During the 17th century, the third shôgun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, isolated Japan from the rest of the world because he feared outside influences would cause problems between the shôgun and the feudal lords. He didn't want trade, weapons, or other religions to interfere with the ruling of the Tokugawa shogunate.
During the Victorian era, Japan was still ruled by the shôgun, and had continued to cut itself off from the rest of civilization without interruption. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy, sailed four ships into the Tokyo harbor and demanded the country open its ports and start trading with other nationalities. Japan did not have a navy to defend itself, so it was forced to comply, and thus opened up to other countries.
In order to better familiarize itself with Western ways, the Japanese government launched the Iwakura Mission between 1871 and 1873. They sent 100 statesmen and scholars to study politics, education, technology, and other issues in order to modernize and pull itself out of isolation. Among those traveling to the United States were five young Japanese women. They learned English, grew close to their foster families, and became some of the most successful women of their time.
If you think the Iwakura Mission is fascinating, check out the state of Japan after World War II and some of Japan's strangest trends.
According to Janice P. Nimura, author of Daughters of the Samurai, the five girls who were chosen to travel to the United States as part of Japan's Iwakura Mission were picked randomly. They didn't apply to travel to America or go through an official approval process - often their families signed them up without consulting them at all.
Nimura explained during an interview with the Japan Times:
“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.”
When she was eight years old, Sutematsu Yamakawa's samurai family supported the ruling Tokugawa shogunal government. During the siege of Wakamatsu, Sutematsu and other women and children supported the battle from inside the Aizu castle while the men fought imperial forces outside. During the clash, Sutematsu was hit by a piece of shrapnel and had a permanent scar on her neck. Ironically, General Oyama, whom Sutematsu would later marry, was a member of the opposing imperial forces. He liked to joke with his wife that she was responsible for the shell that him him during the battle.
Sutematsu Yamakawa moved to America at the age of 11. She lived in Connecticut with Dr. Leonard Bacon, who was an antislavery activist and minister. She enrolled at Vassar College in 1878. She became president of her class during her sophomore year, graduated magna cum laude, and was ranked third in her class. She was the first Japanese woman ever to earn a college degree.
Sutematsu Yamakaw struggled to remember how to speak her native language after spending so much time in America. While she communicated in Japanese with her friend Shige Nagai, another one of the girls sent to the United States as part of the Iwakura Mission, Sutemasu was never again fluent. She returned to Japan following college graduation and married Count Iwao Oyama, Japanese Minister of War, in 1883. He was raised to the rank of prince and as such she took on the title of Princess Oyama. She was a volunteer nurse for the Japan Red Cross Ladies’ Volunteer Nursing Association and the Ladies’ Patriotic Association and used her nursing skills in 1904-05 during the Russo-Japanese War.