranger, which was that while she was in Tokyo, she had lived not with other foreigners, but with Japanese friends who she had known long and intimately in America, which made absolutely no sense at all because I couldn’t imagine how she could have made female Japanese friends in America in the 1870s. And so, I followed where Alice Bacon led, and discovered that she had been the foster sister of Sutematsu Yamakawa (who is the oldest of the three girls that I ended up writing about), that her family had fostered this Japanese girl, aged 11, starting in 1872 for a decade, and that was the portal into this story. It resonated in so many ways, oddly, with my own story as a white girl from New York who hadn’t any idea about Japan until she suddenly found herself living there with her new Japanese family. I lived with my in-laws for the first year of marriage, and all of the cross-cultural problems and joys that you encounter when you do a deep dive into a foreign place and try to make it home. So for all those reasons, my own fascination with the history and then the resonance with my own story (it was a fascinating story) would not leave me alone. (Laughter)

TG: And so you mentioned you came across Yamakawa Sutematsu, one of these women who comes to the United States on the Iwakura Mission. When we talk about the Meiji period, the Iwakura Mission is so central to Japan’s modernization and all of this Westernization during the Meiji period. But so often, we don’t hear about this other side of the story, which is these women who were a part of that mission.

JN: Yes I mean, the three girls (there were five girls originally who left with the Iwakura Mission in 1871) were, to an alarming extent, in hindsight, a complete afterthought. No one really had a “plan” for them. The idea was that Kuroda (who would eventually become Prime Minister, but at that point was an advisor to the young emperor) had already visited America, and while in America, had been struck by the difference between American women and Japanese women in that American women at a certain socioeconomic level had studied, read a lot, they often had opinions, and even more startlingly, they voiced their opinions sometimes to their men. And their men often listened to them. So, he started to form this idea that American success, Western success (this kind of commercial industrial success that Japan at this point was desperate to catch up to) had something to do with this support that American men got from their women.

With that in mind, maybe if Japanese women received the same kind of education that some American women seemed to be receiving, they could perform the same kind of supporting role for their enlightened men. So he said: “Let’s find some girls, and put them with the mission, drop them off in America, leave them there for a decade, and let them soak up all of that American-ness after which they’ll just come home and help spawn a new generation of enlightened men.” There was really no more careful thought than that, which is astonishing when you think about the fact that five families risked a daughter and sent them off with this group.

By the time they were ready to come back ten years later, and this is a central theme of the book, the Japanese government really did not have a plan for what they were to do. And the fact that we’re still talking about them today is a real tribute to these young women, and the kind of intelligence and grit they had to feel like this mission was one they had to fulfill.

TG: I was recalling this speech by Itō Hirobumi. When he arrives in San Francisco on the Iwakura Mission, he’s talking about all of the great advances Japan’s made, and he points to all this tangible stuff, of course. But then he also says: “Look at how enlightened our women are becoming.” Women’s education at this time was really seen as a barometer of a nation’s civilization, so if the women were more educated, clearly the country was more advanced, and I think it was even in the emperor’s announcement of the Iwakura Mission that he actually identifies one of the necessities of educating our women, so: “We’ve allowed some of our wives and daughters to go along this mission so that they can learn about the conditions in the West, and then come back and educate our women back in Japan.” But as you said, it’s entirely for this idea of supporting the men, not for the sake of educating women for their own right.

JN: Right. It was very much the “good wife, wise mother.” That phrase resonated throughout women’s education in Meiji and in the Victorian West. I mean, it’s not like American and European women were being educated to achieve more than that. That line of the emperor’s about “Yes, we’re letting the wives and daughters of our men go and get educated” was a little bit of deft PR because of course, there were no wives going over. There were just these little girls who really had no say. (Laughter) Anybody who was an adult would have balked at going over to this alien place.

TG: You’re absolutely right. It’s remarkable when you think about, in some cases, I think Tsuda Umeko was six? Yamakawa Sutematsu was 11. Incredibly young women, and you said they go for an entire decade. I mean, that’s just a remarkable thing.

JN: Right, outrageous on many levels. I always say that to be interested in this particular story, you don’t really have to have any interest in Japan. You just have to know a six year old, and think about how extraordinary that journey would have felt for a tiny little thing.

TG: I could imagine, you know, especially Ume at six years old, what choice did she have? Did she actually make this choice to go? Or what was that process? And did somebody just tell her: “Hey, tomorrow you’re going to get on this boat and you’re not going to see your family for a decade.”

