The Translation of Love, by Lynne Kutsukake, takes the reader to a defeated and American occupied Japan at the end of the Second World War. General MacArthur is overseeing the transition of a country steeped in tradition and submission to a modern democracy. Amidst their shame at the outcome of the war, and still coping with their devastating losses, the indigenous population attempt to embrace the changes required of them as they battle to survive any way they can.
Fumi is a twelve year old schoolgirl whose older sister, Sumiko, had been supporting their family by working in a dance hall in a seedy area of the city. The work was regarded as demeaning, requiring the pretty young women employed to dress and act in a manner pleasing to the American GIs on whose custom they relied. When Sumiko fails to come home their parents will not talk to Fumi about what might have happened or where she may be sought. They wish to protect Fumi from the truth of the life Sumiko had been living. Fumi is desperate to find her beloved sister, who from a young age had cared for her while their mother worked, so decides to take matters into her own hands.
Aya is a Japanese-Canadian whose father chose repatriation when the war ended. Having spent the war years doing forced labour, before joining his daughter at a prison camp when his wife died, he harbours resentment at how they were treated by the adopted country which turned on his family and took everything they had. He is determined to make a better life for Aya in Japan. Aya feels cut off from all she knew and loved. The friendship Fumi offers is her lifeline.
Kondo is the girls’ teacher. His salary is meagre so he works as a translator during his free time. Most of his commissions come from dance hall girls. They wish to write to their GI boyfriends or discover the contents of letters the men have sent after their return home. Often the news is not of a promised ticket to enable a reconciliation but a final dismissal. American girlfriends or wives have been rediscovered and taken precedence.
Corporal Matt Matsumoto, a Japanese-American GI, is also a translator. His job is to process the endless letters that the locals send to General MacArthur who has told the people that they should write to him if they have a problem, that this is what democracy means. Matt knows that the letters are filed rather than acted upon. When Fumi gives him a letter begging for help in finding her sister he decides to try to do what he can himself.
As each of these characters’ lives intersect the clash of cultures comes to the fore. Japan is teetering on the brink of collapse with everything in short supply. Family businesses have been destroyed, the city reduced to rubble, morale is low. The only means of making money for food is via subsistence trading, the black market, or to be of service to the occupying forces. The Americans, with their chocolate, chewing gum, western clothes and ideas, are despised for their conduct but reverred for the plenty they represent.
The war caused each side to treat those they regarded as the enemy with barbarity. Now individuals are starting to rediscover their humanity, even as they condemn the perceived behaviours of those different from themselves. The author brings alive the differing mannerisms of the east and west and how these are seen by the other, the confusion and resentments that arise when divides are crossed.
Although providing a fascinating lesson in history and culture, the story is of people. It is a love story but not a romance. Despite the privations it is suffused with hope. A beautifully told tale, poignant yet uplifting to read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Black Swan.