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From a Japanese American Literature Class at a German University

Living and loving two cultures

This semester I attended a course called Japanese Americans at the University of Wuppertal. At the beginning of the semester I had no previous knowledge concerning the topic, but as it was declared to be a cultural studies course within our literary studies program, I thought it would be very interesting to get to know a totally new culture. During the semester we got to know a lot about the history and the living conditions of Japanese living in America. We had two sections about the history and we talked about several Japanese authors who wrote about Japanese living in America. Of course it only was a basic insight into this huge topic, but nevertheless we learned a lot about the Japanese culture as well as the problems the immigrants faced when they came to the U.S. and had to adapt to a totally different culture.

The author who impressed me much was Etsu Sugimoto. We read parts of her autobiography A Daughter of the Samurai (1927) and talked about it in the course. Etsu Sugimoto spent her childhood in a province in the north of Japan in a very traditional family. She came to the US because her family arranged a marriage with a Japanese who was living and working in the US. In her autobiography her way from a traditional household in Japan to modern life in America is described in an authentic way, as she writes about her own experiences.

Sugimoto had the first contact with western culture in a mission school in Tokyo that she visits to prepare herself for her life in America. Here she starts to compare western culture with her traditional Japanese culture. Some of the teachers were women from America who behaved totally different from the traditional Japanese teachers Sugimoto knew before. She describes their outward appearance as different but very beautiful as one can see by the following quote: “a strange dress, tight black shoes, fair skin untouched by the cosmetics which we considered a necessary part of dressing, and the various colors of hair arranged in loose coils and rolls, were suggestive of dim visions I had about fairyland” (Sugimoto 120). At the beginning she interprets the familiar attitude between the young teachers and students as lack of respect, but soon enough she gets accustomed to this and likes it. In one situation she concludes about what is different between the Japanese and the American woman and compares them with flowers, which are so important in Japanese culture.


…the Japanese woman—like the plum blossom, modest, gentle, and bearing unjust hardship without complaint—is often little else than a useless sacrifice; while the American woman—self respecting, untrammeled, changing with quick adaptability to new conditions—carries inspiration to every heart, because her life, like the blossom of the cherry, blooms in freedom and naturalness.

(Sugimoto 139)


At this point she decides to become a bit more like the American woman. She wants to become a Christian and leave the Buddhist religion more or less behind. In her eyes the Buddhist religion is dictated by traditional customs, whereas Christianity means freedom and cheerfulness. Nevertheless it is no either-or decision. She is not interested in theological problems, but in personal freedom. She does not leave all her Buddhist tradition behind.

The first part of her autobiography shows that Sugimoto did not claim her own culture to be the only good one. Even when she still is in Japan it can be seen that she is interested in the unknown western culture and that she leaves for the US without negative prejudices, which is the best condition to integrate into a new country.

I will now talk about some episodes of the book that describe her life in America. Again I will point out the contrasts between the American and the Japanese culture Sugimoto detects. One example is the meaning of flowers in Japan and in America. Japanese people would never send flowers to a sick friend because they fade and that would be a bad omen. (cf. Sugimoto 197) An American friend of Sugimoto comments on this “Oh, what a pleasure your poor invalids in hospitals are losing.” (Sugimoto 197) This is only a trifle in the end, but it shows how different these two cultures are. Sugimoto often experienced little things she could not understand because she tries to explain everything with Japanese standard. That means, she is looking for the origin of habits and traditions and wants to learn about their meaning:


Such as why ladies kept on heir hats in church while men took theirs off; what was the use of the china plates which I saw hanging on the walls of some beautiful houses; why guests are taken to the privacy of a bedroom and asked to put their hats and cloaks on the bed—a place that suggested sleep or sickness; [ … ] what originated the merriment and nonsense of Hallowe´en and April Fool´s days, and why such a curious custom exists as the putting of gifts in stockings—stockings, the very humblest of all the garments that are worn.

(Sugimoto 180)


Another example for differences between both countries is a concert. At a concert in Japan the singers are always men, sitting motionless, without movement of body or change of facial expression. In the US Sugimoto experiences a different way of concert, namely a female singer who moves around on the stage, doing a completely different type of music. But again Sugimoto appreciates. “That to my untrained ears was a strange and marvelous discord, but the most wonderful thing that I had ever heard in my life.” (Sugimoto 175) She simply accepts it to be different, but nevertheless beautiful.

Another striking example is the gender roles in both countries. In Japan, the husband is the lord of the family, but the wife is responsible for the home and has to manage the money according to her own judgment. She has financial autonomy. In America she experiences that women have to ask their husbands for money. “It seemed incredible here in America, where women are free and commanding, that a woman of dignity and culture, the mistress of a home, the mother of children, should be forced [ … ] to ask her husband for money” (Sugimoto 178). This does not fit to her conception of the American woman.

After a lot of conversations with American people Sugimoto realizes that Americans have the same problem in understanding the Japanese as the other way around (cf. Sugimoto 200). A striking example for this circumstance is the tradition of kissing and bowing. For an American it is hard to understand that even husband and wife do not kiss each other and that bowing can express deep love, whereas a Japanese cannot understand why people kiss each other. Sugimoto quotes her mother who told her: “I have heard, my daughter, that it is the custom for foreign people to lick each other as dogs do” (Sugimoto 193). That is how people in Japan could perceive our concept of show love and friendship.

Sugimoto realizes that this very old country of Japan with all the old traditions mainly looks back into the past, whereas America, in contrast to Japan a very young country, is looking into the future. “Perhaps [ … ] it would be better not to look back with such pride to a glorious past; but instead, to look forward to a glorious future. One means quiet satisfaction; the other, ambitious work” (Sugimoto 201).

Sugimoto does not decide between Japan and America. Even when both are contrary in many ways, she loves both of them. She describes both as different worlds: “Sometimes I had an odd feeling of standing upon a cloud in space, and gazing with measuring eyes upon to separate worlds” (Sugimoto 180). She had to accept that it is not possible to describe, or moreover to explain, American behavior by Japanese standard. She had to learn, that traditions and origins of customs did not count in America, whereas in Japan everything has a reason. Everything “points back to some well-known tale of how and why” (Sugimoto 180) in her mother country.

Etsu Sugimoto is an example of a woman who came from Japan to America without prejudices. Even if it was not her decision to leave Japan, she is an example of how integration could work. She does neither condemn her mother country, nor the country she adapts to. A fact that has not been mentioned up to now and that is extremely important in my opinion is that Etsu Sugimoto did not make friendships with other Japanese that came to the US, but she had friends who grew up in America and had no Japanese ancestors either. In doing so she had the possibility to learn much about the new culture. Etsu Sugimoto managed to integrate into a totally different culture without forgetting about her past and the culture she was growing up in. She could love both, because she did not force herself to make an either or decision.

I know that Etsu Sugimoto came to the US more than 100 years ago, and that not everything can be transferred to the situation today, but nevertheless Etsu Sugimoto can function as an good example how integration should work. I would recommend A Daughter of the Samurai to everyone who is interested in Japanese and/or American culture because Sugimoto describes both in a very interesting way. Furthermore I would recommend it to everyone who plans to leave his home country for a living abroad, even if it is not Japan or America, because Sugimoto´s attitude towards a living in a foreign country can be a model for everyone.



Sugimoto, Etsu Inagaki. A daughter of the Samurai . 1927. Honolulu: UP of the Pacific, 2001.

© 2010 Christiane Gross

a daughter of the samurai etsu sugimoto Germany literature university of wuppertal

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.