New York, New York: Janice Nimura is the author of “Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back,” a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. It is the true story of three Japanese girls who were sent to the United States in the nineteenth century to acquire a modern education, which they would then use to start a school for girls back in Japan. (We’ve written more about the girls here.) In an exclusive interview, Ms. Nimura offers additional insights into these remarkable women and how her own experiences made her especially empathetic to their story.

When I read this book, it felt so, so real to me. I couldn’t believe that it had been written by someone who hadn’t been an international student herself. Can you tell us about your own story and how it helped you relate to the stories of Shige, Sutematsu and Ume?

My family has lived in New York for generations.  My ancestors on both sides came from Eastern Europe–my parents are Jewish. We’ve always been right here [in New York].

My husband, Yoji, was a lot like the girls in the book though. His father worked for a Japanese company that sent him to their office in Seattle. The posting was meant to be for two or three years but ended up being thirteen years, at the end of which my husband’s family said, “We’re going home,” and he said, “See ya.” By that time it was too late for him to return to Japan. He stayed and went on to study [at Yale], which is where we met.

Today his family is all in Japan and he’s the American kid, and that’s the way it has stayed. So his story has a lot of resonance with the stories of Ume, Shige and Sutematsu, especially the part about being culturally different from the families that sent them to the States.

But then you both moved to Japan after you got married.

Yes, we went with the intention of figuring out where Japan was going to fit in our lives. It was something that my husband needed to figure out too, because he had been in America pretty much since the age of three. In order to do that, we needed to live there. We were both twenty four, we had no children, and it was a good moment to have an adventure.

I had a much easier time in Japan than my husband. I mean, my husband did not behave in a particularly Japanese way. His Japanese did not have all the subtleties of etiquette that an adult man would be assumed to have mastered. So, whenever I said anything in Japanese, everybody applauded, but whenever he opened his mouth, there was something that didn’t seem quite right, whether it was the eye contact or the smiling or the choreography. The kind of confusion he encountered was exhausting, whereas I was just getting “your Japanese is so wonderful” everywhere I went.

But I also felt like Alice [Bacon, the girls’ American friend who moved to Tokyo for a few years to teach at the school], moving to Tokyo and trying to fit in, trying to keep my mind open to where I was trying to fit in, while retaining where I came from.

So you identified most strongly with Alice? It’s interesting you say that because I imagine her to be the quintessential Yankee bluestocking.

My first introduction to the story was through Alice’s voice, when I read a book she wrote about her time in Japan. I grew up attending a very elite girls’ school from kindergarten to the twelfth grade, and Alice sounded like every single one of my teachers. Despite the fact that she was writing in 1888, it was a voice that I recognized instantly. When I first moved to Tokyo, if any one of my teachers had come with me, she would have said all the things that Alice was saying.

Also, Alice was remarkably sure of herself and open-minded at the same time. That’s a very unusual combination. She wasn’t afraid of being critical. She wasn’t fawning on the culture. But she was also open to the bits of it that were clearly superior to where she came from. The whole idea of the word “civilised”–you could see it coming apart in her mind. She didn’t try to put it back together either. She said she didn’t know what it meant anymore. And that’s something, coming from the daughter of a congregational minister who was no stranger to the missionary impulse.

I identified with her because her voice was familiar to me, but more than that, I aspired to be like her. I’m not sure that I was as sure of myself, or as open-minded, when I was new in Tokyo like she was.

What were your challenges in dealing with Japanese culture?

You know when Ume returns and burns with the frustration of the under-appreciated? No one around her expects that she knows anything about anything or that she can do anything. I remember feeling like that. I’d just graduated from college, and I was full of myself. After growing up in an all-girls’ school and being spoon-fed a certain kind of “I am woman” intellectual pride, I didn’t like that the default assumption was that I was just following Yoji around.

I read that you actually got your father-in-law to help you with your research.

My father-in-law was just wonderful. He’s retired now, and though he had a very traditional Japanese salaryman kind of career, in another universe, he would have liked to have been a scholar. And so when I sent him on errands to libraries, or asked him to translate something for me or to find a book, he just ate it up. He loved doing that. He loved learning the story, and it was great fun to have a project together that was outside of anything family-related.

My father-in-law is really tickled by having an American daughter-in-law. I’m sort of a party trick for him. He still loves teaching me Japanese. He keeps a dictionary at the dinner table so he can have it handy whenever I have a question about a Kanji.

