• A Daughter of the Samurai: On the Strength, Tradition, and Rebellion of Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto

    Karen Tei Yamashita and Yuki Obayashi Discuss the Memoir of an Extraordinary Life

    By way of introducing Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto’s memoir, A Daughter of the Samurai, Yuki Obayashi and I have decided to share our thoughts and research as a conversation and collaboration between two readers.


    Karen Tei Yamashita: Yuki, I invited you to read Etsu Sugimoto’s writing to help complete what, for me as an American sansei, are cultural and linguistic gaps. As I suspected, your reading in Japanese of her work and history have revealed a transnational vision of her life and times. I feel that your bilingual skills are crucial to further studies in Asian American literature. Did you also feel an affinity to Etsu’s writing?

    Yuki Obayashi: Yes. I especially enjoy reading literature that gives me a sense of connection and solidarity. I first encountered Asian American literature as an undergraduate at Japan Women’s University. Majoring in English, I felt lost, not understanding the canonical works because of the cultural distance. Introduced to Asian American literature, I felt an instant cultural and linguistic connection with the characters. When I read A Daughter of the Samurai, I had a similar feeling. I could relate to Etsu, who also began studying English in her teens and migrated to America for a new life.

    KTY: I also feel a personal connection to this writing, as I am the granddaughter of women like Etsu Sugimoto, who arrived in America during the Meiji Restoration around the turn of the 19th century. Different from Etsu, who immigrated to Cincinnati and cultivated friends among upper-class white Americans, my grandmothers settled in Japanese enclaves in the San Francisco Bay Area. But, as Etsu tells the story of women of her era, I knew my grandmothers, similarly, as strong matriarchs who held their families together. It’s almost 125 years later, and here you are, Yuki, a scholar-teacher and a new immigrant, who, like Etsu and my grandmothers, has struck out on your own. I sense in you the same toughness of two worlds.

    YO: I’m not sure if I am tough like Etsu. But anyway, I moved to America to study Asian American literature; I could find better learning opportunities here than in Japan. You are a significant reason why I fell in love with this literature and decided to pursue my study in the United States.

    Let’s start by talking about the historical background of A Daughter of the Samurai. Etsu narrates how her father, a former samurai, was caught between two eras, the Edo and the Meiji. In the Meiji era, the restoration of imperial rule reorganized political and social structures. Etsu’s family lived through hardships because the domain of Nagaoka, which her father served, allied with the shogunate, and its upper-class samurai subsequently lost their prestigious status during the Meiji Restoration.

    Karen, how do you see Etsu as a Japanese immigrant to America in the early 20th century?

    KTY: Reading Etsu’s stories, I realize that to be a picture bride in the 1900s, traveling across the Pacific to marry a man known only in a photograph, was not so different from an arranged marriage, sending a daughter off to a distant village, in some cases never to return. A Japanese woman’s responsibility and loyalty was, at marriage, bound to her husband and to his family. This expectation had to make any young woman tough. One difference I know, from my immigrant grandmothers, is that they escaped living under the constant watch of their mother-in-laws, and because of this, I believe my grandmothers came into their own as women. Between 1908 and 1920, ten thousand Japanese picture brides arrived in America. These women, whether bound to become farmers or shopkeepers, were, like Etsu, part of a changing dynamic and a new era.

    YO: But didn’t these picture brides usually cross the Pacific together? I agree Etsu was a picture bride, but with a difference. Etsu spoke fluent English and had British guardians throughout her voyage, without contact with other picture brides. Although we can say that she was privileged in a way, she didn’t have an opportunity to share her anxiety about marriage in a new country with Japanese confidantes.

    Traditionally, one thinks that the rule of the memoir is that it should tell the truth about one’s life, but memoir is also dependent on its moment in history, its point of view and address to readers.

