- “Japanese Women Are Like Volcanoes”Trans-Pacific Feminist Musings in Etsu I. Sugimoto’s A Daughter of a Samurai
This essay offers a transnational feminist interpretation of Etsu I. Sugimoto’s A Daughter of a Samurai (1925). The predominant reading of Sugimoto’s autobiography as an early Japanese and Asian immigrant autobiography overlooks Sugimoto’s critical feminist examination of Japanese and US white women in the early twentieth century. In this way Sugimoto took part in a vibrant trans-Pacific discussion of modernity and gender in a unique and telling way.
Sugimoto’s autobiography lays the groundwork for an emergent transnational feminist imaginary, one that occurred within a set of very specific cultural, historical, and racialized conditions and contexts. As one of the few Japanese female authors writing in English at this time, Sugimoto challenged the pervasive aestheticized and orientalized images of Japanese women as docile, submissive Madame Butterflies and geishas, remarkably during a period of heightened anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States. Daughter of a Samurai was published in 1925, just a year after the passing of the 1924 National Origins Act, which was aimed at cutting off the immigration of Japanese laborers to the United States. The publishing of her autobiography after the National Origins Act and within the context of American stereotypes of Japanese women may have contributed to the interpretation of Sugimoto’s autobiography as assimilating to and accommodating the United States: her text shows no explicit signs of a critique of US treatment of Japanese immigrants or any real criticism of US racism experienced by herself, her daughters, or other Japanese. Her identity as an elite Japanese woman differentiated her from the Japanese American laborers who were the targets of US exclusion, and her autobiography’s tales of growing up in Japan conformed to white western stereotypes and expectations of the docile and gentle Japanese woman, so popular at the time. While such critiques are valid, I want to argue [End Page 57] that they situate Sugimoto’s autobiography within a nation-centered reading of race. Because the autobiography has been mostly read as an ethnic immigrant autobiography, Sugimoto is often interpreted through what writer and poet Meena Alexander explains as a selfhood that is defined as “being under the sign of America.”1 Ethnic minorities in the United States, as always interpellated by US ideologies of race and American exceptionalism, often find themselves “unselved,” which I take to mean that all other forms of identity or identifications are erased in favor of an identity that reifies US ideologies of race and exception. In the case of Sugimoto’s autobiography being under the sign of America identifies her as a Japanese immigrant woman who desires to become an American. A transnational feminist interpretation of her autobiography in the context of cultural and literary exchange between Japanese and American women historically, however, makes integral a reading of gender beyond national boundaries.
Sugimoto’s autobiography is particularly reflective of the types of representations of Japanese women that were made by the West and the United States. Sugimoto skillfully deploys a number of tactics through narration and prose that challenge American women’s so-called feminist beliefs about themselves and about “unprogressive” Japanese women who rely upon the West for their liberal education. I offer a reading of the autobiography as revealing the ways Japanese women’s autonomy was made both through and yet outside of US women’s influence in Japan and the United States, from the feminist movement in Japan to the effects of Christian women’s missionary work on Japanese women. At the same time, I argue in the rereading of the autobiography as an emergent transnational feminist text, we see more clearly a critique of US modernity and hegemony.
a daughter of a samurai: literary butterfly and cultural ambassador
A Daughter of a Samurai recounts the life of Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto, born in 1878, just ten years after the Meiji Restoration (1868). Sugimoto was the daughter of a samurai, a Japanese aristocratic class that was disappearing in modernizing Japan, and her life typifies the lives of many in her generation, born within the changes brought on during the Meiji...