The year was 1871. Japan was modernising, and the country needed to educate its daughters. But what to teach them? The old Confucian ways no longer seemed relevant. American culture was ascendant. Japanese girls would have to go to America to learn from their American counterparts.
But when the government called for families to offer up their daughters in the service of the nation, there were few takers. Finally, three girls, Sutematsu, Shige and Ume, ages 11,10 and 6 respectively, were put forward. The girls all hailed from samurai families that had fallen on hard times.
As Janice Nimura writes in her book Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back, the girls were to spend the next ten years of their lives immersed in the American way of life. It’s hard to imagine now, in the age of Skype and ethnic grocers, how completely cut off they would be from their culture of origin.
Ume, the youngest and most isolated of all, was placed in the guardianship of a wealthy and childless couple in Washington, D.C. Petted and adored in a way that she would never have been back in Japan, she grew into a clever and confident woman. Sutematsu and Shige went to Vassar college in New York. Shige, the least ambitious of the bunch, earned a certificate in music and returned home without graduating. Meanwhile, Sutematsu proved to be a brilliant scholar, even giving a commencement speech on the inequities of the British trade policy towards Japan.
The greater her success in Yankee society, the harder it was for the woman upon her re-entry into Japan. (Is it any wonder that so many international students prefer to stick to their own?) For Ume, Shige and Sutematsu, Japan was their home–there was never any thought of staying on in America–but they had lost their language and acquired strange ideas.
They had been sent overseas with the expectation that they would, upon their return, open a school for other girls where they could impart their knowledge. But the Japanese craze for all things Western had waned and government support was no longer assured.
Faced with an uncertain future, both Shige and Sutematsu balked. When offers of marriage came their way, they accepted with relief. The once-ambitious Sutematsu never quite made peace with this compromise, however, and in return, her peers never accepted her as one of their own.
Ume stood firm and eventually landed the big career, founding a woman’s college that today bears her name. In exchange, she gave up a personal life, a spinster till the end of her days. Ironically, despite her own unconventional choices, Ume’s outlook was essentially conservative: Japanese women needed an education to become better wives and mothers–nothing more.
Perhaps she did not wish for others to have to travel a path as lonely as her own.
Although their stories took place over a hundred years ago, the choices for those who undertake this transformative experience today remain essentially the same: change and be banished forever, or forget what you’ve learned and be welcomed back into the fold.