Who was your favourite of the girls: Shige, Sutematsu or Ume?

Sutematsu was the one who moved me the most, just because she had so reveled in intellectual life at Vassar. She really lived the life of a college woman in the 1870s. And then she made this decision [to marry the much older Iwao Oyama, the minister of war who was a widower, and become stepmother to his children] that condemned her to a life of formality and protocol. And yes, she achieved great things, and yes her marriage was a happy one, but she never left Japan again, she never taught, and she never did the things she thought she was going to do. That was very poignant to me.

I couldn’t imagine having made those choices.

She really felt her mission to help Japan would be best served if she was moving in circles of power–and had the ear of powerful people– rather than toiling away anonymously in an English classroom in Japan.

I don’t think her marriage was motivated by a fear of being left on the shelf. She was from a good family, and there were lots of men who were interested in marrying her. I think rather it was a fear of being the odd one out for the rest of her life, again. She had been the only Japanese girl in sight for much of her childhood and now she was going to be the only single girl in sight. It was hard to bear.

There was one letter she writes to Alice when she’s deliberating whether to marry and she says, “There’s no one whose happiness depends on me: my family is all busy with their families, Shige is married [she didn’t have that close of a relationship with Ume], and I don’t know if I’m strong enough to be a solo performer for the rest of my life.”

You say that Sutematsu felt that she was on a mission to modernise Japanese women, and Shige and Ume too. Was this warranted? After all, they had been plucked from total obscurity, and they were–in the thinking of the time–only girls.

It’s no accident that the book begins with the scene of the girls receiving a mandate from the Empress of Japan [to acquire a modern education that they would then bring back and share with other Japanese girls]. The Empress had never met with anybody outside the palace, let alone a group of little girls.

There’s no parallel to that today. The gods don’t walk among us anymore. You cannot overstate how powerful that must have been, especially in the imagination of a little girl–for that is what they were.

The samurai culture they were raised in would have said that if you are given a task, you fulfill it or die. These were also girls who were coming of age just at the moment that samurai culture was ending. There was a certain cultural passion, an almost Greek-tragedy level of nostalgia, for a way that was soon to be no more.

So yes, they had been entrusted with a mission.

I want to talk a bit about Ume. She’s a complex character. The letter in which she’s racist towards the Chinese immigrants of San Francisco shows a remarkable lack of self-awareness, yet she is ultimately the only one who succeeds in the mission–and on her own terms.

People keep asking whether the book will be translated into Japanese. Part of me hopes so, but part of me wonders whether the Japanese will be pleased with the way I let Ume be everything she was and not just the impressive parts.

Tsuda college–which she founded– remains an extremely prestigious women’s college, and female heroes are few and far between in Japan. So the ones that are unequivocally heroic get trotted out an awful lot. And Ume is undoubtedly a hero of the Meiji era. People learn about her in social studies.

What people tend not to dwell on anymore is not just that she was a difficult person but that she wasn’t particularly celebrated during her lifetime. People thought she was odd—her biggest fans were American and all of her donors [for her school] were certainly in America. The people who were supporting her school were not Japanese—with the exception of Shige and Sutematsu.

What would be your advice to a young person who is going to study abroad today?

Be like Alice.

 

Let your experience teach you things that you didn’t know about ways to be, and also let it teach you what you appreciate about how you were taught to be. At its best, that kind of experience clarifies both where you came from and where you find yourself. You use both sets of lenses to inform both sets of perspectives ideally.

 

If you’re lucky enough to really straddle—not just be a tourist—if you’re lucky enough to go deep enough to feel like you have grasped something of what it is like to be of that place, and then you come back to your original place, your world becomes three-dimensional, in a way that it wouldn’t if you hadn’t left and come back.

Having a three-dimensional view of things can be wonderful, but it also makes life more complicated. Are there days when you regret your decision to live this globalised, cross-cultural life?

No. I think it’s very important to be “amphibious,” especially today. To have a single focus is very dangerous. It is like standing on one leg. It is a very precarious way to be, to only be able to think in one way.

Especially here in New York, I can’t tell you how many people I know who would describe themselves as being tolerant who don’t really believe that there’s more than one way to be right. They still think there’s a right way and a wrong way. They don’t grasp that there can be two diametrically opposed but equally right answers. That’s what living amphibiously shows you: that there are different ways to breathe. And if you’ve never breathed in two different ways you won’t believe that it’s possible.