    When reading Sugimoto’s memoir and researching her biography, I thought about Japanese women who emerged as writers in the late Meiji and early Taisho eras. Etsu published her first essays in the Philadelphia-based Evening Public Ledger in 1918 and the monthly magazine Asia between 1923 and 1924; some of these essays were later collected in A Daughter of the Samurai, published in 1925. I see Etsu as a transnational figure between Japan and the United States. She not only introduced Japanese culture to Americans, but also became a successful writer at a time when Japanese women finally had the opportunities of education.

    KTY: So Etsu Sugimoto was part of the late-19th-century international movement for a New Woman, and, as a transnational figure, she was translator and interpreter. Your research revealed that, after returning to Japan, Etsu worked for a Japanese branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

    YO: Yes, in Tokyo she edited the English section of its newsletter, Women’s Herald, and was an interpreter for American missionaries. She also taught English at a Quaker missionary school. Although I believe that Etsu worked at those jobs out of economic necessity, she consequently took part in bridging an understanding between the two countries through her English skills.

    After A Daughter of the Samurai was translated into French (1930), Swedish (1934), German (1935), Danish (1937), Finnish (1937), and Polish (1937), the Japanese version was finally published in 1943 when Japan and the United States were at war. While at first hesitant to publish in Japan, Etsu worked closely with the translator Ōiwa Miyo and managed to escape censorship. I don’t know if she was aware that the U.S. government systematically sent Japanese Americans on the West Coast to concentration camps at that time. But she also may have felt the urgency to humanize Americans who’d become the enemy.

    KTY: At the turn of the century, when Etsu first immigrated to America, she was certainly aware of orientalist stereotypes about Japanese women, imagined in the comedic staging of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado or the tragedy of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While earlier fictional writing by the Canadian writer Winnifred Eaton, alias Onoto Watanna, and Yone Noguchi continued to play on the popular mythology of Japonisme, Sugimoto, in her writing, took these perceptions to task. Arriving to live in Cincinnati, likely the sole Japanese woman among educated and upper-class Americans there, Etsu found herself a curiosity and an ambassador, and was encouraged, or perhaps forced, to explain herself.

    YO: In talking about A Daughter of the Samurai, we cannot ignore Etsu’s friendship with Florence Mills Wilson, a niece of Etsu’s American mother. Florence appears only briefly in the memoir, and it’s impossible to grasp their close friendship. In 1902, Florence accompanied Etsu and baby Hanano to Japan, where they stayed together in Etsu’s hometown, Nagaoka, for one year. When Matsuo picked up Etsu during his business trip to Japan the following year, Florence stayed, living with Etsu’s family for another year until the Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1904. And Florence finally sold her house in Cincinnati and completely moved to Japan to live with Etsu one year after Matsuo’s early death in 1910. From that time on, Etsu and Florence lived together in both Japan and America, in Cincinnati and in New York for Etsu’s daughters’ education, and again in Japan until Florence passed away in 1932. A Daughter of the Samurai depicts Etsu’s life in Japan, raising two daughters as a widow, and ends with the story of her return to America with her daughters. But what is missing in the memoir is Florence.

    Florence was also deeply involved in Etsu’s writing of A Daughter of the Samurai. Although Florence’s name does not appear in the Acknowledgment, she was a collaborator; Etsu called the book “our French term coined in the late 19th century referring to the craze for Japanese art and design in the West literary work.” Apparently Florence rewrote the entire manuscript after the publisher said that it would not sell. The resulting book became a bestseller. Reportedly, Etsu suggested adding Florence as the coauthor, but she refused. The mystery remains why Florence would not be publicly recognized.

    KTY: Florence is a mystery. In their collaboration, Etsu may have been writing to and for her friend Florence Wilson. At the same time, she, with Florence, also wrote in English for an American audience during a period of growing hostility against Asian immigrants. Laws such as the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 and the Ladies’ Agreement of 1921 restricted Japanese immigration. Alien land laws prohibited the purchase of land, and finally, the Immigration Act of 1924 excluded all Asian immigrants. Etsu’s story participates in this historic and political backdrop of anti-immigration policies and fear. Perhaps Florence understood that Etsu’s single authorship would be more convincing. Traditionally, one thinks that the rule of the memoir is that it should tell the truth about one’s life, but memoir is also dependent on its moment in history, its point of view and address to readers.

    YO: Although memoirs might not be factually accurate—selecting memories with some exaggerations and omissions—I notice that Etsu deliberately chose narratives for different audiences: Japanese and American. In the Japanese translation, chapter 24, “In Japan Again,” is omitted. I imagine that Etsu cut the chapter to avoid naming the members of Matsuo’s family with whom she discussed her daughters’ education. But more importantly, the chapter’s fiction—that she brought Matsuo’s ashes back to Japan—was not included. In fact, she was already in Japan with her daughters when he died in America from acute appendicitis.

    KTY: I think it’s interesting that Matsuo seems somewhat absent from this story. Why is this?

    YO: Unlike often-told stories of picture brides, Etsu didn’t experience the sort of disappointment of a husband much older than his portrait photo, or that his economic status was not as good as promised. Etsu narrates positively Matsuo’s fatherhood and love of their daughters. But, yes, I agree that he is somewhat absent in A Daughter of the Samurai. Because she addressed the memoir to an American audience, she may have thought that the story of her childhood in a samurai family was more attractive than the story of a Japanese immigrant businessman.

    KTY: And we know, as was true for many immigrant men in these early years, his business failed; maybe she also couldn’t write about that. When Matsuo died, Etsu was left on her own with two young daughters and beholden to her husband’s family. I sense in the story that follows her strength of character and independent resolve. And fortunately, though unusual among immigrant women of her day, she was highly educated.

    YO: Before moving to America, Etsu studied English at missionary schools in Tokyo for six years. In A Daughter of the Samurai, she recollects discoveries through her teachers of a new way of thinking— independently. She must have felt liberated by her Christian American teachers who presented a new image of women, different from the traditional Japanese gender role in which she had grown up. That’s why her conversion to Christianity at that time, I believe, was more than a religious commitment. Although she continued to be faithful to Buddhism and Japanese traditions, Christianity more likely represented a freedom of choice that she exercised for the first time in her life.

    KTY: But I also see Etsu as questioning and quietly rebellious. For example, the story of her curly hair. I have curly hair; so I was sympathetic to Etsu’s childhood memory of not being like other Japanese girls. I understand the nature of rebellious hair sprouting from a rebellious head, the struggle of being different. Etsu’s father agreed to raise his daughter for the priesthood, but when his only son left the family, it seems he turned Etsu’s training toward her future as family heir. Thus, she was called Etsu-bo, a masculine designation, suggesting that she was educated like a boy and maybe allowed some rebellion. It would make sense that Etsu, given her education, would become a more independent person. What did you make of Etsu’s upbringing within a traditional samurai family?

    YO: As the memoir’s title is A Daughter of the Samurai, Etsu’s identity is deeply rooted in her family’s samurai background. Even if she converted to Christianity and migrated to the United States, her identity remained that of a samurai daughter. I find her strength coming from her childhood, when she had to follow strict rules. Etsu also mentions Nagaoka’s weather; she grew up in the Echigo region, which during winter was covered with deep snow. The weather, I believe, also gave her resilience of character.

    KTY: But what about the stories she tells of her mother and other women, representing them as displaying an outer appearance of docile ceremonial propriety while hiding a kind of warrior woman within?

    YO: In A Daughter of the Samurai, Etsu narrates how, at the end of the Edo, her family opposed a political rival. When her father was captured as a political prisoner, her mother had to decide the family’s fate. She burned down the family house before the enemy could confiscate or vandalize it. I was struck by the image of her standing in front of the burning house. Etsu must have inherited strength from her mother, who acted bravely as a samurai’s wife.

    KTY: I admit to having difficulty with samurai mythologies, especially the tradition of honor and the necessity to commit seppuku for failure, even a mishap of etiquette. It makes a great story, but I find it absurdly cruel, playing into orientalism. Don’t get me wrong; I love chambara [swordplay]. And, I can understand why Etsu addressed traditions of the samurai class to correct misconceptions. The stories Etsu tells of her father’s preparation for death by suicide, her mother burning down their ancestral home, or the handmaiden Kikuno’s bloody death are dramatic but, thankfully, elegantly understated. On another note, what also impressed me was how young Etsu-bo was raised by her beloved maid Ishi, while her own mother seems, by tradition, distant until later life.

    YO: Ishi was a kind of mother to Etsu in her early life, telling stories of Japanese folklore and mythology, which, I believe, encouraged Etsu’s passion for reading and writing. In a way, Etsu perhaps had four mother figures: Ishi, Amanda Wilson (American mother), Kin ( Japanese mother), and Florence (“life-long Mother-Friend”). In every corner of her life, Etsu had a mother who supported her. I would say one of the central themes in A Daughter of the Samurai is mother-daughter relationships. It reminds me of Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, whose mother-daughter narratives are regarded as a foundation of Asian American literature.

    Etsu struggles with the tug and pull of change and difference, finding a path to freedom while honoring values of tradition and duty.

    Also, in her later novels, A Daughter of the Narikin (1932) and A Daughter of the Nohfu (1935), Etsu illustrated the rapid sociopolitical changes in a modernizing Japan. As the titles suggest, Etsu viewed those issues through the perspectives of daughters. It is interesting to note that Etsu’s fictional and real worlds are determined by a daughter’s positionality in relation to her family.

    KTY: I think it’s also possible to read A Daughter of the Samurai as a letter to Etsu’s daughters, Hanano and Chiyo, and thus to the future—for memories are told in stories to give the present its grounding. After returning with her daughters to Tokyo, Etsu recalls the change in Hanano’s character, comparing this change to binding the roots of a bonsai pine. In educating her daughters in two countries, Etsu works to reconcile two homelands by uniting two mothers, her Japanese mother and her adopted American mother. Etsu struggles with the tug and pull of change and difference, finding a path to freedom while honoring values of tradition and duty. She pays respects to her Japanese mother’s life by observing her Buddhist traditions, while also finding a way to return to America to educate her daughters. What impresses me in this storytelling is the quiet determination of Etsu, now a single mother; her clever and competent navigation toward freedom in a changing world.

    YO: Yes, that’s a great point. Etsu shifts her narrative from a samurai daughter’s to that of the mother of two transnational daughters. As a mother, Etsu convinced senior family members that she should move with her daughters back to America for higher education, breaking gender barriers for her girls. Her return to America also broke a barrier for herself—her career. During this period, Etsu published A Daughter of the Samurai and taught Japanese language, culture, and history at Columbia University.

    After eight years of teaching, Etsu returned to Japan with Florence and her younger daughter, Chiyono, in 1927. She intended a one-year sabbatical; however, for reasons of health, she never returned to America. It must also have been a painful shock for Etsu to lose Florence, who died of a heart attack in 1932. However, Etsu continued to write, completing three novels. In addition to A Daughter of the Narikin and A Daughter of the Nohfu, she published Grandmother Okyo in 1940.

    KTY: After Matsuo died, and during those years living with Florence, Etsu became a prolific writer. Our research casts different readings of her work at different moments and times in history, before and after the war. And now today, I believe we can recognize her work as one of the earliest examples of issei women writing in English, with a legacy as Asian American, transnational, and diasporic feminist.


    Introduction from the book A Daughter of the Samurai, by Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto. Published by arrangement with Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.

    Karen Tei Yamashita and Yuki Obayashi
    Karen Tei Yamashita is the author of eight books, including I Hotel, finalist for the National Book Award, and most recently Sansei & Sensibility, all published by Coffee House Press. Recipient of the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature and a United States Artists Ford Foundation Fellowship, she is Professor Emerita of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Yuki Obayashi is a Ph.D. candidate of literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a designated emphasis in critical race and ethnic studies. She studies twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature and film of the Japanese and U.S. empires in the Pacific. She also teaches as a lecturer in Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, and in Japanese Language and Culture at California State University, Monterey Bay.

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