JN: Basically. I mean, it seems shocking, but then when you think about the circumstances and the things that each of these five families had in common, it starts to make a little bit more sense. So in 1868, you had the Bōshin War, the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, and you had winners and losers, and the families of the five girls who went with the Iwakura Mission had all chosen the wrong side. They had all been deeply loyal to the Tokugawa side, and so in defeat, they really found themselves in trouble, especially Sutematsu’s family up in Aizu. That had been the last holdout, the last battle. Romances had been written. And her whole clan went into exile, and were essentially finding it hard to find enough to eat. So for these families, first of all, one less mouth to feed wasn’t such a bad thing. Second of all, girls (they all had sons), and risking a girl wasn’t such a big deal unfortunately in the misogynist nature of the culture. And thirdly, the families of Sutematsu, Shige and Ume coincidentally all had some experience with the fact that Western ideas and English were likely to be really important in the future.

Ume’s father had been an English translator for the shōgun, Sutematsu’s two older brothers were already in America studying to make their contribution to Meiji, and Shige had a brother and father who had also travelled in Europe earlier on an embassy. So, all of these families could see the writing on the wall, and knew that learning in America might come to be a very prestigious thing to have done, and if they could get a daughter off their own payroll, so to speak, and have her come back – lo and behold – in ten years with this prestigious set of skills, it might really help their family’s fortunes. So no, the girls did not have any say in whether they were going or not, but in fact, the lives that they had in America for those ten years were much easier in many ways than they would have been had they stayed with their families.

TG: Yes, I wasn’t aware that the families were all on the losing side of the Bōshin War, but that’s a great point. In many cases in rural Japan in particular in the ‘70s and ‘80s, if you were a second or third child, especially if you were a daughter of an impoverished family, they would often sell you off to a brothel, even, if necessary. And so, it does make sense that you would have these women who were being sent away on the mission. What was the connection that the families had to the mission though? Did the government send out an announcement: “Hey, give us your daughters to send away”? Or how exactly did they end up on the mission?

JN: I wish I had the “hear ye, hear ye” document that got posted around. (Laughter) Unfortunately not. I do know however that when the mechanism for putting the word out happened, it had to happen twice because the first time the word went out, no one stepped forward. It was too much to ask. Why would you send away a daughter when she was still useful around the house only to get her back “too late” to marry in who knows what shape? (Laughter) Why would you do that? So no, I don’t know. I do know, though, that when the call went out, it went out to families of the samurai class. These were families whose daughters were likely to have already been taught hiragana, to be lettered at some level, and likely to be able to learn. There was some awareness. You couldn’t just pluck a peasant out and drop them on another planet and expect it to work.

TG: So what are their experiences like when they’re in America? You mentioned Yamakawa ends up in this foster home, so I imagine each of the girls found their way into foster homes? And you also said that it started with five, but it became three later?

JN: Right, so they arrive in Washington, D.C. in the winter of 1872, and it’s immediately clear that two oldest of the five girls who are around 14 that they are not going to be cut out to fulfill this crazy mission that they’ve been launched upon. In Japanese cultural terms in the 1870s, they’re almost of marriageable age. They’re too old to be flexible enough to do this deep dive and really assimilate a new culture, and they’re very homesick. One of them isn’t well. She has some eye trouble and so, having finally reached Washington, D.C., they were immediately turned around and sent back to Japan where they leave this story.

With the other three, it also immediately becomes clear that if they remain together, the mission will not be completed because they won’t leave their language behind, they will only stick to each other. So they’re separated to facilitate their assimilation, and two of them are sent north to New Haven, Connecticut. The youngest, Ume Tsuda, remains in Georgetown in Washington, D.C. All three of the families that adopt them (this is where luck comes into the story a bit) are taking in a Japanese girl in 1872 (I mean, think about that), and they are are incredibly progressive-minded, open-minded, and sure that a girl is capable of greatness, in a way, because all these families raised these Japanese girls to be really mindful that they are ambassadors. It is more these American families’ doing that these girls remain aware of who they are supposed to be, much more so, I think, than the Japanese government who funds them, but doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to them during the decade that they’re here.

TG: And so who are those families?

JN: So in New Haven, the first family is the family of Leonard Bacon, father of Alice Bacon that I mentioned (the memoirist). Leonard Bacon was the minister whose pulpit was the centre church in the middle of New Haven, one of the most powerful congregationalist pulpits in New England. He had, I think, 14 children. He was the vision of the biblical patriarch, and a very forward-thinking and influential voice in New England.

