A Daughter of the Samurai: A Memoir

Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto’s memoir from the early twentieth century lives inside one of the great cultural collisions of the modern era. It spans her girlhood in Japan living through the final collapse of the samurai tradition and the Western-mania that swept Japan to her arranged marriage and life in America. Much was lost and much was gained, and Sugimoto recounts both with clarity, compassion and charm.

On the ship coming to San Francisco she is mortified by the amount of skin the ladies show when dining and dancing. Yet like another great traveler, Herodotus, Sugimoto knows that culture is king. “The customs of all countries are strange to untrained eyes, and one of the most interesting mysteries of my life here is my own gradual but inevitable mental evolution.”

The beauty and elegance of the traditions she recounts from her girlhood will leave you haunted by a sense of what we have cast aside. We have no rituals with meaning. No roles that matter. No values that bind. But Sugimoto insists (and shows) that much was gained.

Contrasting her early childhood in Echigo with her time in a Westernized school in Tokyo, she writes:

“There the wildness was only constant repression, but here at the school everything was filled with the uplifting freshness of unrestrained freedom. This I enjoyed with a happiness so great that the very fact that such happiness could exist in the human heart was a surprise to me.

One section of this wild ground the teachers divided into small gardens, giving one to each of the girls and providing any kind of flower seeds we wanted. This was a new delight. I already loved the free growth of the trees, and the grass on which I could walk even in my shoes, but his “plant-what-you-please” garden gave me a wholly new feeling of personal right. I, with no violation of tradition, no stain on the family name, no shock to parent, teacher or townspeople, no harm to anything in the world, was free to act. So instead of having a low bamboo fence around my garden, as most of the girls had, I went to the kitchen and coaxed the cook to give me some dried branches used for kindling. Then I made a rustic hedge, and, in my garden, instead of flowers, I planted — potatoes.

No one knows the sense of reckless freedom which this absurd act gave me–nor the consequences to which it led. It had unloosed my soul, and I stood listening, while from a strange tangle of unconventional smiles and informal acts, of outspoken words and unhidden thoughts, of growing trees and untouched grass, the spirit of freedom came knocking at my door.”

The wisest traveler can fall in the love with the culture they find without forsaking the culture they left bind.

A classic more than worthy of its reprint. (The Modern Library)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *