Online Discussion with Janice Nimura

June 03, 2015 at 7:30pm - 8:30pm

On June 3, USJC hosted an online discussion with Ms. Janice Nimura, author of the just-released book, Daughters of the Samurai. The hour-long discussion was held as a video conference. It drew more than 20 USJC Members--with a waitlist--from locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Jackson, Mississippi.

The book centers on three girls that the Government of Japan sent to the United States in 1871: Shige Nagai, Umeko Tsuda and Sutematsu Yamakawa. After spending ten years in the United States, they returned to Japan and built successful careers. The book has been featured in The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal and Oprah, and reached #2 on Amazon in books about Japanese history.

USJC Board Member Fred Katayama was the brainchild behind this event. "I see the theme of Womenomics dating back to the Meiji era," he said, identifying key USJC themes in the book like women's leadership, entrepreneurship, education, taking risks and people-to-people relations. He moderated the discussion with insightful questions, and then opened the line to the audience members.

A scene from the discussion: Ms. Nimura (top left) with Mr. Katayama (bottom left) and a screen that Ms. Nimura shared of the three girls ((L-R) Umeko Tsuda, Sutematsu Yamakawa and Shige Nagai)

One of the key ideas that Ms. Nimura discussed is in the title of the book: "daughters of the samurai." The girls were recruited from the educated class three years after the civil war that ended the shogunate and made the Meiji Emperor the leader of Japan. Their families, which had backed the shogun, hoped that the girls would bring back some of the prestige they had lost. The girls received a rare, in-person mandate from the Empress to return to Japan and support the country. Even after spending a decade in the United States, "for none of them did it ever occur to stay in America," Ms. Nimura said. They “grew up in the samurai discipline" and were determined to complete their mission.

The women each re-adapted to Japan in different ways. Sutematsu, who had graduated from Vassar College with top honors, was the first Japanese woman to earn a college degree. She married a powerful man and started a charity bazaar at a time when women of high society did not make or sell anything with their own hands. Umeko Tsuda temporarily returned to the United States to study biology at Bryn Mawr College, and once back in Japan, founded the school that would become Tsuda College. Shige Nagai started a family and had seven children, but worked throughout as a teacher and maintained a positive work-life balance.

Click on the image above to see the book trailer of Daughters of the Samurai

As an American woman who married a Japanese individual and spent time adapting to life in Japan, Ms. Nimura herself learned much from studying these women who also straddled two cultures. They kept their mind open, and "had the grit, intellectual capacity and the charm to make the most of every context they found themselves in," she said.

To learn more, see the full recording with screens that Ms. Nimura shared during the discussion, listen to the podcast of the discussion, or view the Storify recap.

This was a pilot project, held entirely on social media. Based on its popularity and success, USJC is looking forward to hosting more online discussions in the future.