Through her fascinating tapestry of history and biography, New York scholar Nimura weaves the strange, vibrant tale of an insular nation coming to terms with currents of modernism it could no longer keep out.
With the shogunate abolished and the “restoration” of 15-year-old Emperor Mutsuhito to the Meiji throne in 1868, Japan recognized that it would need to embrace Western ideas and technology in order to compete in the civilized world, and that would include a Western education for both men and women. Japan required educated mothers to raise standards, and thus the first batch of girls to be sent to study in America for an allotted period of 10 years was recruited from high-ranking samurai families who had fallen out of favor and could spare some mouths to feed at home. Of these five young women sent across the seas in 1871, the two eldest, at 14, did not fare well and were sent back within a few months. The remaining three experienced transformative home-sharing and education opportunities in America and became fluent speakers of English. Nimura concentrates on the stories of these three singular young women: Sutematsu Yamakawa, at 11, lived with the prominent Bacon family in New Haven and eventually attended Vassar; Shige Nagai, who had arrived at age 10, also attended Vassar and ended up marrying a fellow Japanese who had studied at Annapolis Naval Academy; Ume Tsuda, at barely 7, grew up in Georgetown and graduated from Bryn Mawr. All returned to Japan to marry, yet they carried on teaching and even founded an English school for girls. From clothing to manners to speech to aspirations, Nimura shows how the meeting of East and West transformed these select young women.
An extraordinary, elegantly told story of the beginning of Japan’s education and emancipation of its women.