In Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey From East to West, Janice P. Nimura tells the story of three young girls, ages eleven, ten and six, whom the Japanese government sent to the United States in 1871 as part of the westernizing reforms of the Meiji Restoration that transformed Japan in the mid-nineteenth century. The idea was that when they returned to Japan they would teach a generation of Japanese women how to raise enlightened sons.
The experiment was set in motion with remarkably little planning. They were nominated by their parents with an eye toward political and economic benefits for their families. All of them were scarred, one of them literally, by the recent civil war that had overthrown the shogun and destroyed the power of the samurai class. They spoke no English and had a chaperone who didn’t speak Japanese. They were on the boat for two days before someone arranged for them to get regular meals.
Nimura brings skillful storytelling and a high degree of cross-cultural awareness to her account of the girls’ successful (and often joyous) adaptation to a new culture, their difficulties re-adapting to their own culture when they returned ten years later, and how the long-term relationships they formed in the United States shaped women’s education in Japan.
Daughters of the Samurai is an engaging work of women’s history set in a moment when the status of women was changing in both Japan and the United States.
This review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.