He originally took two of the girls: Sutematsu Yamakawa and Shige Nagai, and then they were further separated. Shige then went and lived with the family of another congregationalist minister in New Haven. Those two girls, the two older ones who on arrival were 11 and 10, were near each other throughout this decade that they spent in America and always in touch. The littlest one Ume stayed in Georgetown with a family by the name of Lanman, and she was their only child. They were a childless couple who had always wanted a child, and so they called her their “sunbeam from the Land of the Rising Sun.” And she was really their pet. As she was the youngest, she was the one who assimilated the most profoundly because she lost all of her Japanese by the end of her decade with this doting couple in Washington. She was essentially a middle class American Protestant girl in a Japanese package. She no longer spoke Japanese at all.

TG: And you mentioned there was also a male student there. This reminded me in the 1880s, we get all of these Japanese students being sent overseas to the U.S, to England, mainly to study technical skills: engineering and practical skills, and bring them back to Japan so that they can advance Japanese industry. What are the kind of things that these women are learning while they’re in the United States?

JN: Right, exactly. I mean one of those male students was Kenjirō Yamakawa who was Sutematsu’s older brother. Part of the reason she was in New Haven was because he was there, and it was easy for him to look out for his little sister. And you’re right, so he was there to learn physics and engineering, and he went back to become head of the Physics Department and later head of the university in Tokyo. The girls were there to learn English, and basically to learn how women learned. It was very mushy. The families that adopted them saw them as needing to learn the way boys learn, so Sutematsu, for one, went to Hill House High School in New Haven, which was at that point the crowning jewel of public education in New England. She and Shige both went to Vassar College, which was the first college founded specifically as an institute for higher education for women. It had only been open for about a dozen years. Shige studied music there, and Sutematsu studied English literature and history. Ume, being younger, graduated from high school in Washington, and also studied literature and history. These were girls who were always winning prizes for recitations. They were not learning science. They were learning how to be elegant, dignified wives and mothers, that phrase ryōsai kenbo, that “good wife, wise mother” thing. That’s where they were being pointed.

TG: And then of course, Tsuda goes on to graduate from Bryn Mawr College, I believe?

JN: Right, so this was much later. They return to Tokyo, and after a little while, Ume began to regret that she had been so young while they were in America because she had been too young to go to college. And so, she got permission to go back and spend three years at Bryn Mawr as a special student studying biology, interestingly enough. I think she, at that point, realizes (I’m leaping over a lot of the story here) that she was going to remain unmarried and be an educator. That was going to be her calling, and when she got to Bryn Mawr, I think she specifically chose a science and not more “good wife, wise mother” stuff, and really took as her mentor and her model the president of Bryn Mawr, this woman named M. Carey Thomas who was definitively an unmarried educator and really showed Ume that it was possible to be that since there was no model for that in Japan.

TG: And then she takes up that model and becomes a model herself, right, when she comes back? I mean, she’s well known for founding Tsuda College, one of the first women’s universities in Japan.

JN: Right, so she comes back and founds Tsuda College very much on the model of Bryn Mawr. She founds it as a school, not a finishing school (not like the Peeresses’ School in Tokyo which was basically to add a little Western polish to the children of the wealthy), but more as an institute of higher education for women who wanted to teach English and be educators themselves. It grew from a tiny rented house into what it is today, which I think there are 4,000 undergraduate students.

TG: So it sounds like they all became very successful students. I imagine when they first arrived, they were somewhat celebrities, and I could imagine, almost, the papers following them along, but what were you able to find out about their daily life outside of school? Did you find any writings, say diaries or anything, from them to get a little bit more about how they were reacting to these things?

JN: Yes, I mean that was part of the fun was finding sources that were in their voices. First, when the Iwakura Mission reaches San Francisco in 1872, the newspapers go nuts over this Japanese delegation because it’s this wonderful moment. It’s almost the American centennial, and America, which has always been the upstart nation, is suddenly able to imagine themselves pivoting and being a mentor nation. Here’s this Japanese delegation coming to America and saying: “Please teach us how to be successful like you.” It’s this wonderful moment of national consciousness shifting, and so the newspaper coverage is just adoring, plus the Americans tend to imagine that these Japanese visitors are all royalty, so that the five girls are princesses. (Laughter) And you know, that enduring American fascination with royalty that we still suffer from I think. So there was a lot of good newspaper coverage.

