The Translation of Love

Written by Lynne Kutsukake
Review by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi

This touching and thought-provoking debut novel follows the storylines of several Japanese, Japanese-American, and Japanese-Canadian characters living – and sometimes barely surviving – in Japan during the post-World War II American occupation. The stories weave together to create a wide-ranging, detailed portrait of the civilian Japanese experience before, during, and after the war.

Central to the story is General Douglas MacArthur. As one character observes, MacArthur seems almost to replace the emperor in the eyes of the Japanese people. In his role as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, MacArthur invites the Japanese to write him letters, and they respond in astounding numbers.

Pervading the novel is a constant sense of dislocation. Aya, a Canadian schoolgirl whose mother died while the family was interned, has been “repatriated” to Japan with her father but speaks virtually no Japanese. Corporal Yoshitaka “Matt” Matsumoto is a second-generation American who joined the army from an internment camp to prove his loyalty, and, now part of the occupation force, uses his rusty language skills to translate those letters to MacArthur. Matt’s coworker and fellow American citizen Nancy Nogami was visiting relatives in Japan in December 1941, and so was never allowed to return home. For the native Japanese, the social and cultural dislocation they face in their occupied country is seismic and stark.

This seismic shift in culture is most clearly illustrated through the stories of Fumi, who gradually befriends Aya, and Fumi’s sister Sumiko, who naively accepts employment at a dancehall, which immediately turns into indentured servitude. When Sumiko can no longer return home, Fumi and Aya write a letter to MacArthur to beg for his help in finding her.

Kutsukake has created a nuanced, empathetic but unsentimental story that considers what it means to rebuild an identity, both as an individual and as a nation.