The Literary Epicurean Book Club Selection
October 9, 2016
by Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto
Book Description (Courtesy of Goodreads):
A Daughter of the Samurai tells the true story of a samurai’s daughter, brought up in the strict traditions of feudal Japan, who was sent to America to meet her future husband. An engrossing, haunting tale that gives us insight into an almost forgotten age.
Madam Sugimoto was born in Japan, not in the sunny southern part of the country which has given it the name of “The Land of Flowers,” but in the northern province of Echigo which is bleak and cold and so cut off from the rest of the country by mountains that in times past it had been considered fit only for political prisoners or exiles.
Her father was a Samurai, with high ideals of what was expected of a Samurai’s family. His hopes were concentrated in his son until the son refused to marry the girl for whom he was destined and ran off to America. After that all that was meant for him fell to the lot of the little wavy-haired Etsu who writes here so delightfully of the things that happened in their childhood days in far-away Japan.
I found this book absolutely fascinating and highly informative. Through the well chosen words of the author who was born into it, I got a glimpse of aristocratic life and traditions of nineteenth century Japan. While many of the customs mentioned are now outdated, they clearly show the foundation that influenced the Japanese people of today. The author’s later move to America and how she viewed our culture was equally interesting. Two parts that were especially memorable to me were her first experience with meat and first experience with gum, both told in great detail and both highly entertaining.
Book Club Discussion:
Considering most of us thought that this book might be on the dry side (which it wasn’t at all!), we had a very rich discussion and high praise for it.
It is a simple retelling of moments in the author’s life, both in Japan and then in the United States. She experienced not only the shifting of life in Japan in the early 20th Century, but also the transition of culture from Japan to the United States when she moved there with her husband. Her life in Japan with its many rituals and emphasis on holding emotions in check was quite a contrast to her life in America. We were quite taken by those chapters that detailed how she adapted. Though she started life with strict adherence to tradition and living somewhat in a well ordered, predictable bubble, she underwent tremendous change, which, most remarkably, did not seem accompanied by any inner turmoil.
We had detailed discussion about and appreciation for how different Japanese ways are in terms of how they act and think compared to Americans. None of us thought we would appreciate what we saw as the Japanese way of telling you how to live your life, but we have complete admiration for the Japanese qualities of attention to detail, their level of civility and graciousness, and their manners.
She had an interesting writing style in that she told her stories somewhat like a person looking in. Some parts confused us because she seemed to have skimmed over some important details (like when her husband died) and the reader had to do some inferring in order to catch it. All of us being teachers, we especially appreciated her chapters that revolved around her education and how her personality came out more, as well as the chapter that told about how important the education of her daughters was to her and how she had to subtly push that point with her family when she returned to Japan. We especially appreciated the last chapter and her last line: “The red barbarians and the children of the gods have not yet learned each other’s hearts; to them the secret is still unknown, but the ships are sailing-sailing—–” However, at least one member was very disappointed that there was no answer to her burning question about how the author became a professor.
All in all, we enjoyed this memoir that gave us a glimpse into the samurai era in Japan when warriors, wives, and children were required to follow a rigid code of ethics and behaviors, and we came away with a better understanding of the traditions and ways of Japan that permeate the culture today.
Book Club Rating:
Book Club Menu
Japanese Rice Crackers and Mochi
Green Salad with Miso Dressing
California Sushi Rolls, Grilled Chicken, Beef, and Salmon, and Rice
Green Tea Ice Cream and Japanese Cookies