Tsuda College, occupying a leafy campus in the western suburbs of Tokyo, is a private college where female students are educated in languages and the liberal arts. In one corner of the site, overshadowed by the stately trees that surround it, lies the final resting place of Umeko Tsuda, an early pioneer of women’s education in Japan who founded the college in 1900.

Daughters of the Samurai, by Janice P. Nimura
336 pages.
W. W. Norton & Company, Nonfiction.

Most Japanese schoolchildren will be familiar with the story of Tsuda, who was dispatched to the U.S. for a decade-long immersion in Western culture at the tender age of six. Less well known are the tales of the other girls who accompanied her on the Iwakura Mission that began in 1871 — a high point in Japan’s early diplomatic forays overseas during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

While two of the girls were soon sent back, the other three — Tsuda, Sutematsu Yamakawa and Shige Nagai — would spend a full decade in the U.S., eventually returning to find themselves strangers in their own country. In her engrossing new book, “Daughters of the Samurai,” Janice P. Nimura uses their stories as a window into the growing pains of a nation that rushed to embrace, then later wrinkled its nose at, Western-style modernization.

“They were chosen, basically, at random,” Nimura says, speaking from her home in New York, where she works as a literary critic and sometime history teacher. “There was no aptitude test to see whether they were fit — by pure chance they happened to have the intellect, the grit and the charm to be successful.”

Tsuda may have left the most enduring legacy, but her fellow “Iwakura girls” also played their part in advancing the cause of women in Japan. Sutematsu excelled at school and college in the States, then became an influential figure in Meiji high society when she married Iwao Oyama, the country’s minister of war.

Shige may have been less ambitious, yet she managed to raise a brood of six children while continuing her career as a music teacher — the prototypical working mother.

In retelling the women’s stories, Nimura had plenty of source material to draw on. During her years in the U.S., Sutematsu maintained a regular correspondence with the youngest daughter of her foster parents, Alice Mabel Bacon, and also penned numerous essays about her life in Japan. Meanwhile, the adult Tsuda chronicled her Japan experiences in a stream of letters to her foster mother, Adeline Lanman, which would continue for three decades.

“They all found incredible release in writing letters in English back to their friends in America,” says Nimura, describing these missives as being almost like “therapeutic journals.”

“You get these letters that, for Victorian letters, are remarkably frank and have real voices in them.”

There were, however, gaps in the record. Much of Sutematsu’s correspondence was lost when her family home was destroyed in bombings during World War II; Shige’s family holds an archive of material that it has yet to make available to the public; and at Tsuda College, where the founder is revered almost as a patron saint, Nimura found that she had to tread carefully.

“The archivists there are devoted to her legacy — and who am I?” she says. “I’m some gaijin chick who walks in and says, ‘I want to know everything about Ume!’ They’re not sure that I’m going to be respectful.”

While admitting that it’s an enormous generalization, she says that Japanese biographers tend to be more deferential in their treatment of historical figures.

“Americans like their narrative nonfiction and biographies more warts and all,” she says. “There’s more, like, ‘I want to know Lincoln on a bad day.’ ”

Nimura’s first introduction to the tale of the “Iwakura girls” came via a chance encounter in a New York library with Alice Mabel Bacon’s 1893 memoir, “A Japanese Interior.”

“(The story) just sort of crept up on me and then overtook me,” she says.

Her interest wasn’t purely academic. Married to a Japanese man who had been raised in the U.S. since the age of 3 — she jokingly describes him as a “changeling child” — Nimura could empathize with the challenges faced by these Meiji Era returnees. She also saw parallels with her own experience of moving to Japan in the mid-1990s shortly after graduating from Yale University, and struggling to find a place for herself in a community where she recalls feeling as though she were “living in the 1950s.”

“My husband used to joke when we first moved back that I should just print my resume on my shirt,” she says with a laugh.

“I would get frustrated that I was being dismissed as, you know, an expat wife.”

It’s hard to read “Daughters of the Samurai” without wondering what the architects of the Iwakura Mission would have thought of today’s Japan, currently languishing at 104th place in the Global Gender Gap Report.

Nimura describes the struggles faced by some of her female Japanese friends, who are trying to pursue professional careers while raising families, as “kind of horrifying.”

What of Shinzo Abe’s much-touted “womenomics” plan?

“I keep noticing that parallel,” she says. “In Abe’s hands right now, it’s sort of like, ‘Women are the key to Japan’s health in the future.’ Well, that’s sort of why they sent girls with the Iwakura Mission — this idea that maybe women are part of the solution. It’s not a new idea, but it’s new all over again, and that’s dismaying that it is still a new idea.”

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