Janice P. Nimura author of Daughters of the Samurai

© Lucy Schaeffer

Two years after graduating from Yale, Janice P. Nimura moved from her native Manhattan to her new husband’s native Tokyo. Over the course of three years in Japan—where she worked as an editor and wrote for English-language newspapers—she became both proficient in Japanese and comfortable in her un-dreamed-of role as daughter-in-law to a Japanese family.

Upon returning to New York she earned a master’s degree in East Asian studies at Columbia with a focus on 19th-century Japanese history, and continued to work as an editor and writer, contributing book reviews to newspapers including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsday.

Several years ago, deep in the stacks of the New York Society Library, she happened across a slim green volume titled A Japanese Interior, by Alice Mabel Bacon. It was shelved among dusty Victorian volumes written by peripatetic missionaries or ambassador’s wives, people who had spent a couple of months in Japan a hundred years ago and published their diaries when they got home. Bacon’s book was different: a sharp-eyed account by an unmarried woman who had lived for an extended period in Tokyo in the late 1880s and taught English at the exclusive Peeresses’ School, sharing a house with Japanese women who seemed to be intimate friends of hers, though there was no explanation of how this odd circumstance had come about.

Alice Bacon’s story felt oddly familiar: she came from New Haven, where Nimura had spent her college years; she moved to Tokyo and lived not among expats but in a Japanese household, as Nimura had; she taught at one of Japan’s first schools for girls, founded within a year of the one Nimura attended in New York a century later. Following where Bacon led, Nimura discovered the entwined lives of Sutematsu Yamakawa Oyama, Bacon’s foster sister and Vassar’s first Japanese graduate; Ume Tsuda, whose pioneering women’s English school Alice helped to launch; and Shige Nagai Uriu, the third of the little girls who arrived with the Iwakura Mission in 1872 and grew up in America.

Nimura is the recipient of a 2017 Public Scholar Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities in support of her current work in progress: a biography of Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, pioneering 19th-century doctors. She lives in New York with her husband and two children.