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Review: The Translation of Love
February 14, 2016

The Translation of Love
Lynne Kutsukake

Lynne Kutsukake skillfully constructs her first novel, The Translation of Love, around the aftereffects of World War II on Japanese in the US and Canada, as well as in occupied Japan. The internment of Japanese and citizens of Japanese descent living in North America has become well-known, but the fact that life did not return to “normal” immediately after their release from the concentration camps is not so well-known. Of course, the war devastation was at a horrific level in much of Japan, especially in Tokyo, where day-to-day living was often an incomprehensible struggle.

The main character in the novel is Aya Shimamura a thirteen year-old Japanese-Canadian. She and her parents were forced into a camp at the beginning of the war. There, the injustice was compounded by the tragic death of her mother. After the war, her embittered father, realizing they could not return to their home, takes his daughter to Japan. That repatriation to war-torn Japan was the better of the options speaks to the deep feelings of injustice and discrimination during and after the war. Aya, who speaks only some Japanese, is placed in a middle school. Of course, as an ultimate outsider, she is picked on and shunned. However, one of her worst tormentors, Fumi, becomes her ally and eventually her friend when Aya agrees to write a letter in English to General MacArthur, the leader of the occupation forces, asking him to find Fumi’s older sister, Sumiko, who has gone missing.

One of the little known facts of Occupied Japan is that General MacArthur received thousands of letters from the Japanese, written personally to him and translated by several fulltime staff, who were mostly Japanese Americans. One of them in the novel, Cpl. Matt Matsuyama, describes the letters:

Dear General MacArthur, the letters would begin. … Topics ranged far and wide: sugar shortages, land reform, the difficulty in obtaining train tickets, the evils of prostitution, the lack of adequate housing, the high cost of soy sauce, women’s rights, corruption among city officials, gambling, smoking in elevators, the need to liberalize taxes. … Some letters were long—page after page of tiny Japanese characters like rows of dark seeds—and some were short, no more than a line: We wish you good health, or Welcome to Japan. Some were not kind: Get out, Americans. Some letters were written in blood.

After Aya writes Fumi’s letter to MacArthur, the two girls decide they need to deliver it personally. They skip school and wait along the route with hundreds of others who gawk at the car delivering the general to his office at precisely the same time every day. They are thwarted at delivering the letter, but Matt sees them. They give the letter to him with a plea to ask the general to find Sumiko. Matt is sympathetic but of course the general won’t do a thing about a missing Japanese woman, especially one who is a dance hall hostess. Yet, he remains intrigued and enlists the help of Nancy Nogami, one of the typists in the translation staff, to see if they can find Sumiko. A Japanese American, Nancy was stuck in Japan for the war because she was visiting relatives there just before it started.

Meanwhile, Aya and Fumi’s teacher in middle school, Kondo Sensei, must deal with the truant students. The teacher wants the best for his students, but suffers loneliness and poverty. He makes some money on the side with his English skills, writing letters especially for forlorn Japanese women who believe their GI lovers told them the truth that they will return to bring them to America and get married. We also learn why Sumiko has disappeared through a shift in point of view to her story. In her life at a dance hall and the seedier bars of Tokyo, she is trying to make a living to help her family when things go terribly wrong.

The lives of the main characters intertwine intricately as the story progresses. Kutsukake is an accomplished writer, adroitly handing the dark effects of discrimination, hunger, poverty, and disease after the war. The success is slightly diluted when one storyline is too easily resolved, and while the main characters are sympathetic, perhaps one recurring villain would have spiced up the plot. But, all-in-all the novel is an engaging and compelling read.

COMMENTS

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Jo Reed
Just in time for Valentine's Day ... appropriate given the title!

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