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From a Japanese American Literature Class at a German University

Cultural challenges and differences in Etsu Sugimoto´s "A Daughter of the Samurai"

To be honest from the very beginning: When I registered for our lecture on “Japanese Americans” I had absolutely no idea of what to expect. I did not know a thing about Japanese Americans, neither about their history nor about their culture. The course description, however, sounded interesting and therefore I decided to take that course.

In the very first lesson we were introduced to the different topics in this lecture. The most striking aspects for me were the emotional and cultural influences on Japanese Americans due to their immigration to the United States. One of our very first texts dealt with this topic as well. The Japanese American author Etsu Sugimoto wrote A Daughter of the Samurai, which was published in 1925. The work is an autobiography, which is why I think it is very interesting and informative to read. Although her experiences happened almost a century ago, I think it is very worth reading.

In the autobiography we can on the one hand see how life was in Japan for Etsu and how it changed while preparing for a life in the United States and while actually living there. The text illustrates the differences in the two different cultures and the way it could affect Japanese people.

Etsu Sugimoto was born in 1874 in the north of Japan as a daughter of a Samurai. Due to the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s the old feudal system of Japan collapsed, which had a huge impact of the life of Samurais and their families. Many young males left Japan for the United States, for example, to work or to study there. Many of those Japanese did not return to their mother country. Often they also sent for Japanese girls or women to become their wives in the United States. These marriages were often arranged marriage by the parents of young Japanese girls or women, because they probably often thought that this would be a good chance for another life. Etsu Sugimoto also became engaged in an arranged marriage and was first sent to prepare for her future life in Tokyo and then eventually to the United States, where her future husband lived.

In chapter 10 of the autobiography we learn that Etsu has become a bride at the age of 13 to please her family. In this chapter we also get to know many of the traditional customs Japanese families had. Etsu and her family practice the Buddhist religion in which traditions and customs are very important. Etsu, for example, has to take part in the ceremony of the betrothal (Sugimoto: 89). On this day Etsu´s education as a wife begins, therefore, she gets training in cooking, sewing and other household duties (Sugimoto: 92). Another very important aspect of the training is that Etsu learns “to be watchful for the comfort of [her] prospective husband” (Sugimoto: 93).
Another custom which we learn about in the autobiography is that “Japanese people do not, as a rule, observe individual birthdays. Instead, it is custom to celebrate New Year as a birthday for each person of the nation” (Sugimoto: 93).

Etsu´s future husband lives in the United States and wants to stay there. Hence, he sends for Etsu to come to the U.S. To be prepared for a life in a foreign country Etsu is sent to a mission school in Tokyo and stays with Mr. Sato and his wife. This part of her life is told in chapter 13. In Tokyo, Etsu gets into contact with foreign female teachers who were in her opinion “young, lively, most interesting and beautiful” (Sugimoto: 120). On the other hand “their lack of ceremony” (Sugimoto: 120) surprises Etsu. Now that Etsu has left her home in the pastoral province in the north of Japan, she undergoes her first changes and experiences with not-so-traditional people. The girls from Tokyo seem more open and free of traditions than Etsu is accustomed to. Also strange to her is the behaviour of the foreign teachers, because Etsu has learned that respect and awe towards her teachers is very important. In the mission school, however, “the teachers were always present […], laughing, applauding and praising our efforts” (Sugimoto: 124). The experiences in her school time in Tokyo already change a lot in Etsu because she has learned before that a woman in Japan “is greatly inferior to man” (Sugimoto: 139), but after her school time she begins to break free from these thoughts and idealize American women for their freedom. Etsu starts to question certain ceremonies: for example, when her father goes into the room where the family stores sacred things and she is not allowed to go in there: “'Why cannot I be with him in the room where they are airing the sacred things?' 'Etsu-bo Sama, […] it is because you were born a daughter to your father instead of a son'” (Sugimoto: 142). 

During her time in the mission school Etsu becomes a Christian. She herself explains that it has not been a sudden change but rather a development in her life. For Etsu, Christianity seems to mean freedom and cheerfulness instead of strict traditions and no equal participation as it is the case in customs in Buddhist Japan. 

In one of the next chapters, namely 18, Etsu is already in the United States with her husband encountering “strange customs” (Sugimoto: 175). She visits a concert, for example, and asserts that in Japan concerts differ enormously from concerts in the U.S. There, they are bright and full of life instead of being classical and full of slow movement (cf. Sugimoto: 175). What is also strange and new to her is the way American people deal with money. In Japan women are responsible for the financial aspects of life and they are responsible for buying things for the household, too. In America, although women seem to be freer in every other aspect of life in contrast to Japan, they are dependent on their husbands when it comes to money. They have to ask for money and sometimes the men have to buy things for the household instead of the women (cf. Sugimoto: 177 f.).
In general, it seems that it is very difficult for Etsu at times to live in both worlds, because she says that the “standards of [her] own country and [her] adopted country differed so widely in some ways, and [her] love for both lands was so sincere, that sometime [she] had an odd feeling of standing upon a cloud in space, and gazing with measuring eyes upon two separate worlds” (Sugimoto: 179).

Another almost shocking experience for her is when she enters a bathroom of a friend. In this bathroom a rosary hangs side by side with a magonote. Being still Japanese it is hard for Etsu to understand how a religious symbol can be placed right next to something for one´s body as this would not be in any way possible back in Japan. It is not the case that she judges the person who has done this. It is rather the case that she feels uncomfortable in the situation and is accustomed to another way of acting with religious artifacts (cf. Sugimoto: 184).  

Even though is difficult at times for Etsu to live in America while still being Japanese, I get the feeling that she loves her life in both countries and that the differences are strange, but not that important to her. To her, I think, no society is better than the other.

To come to a conclusion, it seems to me that we can learn in this autobiography that in the author´s point of view Japanese traditions consist of the Buddhist religion with its basis in the old feudal system of the Samurai having strict customs. This can be seen, for example, by the clothes women wore in Japan. The dresses were often very formal, rigid, symbolic and combined with set rules for when to wear what. In contrast to that stands in Etsu´s opinion of the American way of life. For her, Christianity as part of that lifestyle means freedom and a democratic society, where life for women is freer and less rigid. The clothes are less formal and independent from customs, for example.

Also important is the role of women in the two societies. In Japan the woman is more a homemaker and a good housewife who supports her husband. The husband, on the other hand, is responsible for the reputation of his family in the outside world. In American society women are also responsible for the household but they can get a job, as well, and need not only be a wife and mother.

I would like to finish by saying that Etsu Sugimoto´s autobiography interested me a lot and her life impressed me very much. After all, she stayed in the United States and became a lecturer in New York. I think with this autobiography we can get a very good insight in the feelings and developments of Japanese women who underwent a similar fate at the turn of the century. However, we should keep in mind that this is an autobiography and, thus, it only represents one point of view. I think that there are many other stories to tell.

Sugimoto, Etsu. A Daughter of the Samurai. 1925. Honolulu: UP of the Pacific, 2001. 

© 2010 Julia Schulte

book review christianity etsu sugimoto Germany issei literature samurai student university of wuppertal women

About this series

This series of articles come from a Japanese American Literature class in Germany. Bettina Hofmann teaches American Studies at the University of Wuppertal, Germany and contacted Discover Nikkei about her class. She asked her students to write their response to the course - to be published on Discover Nikkei.