Web Extras

From “At Vassar,” Daughters of the Samurai by Janice P. Nimura

All freshmen took Latin, math, and natural history; to this, Sutematsu’s first-year schedule added English composition, German, and elementary drawing. Shige, enrolled as a special student in the School of Music, studied music history and theory, voice, piano, and organ. She also took English composition and French, and a little math in her first year (arithmetic had been a weak spot on her entrance exam). For the first time since those initial months in Washington, the two girls lived together and, at Sutematsu’s insistence, added one more subject to their course of study: Japanese. Every day they would retire to their room for an hour to chat in their mother tongue.

Though she submitted loyally to her friend’s enforced language practice sessions, Shige would much rather have been out enjoying herself. Where Sutematsu was studious and elegant, Shige was excitable and full of fun. As a student she was not particularly distinguished, but she was beloved: indispensable at candy pulls and sleigh rides, or when someone gave a “spread” and ordered ice cream and cake from town. She loved to dance; her rendition of the Highland fling rendered her classmates helpless with laughter. And when they were laid up in the infirmary, it was Shige who came with get-well wishes. “I have no memory of an hour’s indisposition at Vassar that I did not hear the click, click of Singhi’s [sic] funny little walk as she came down the corridor bringing me a pitcher of lemonade and unlimited sympathy,” wrote one friend.

Shige was a regular performer at college concerts, and her interpretations of Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Mozart were always greeted with warm applause; notices in the Vassar Miscellany praised her spirited expressiveness. The well-regarded musician and scholar Frederick Ritter, native of Strasburg, headed the School of Music, and Shige became his student. Though she studied the canon of European classical music, she did not forget the melodies of her childhood. “Japanese arias given me by Miss Shige Nagai,” reads a note scribbled in Ritter’s hand at the top of a sheaf of hand-notated staff paper.

Sutematsu cultivated a different image: graceful but reserved, intellectual, ambitious. She excelled at English and contributed highly polished essays to the Miscellany. She projected an air of cosmopolitanism. To her classmates she looked “like a beautiful Jewess of a poetic type”—less alien, though still exotic. Shige, on the other hand, “was broadly and indubitably Japanese.” While Shige frolicked at blindman’s buff, Sutematsu honed her chess game and beat all her teachers at whist. Another English instructor, Helen Hiscock, described “a sense of reserve power” in the tall, slender girl. “When the class-room was depressed by that ‘sleepiness’ which experienced teachers dread, Stematz[1] could confound her languid American classmates with a brilliant recitation in literature or logic.”

The only time anyone ever saw a flush of excitement on Sutematsu’s calm face was at the college post office, where from time to time she received a letter that had traveled farther than any girl in Poughkeepsie—except Shige—had ever dreamed of going. It might be from Kenjiro in Tokyo, full of politics and international affairs. Or it might even be from Russia. Sutematsu was not the only girl in her family who had been sent abroad—one of her older sisters, Misao, was in St. Petersburg. Separated for most of their lives, the two sisters shared little common experience and no written language: Misao’s life was lived in French. When a letter from this distant sister arrived, Sutematsu convened an informal council of her friends—some to help compose an appropriate letter in reply, others to put it into decent French. Helping Sutematsu was so much more entertaining and exotic than writing their own letters home.

Just as Shige and Ume had always deferred to Sutematsu as their leader, her classmates soon looked to her as well. By the end of her first year she had been elected president of her class for the year to come. “I believe it was on account of her studiousness that she was appointed, or it may have been because she was a favorite, I do not know which,” fourteen-year-old Ume wrote to her mother in Tokyo, betraying perhaps a touch of envy. The accolades had to this point been mostly hers.

When she returned as a sophomore, Sutematsu’s new office required her to address the incoming freshmen at the Sophomore Party, a duty she discharged with notable grace. She was invited to join the Shakespeare Society, reserved for those of literary attainment. Her marks were among the highest in the class, and her company was coveted. Each year the college observed Founder’s Day, a holiday in honor of Matthew Vassar’s birthday; in her junior year Sutematsu was named marshal for the event and led the festivities in Japanese dress. There was something of the fairy tale about this tall, dark girl who insisted she wasn’t a princess: who among the other girls had ever needed to dispel a rumor like that?

The largest student organization on campus was the Philalethean Society, “Lovers of Truth,” founded originally as a literary club. By the time Sutematsu and Shige arrived, the group was responsible for most of the entertainment on campus: recitations, lectures, music, and especially comic dramas. (Love of truth did not extend to trousers; girls playing male roles wore false mustaches but men’s clothing only as far as the waist, over their usual long skirts.) Though Sutematsu refrained from taking the stage in a dramatic role, her name did appear on evening programs in other ways. “Miss Yamakawa’s essay was perhaps the most enjoyable of the exercises,” the Vassar Miscellany reported in the fall of 1880. “She told us of life in a Japanese household, and by her vivid description of some of the scenes of her childhood easily held the attention of all.” Who could match the romance of Sutematsu’s lost childhood world, where “the sacred lotus spread its broad, shield-like leaves” across the surface of an ornamental lake, “no profane shoes were allowed to make their defacing marks” on the soft paleness of the tatami-matted floors, and a small army of pages, maids, gardeners, and gatekeepers kept the expansive compound running smoothly?

[1] Though her New Haven circle always wrote “Stemats,” the newly fledged college girl signed herself “Stematz” and continued to do so for the rest of her life.

© W.W. Norton & Company, 2015