Then, once they were here, they did write letters. There are some letters archived at Vassar and at Yale because of New Haven, and also still at Tsuda College, where they were writing back to their families in Japan a little bit, and then writing to each other because between New Haven and Georgetown. They kept in touch. And then once they went back to Tokyo, the greatest gift to me as a historian and biographer, was the closeness between Ume Tsuda and her foster mother Mrs. Lanman because basically from the day she left to go back to Tokyo, Ume started writing to Mrs. Lanman, and wrote to her all the time for decades until Mrs. Lanman died in her 90s. So those letters became an incredible, rich resource for me as a storyteller.

TG: And we were talking before about Tsuda Umeko, and how when she comes back to Japan, she founds Tsuda College, which goes on to be one of the women’s universities in Japan. And that’s just one of the well-known examples. Can you give us some other examples of the impact that these women have after returning to Japan from the United States?

JN: It’s funny, I’m always intrigued by how the three of them were very important to each other, right? They were “other” to just about everyone in the world except each other. No one else had had this experience of leaving Japan, spending ten years in America, coming back. What they very much shared was this sense of “mission,” like we have a responsibility to the Japanese government to help our mother country. But the way they went about it was entirely different, distinct in each of the three cases.

Shige, the middle girl, had actually met and fallen in love with another Japanese male student while they were in New Haven. He was being fostered by people across the street. So she had married a man of her own choice, also unusual for a Japanese woman of her moment. When she returned to Japan, having studied Western music, had a skill that the Japanese government wanted because they wanted their nobles, their leaders and their aristocrats to be able to intersect with Western dignitaries, and so going to a ball and knowing Western music and how to dance was important. So Shige fell into that role of teaching Western music in Tokyo. Also easier, having been in America for ten years, Shige and Sutematsu had held onto their language skills since they had always been able to talk to each other in Japanese, but they had both returned without literacy in Japanese anymore and so, music was something you could teach without knowing how to read and write. That was Shige’s contribution, and she taught music for her whole career while raising a huge number of children with her husband who became an admiral, so that was one way of being influential.

Sutematsu, who had been an incredible success at Vassar, a class speaker at graduation and a real dazzling student, came back and realized that there was no way she was going to be able to found a school right off the bat, given that she was now illiterate in Japanese. That was deeply frustrating, so her choice (which was very much a surprise to her, she had assumed that she would remain single and found a school) was to marry Iwao Ōyama who was the Minister of War, who was a very influential and much older man in the Meiji cabinet. She became elite of the elite in Tokyo (became eventually Princess Ōyama), and never taught but became a very important advisor and patroness of women’s education from above and behind the curtains. That was a different way of having an impact and then of course, Ume came back unable to speak Japanese, let alone read and write it, refused to consider marrying and ended up furthering her education in America and then founding the college that still bears her name.

TG: You mentioned at the beginning that you felt connected to this because of your own story.

JN: Yes, it’s ironic, right? I always dreamed of having ancestors who lived in an old 18th century house somewhere with an attic with trunks that had letters and old dresses, and I could tell some story from my own family. I don’t have that kind of family (laughter), but here was this story that had so many resonances with things that had happened to me.

Like Ume, I had landed in Tokyo without language skills, desperate to fit in and so, I knew that kind of frustration of being underestimated like I have something to offer, but I don’t have the skills to demonstrate it to you.

The Alice Bacon part of the puzzle is that after the girls spent their ten years in the U.S when they went back to Japan, Alice came over and taught with them. Her memoirs are so wonderful to read because she’s a very wry figure who was really unembarrassed about being the only gaijin around, a head taller and much stouter than anyone that she encountered, plus she brought her dog over, and he caused all kinds of consternation (laughter). So I knew how it felt to be awkward, and making all kinds of gaffes when I encountered this new culture but at the same time, being entranced by it and wanting to understand it.

The third piece of it was my husband who had been born in Japan but had come here with his family when he was very small for what was supposed to be two years of a businessman posting to Seattle. It stretched, and so, he came here when he was three, and when he was sixteen, his father’s company finally called them back to Japan. It was too late for my husband to re-assimilate back into Japanese society, so he stayed here and became the American child of a Japanese family. What happens when a cultural gulf opens within a single family had happened in his family, the same way it happened in the families of these girls when they came back to Japan, so that’s fascinating to me, that kind of amphibious-ness of being of two different cultures at once. It is very much part of our family story.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode:

Janice Nimura, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, January 25, 2019. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-89-janice-nimura/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.