Header Image

The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake

Post Date: September 17, 2016 by josiemounsey

In the immediate post-WWII period, the people of Japan were bewildered by their new reality as the country began to shift from a feudalistic and militaristic society to one endeavouring to embrace more democratic and individualistic principles.  Observers were baffled by the swiftness of transformation in a society that had vowed to fight to the death.  But, as pointed out by Ruth Benedict in her study of Japanese culture, ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword’ published in 1946, the Japanese felt a deep sense of obligation to their Emperor and when he urged the people to “bear the unbearable,” surrender and build a peaceful Japan, they immediately complied.


Kutsukake’s debut novel takes us to war-ravaged Tokyo of 1947, where ex-soldiers beg on the streets wearing their ‘defeat uniforms,’ and the population struggles to find enough to eat.  Despite the harshness of their lives, crowds line the streets in all weathers to pay homage to General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the American occupation force as he is driven to and from work.  (On a recent trip to Japan, I was amazed to hear the Japanese still talking in reverential terms about MacArthur.)


Like thousands of other Japanese who wrote to General MacArthur seeking help with a multitude of problems, 13-year-old protagonist, Fumi Tamaka, wants the General to find her missing sister, Sumiko, who was working in Ginza’s seedy dance halls.  To translate her letter into English, Fumi enlists the help of her schoolfriend, Aya Shimamura, known as the ‘repat girl’ who, still grieving for her dead mother, has been repatriated with her father to Japan from Canada after spending time in an internment camp.


The narrative has interlocking storylines, one of which is that of Corporal Matt Matsumoto, a Japanese-American working for the Occupation force, whose job it is to translate the deluge of letters addressed to General MacArthur.  Matt also grieves – his brother died in Europe fighting for his adopted homeland of the United States.  When Matt reads Fumi’s letter, he decides to search for Sumiko himself.


Seen through the eyes of Fumi and Aya, the novel touches on what life was like in a Japanese school, with descriptions of ‘democracy breakfasts,’ where pupils eat spam, white bread, and hard-boiled eggs, supplied by the Americans.  Hard-boiled eggs were said to “make you democratic faster”!


Answers to some questions are deliberately left for the reader to fill in, adding intrigue and food for the imagination.  Does Matt harbour deeper feelings for his boss, Lieutenant Baker?  Did Sumiko become a panpan girl?  What did Aya wish for when she painted in an eye of the Daruma?


However, the narrative does not dig far enough below the surface veneer of a once-proud nation, and the passive voice in which the novel is written fails to make the reader feel the pain and despair as a defeated population struggles to survive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *