Early last year, I travelled to Japan. On top of the below zero temperatures and shifts of landscapes with all their shades of white, brown, and green when you take the cross-country trains, a subtle detail stood out for me.
This is the popularity of the hamburg steak. “Hambagu” they call it. Almost all of the restaurants we ate in had a version of the American patty. Some even specialized on it—different variants and set meals on the menu. They cook it in such a way that would put many burger joints to shame. You open up a foil wrapper to delicious rising steam and the sizzling sound of moist ground wagyu.
Reading Lynne Kutsukake’s The Translation of Love enlightened the matter. I know many have been returned from Japan vacations marvelling at how efficient their systems are and how considerate the people can be. Many have credited Japan’s fall after World War II for this. Everyone just banded together in order to build their nation from ruins. Kutsukake brings you to Japan as they were just picking up remnants from their defeat.
Some names are familiar—General MacArthur, Emperor Hirohito. After all, the Philippines had its own brushes with these giants. Although we are aware of MacArthur’s Tokyo tenure in the 40’s, being immersed in American occupation through the novel will make you realize how much shared experiences we have with the Japanese people. Democracy labelled talk in schools as well as goods in underground markets. America as the land of hope while post-war hunger and desperation stroll through Tokyo’s alleys.
The hamburger question was resolved. If a community at one of its lowest points placed the American culture on a pedestal, why wouldn’t their culture (cuisine, specifically) accommodate America’s iconic dish? We’ve seen it in our own culture. Having it on the menu was probably good business strategy to get the soldiers into your store. Perhaps it was a way to tell MacArthur that democracy has truly seeped in the nation’s consciousness.
The three key characters display struggles based on where they lie on the line of tension between Japan and the American ideals. Canada-born Aya was deported back to Japan and navigates her way through the shambles and middle school while her father finds work. Meanwhile, strong-willed Fumi will exhaust all means to find her older sister Sumiko even if it entails asking the help of the new Amerikanjin girl Aya to write an English letter to General Macarthur. Sumiko was working in a dance hall before her disappearance.
Their final attempt to deliver the message across was witnessed by Corporal “Matt” Matsumoto from his office windows. Matt is a Japanese American who enlisted to prove whose side he was really on. He was deployed in Tokyo to translate thousands of letters from the Japanese people to the general. Although he knew that many of the requests will not be answered but made it his crusade to be their best, clearest, and most persuasive voice.
War is a complex thing, celebrated by victors while the losers content with the overturning of their history. Counter-narratives have recently emerged though. The clandestine effects of the American occupation in Asia have been played out on stage through productions like Miss Saigon and Allegiant.
The Translation of Love is another story to add to that list. Japanese immigrants herded into camps in the middle of nowhere in America and Canada. Fatherless and brotherless Japanese women seeking better futures with transient G.I.’s in Ginza. English was given premium in the public square as well as love letters. Everyone was trying to communicate across oceans; may it be an actual body of water or the great divide between people of different languages. Through the misunderstandings and lost messages, one thing becomes clear: people just wanted to feel home. To Fumi, home was in the form of her older sister. Aya needed the assurance she can grow up in Japan. Matt, through his work, was slowly discovering the beauty of the Japanese spirit and resilience.
During our trip, I observed a dapper old man who sat in Kyoto Imperial Palace Park to stare up at the sky for an hour then seal his visit with a bowl of noodles from the lounge. I initially thought that this was an occasional occurrence as I saw him when my siblings and I picnicked in the park on Valentines. But when we circumnavigated the palace on bikes the next day, the man was there again going about the same motions.
Why would the spring sky be so special to him? I can only hazard a guess. Perhaps he knew that the sky no longer had to be won. This, unquestionably, was his home. When you find a novel that enriches your travels long after they have finished, you know you have a keeper.
The Translation of Love is available at Fully Booked Online.
Angel is a bookseller turned museum worker. Beautiful stories, whatever medium they are in, are important to her.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]