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'The Translation of Love' seeks meaning amid the heartache of post-war Tokyo

This debut novel by third-generation Japanese Canadian writer Lynn Kutsukake presents resonating testimony to humanity’s resilience.

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The Translation of Love
By Lynne Kutsukake
Doubleday
336 pp.

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World War II is over, but the struggle to survive remains a daily battle for too many residents of 1947 Tokyo. Debut novelist Lynne Kutsukake gathers a remarkable cast from three countries in The Translation of Love, through which she teaches little known history, pulls at the heart strings, questions authority, and – of course – tells a spellbinding, magnificent story.

In a first-year middle school classroom in Tokyo, two girls are assigned to share a desk, although weeks pass before their close proximity turns into genuine friendship. The teacher chooses Fumi Tanaka to “look after your new seatmate,” Aya, recently arrived from America. “Take care of her,” he intones. “Make sure she knows what to do.” Aya Shimamura is Canadian, her most familiar language is English, and she’s spent most of the war years imprisoned in her birth country for no other reason than her Japanese ancestry.

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By the spring of 1945 even before war’s end, Japanese Canadians were given two choices: “Go east of the Rockies and disperse, or go to Japan ... no Japanese Canadians would ever be allowed to return to the west coast.” For Aya’s father, the war has cost him too much, including his wife, their home, his livelihood. Feeling too broken to start over, reeling from the “hate” all around, he signs the papers to repatriate which “gave the [Canadian] government what it wanted – the ability to deport him.”

Sent “back” to Japan where Aya had never been, “[e]verything ... was worse than she could possibly have imagined.” At school, she is the pariah “repat girl,” whose strange Japanese isolates her further. Her English, however, is what motivates Fumi to make a desperate request: Her sister Sumiko – 10 years older – is missing.

In order to help the family withstand post-war deprivations, Sumiko went to work among the occupying American GIs. Months have passed since Fumi last saw her, and she’s convinced that General Douglas MacArthur – Tokyo’s most famous resident – can help, as MacArthur is rumored to personally read the thousands of letters he receives from Japanese citizens.

Some letters offer gratitude and praise. Others are filled with anger and complaints. Most ask for something impossible. Fumi is convinced that a letter could make miracles happen – and enlisting Aya’s help in writing the missive finally cements the girls’ growing bond. The letter lands in the hands of Matt Matsumoto, a Japanese American who is part of a pool of US Army personnel charged with translating the Japanese letters into English. Directly and indirectly, the letter will affect the lives of many.

First, there's Sumiko, who “discover[s] the other part of herself, the part that had been hidden behind the good girl and dutiful daughter.” Then there's Nancy, a typist in Matt’s office, who just wants to go home to her family in the US but remains trapped in Japan since her US citizenship was wrongly revoked during the war. There's also Kondo, the girls’ middle grade teacher working hard to instill lessons in democracy as demanded in the new post-war curriculum, and Aya’s father Shimamura, an “enemy alien” on both sides of the world, who was robbed of “his dignity and his honor and his pride and his sense of self-worth and still it wasn’t enough.”

Even after the bullets and bombs have disappeared, post-war Tokyo – caught between being occupied by the enemy and the desperate need to rebuild a shattered country – remains a battleground of clashing cultures, divided morals, tragic misconceptions, and more. In this conflicted landscape, the need for translation – beyond the word-for-word – couldn’t be more immediate: the growing conversations between Fumi and Aya; a scrawled note in English on the back of a Japanese photo; Matt’s devoted renderings of Japanese voices for American comprehension; Kondo’s extracurricular work in Love Letter Alley in which he delivers either salvation or devastation arriving in thin American envelopes for desperately waiting Japanese recipients.

As a former librarian who studies and translates Japanese literature, third-generation Japanese Canadian Kutsukake makes an ideal cipher for exploring multiple meanings and misunderstandings between the citizens of two nations attempting to negotiate toward peace. Thoughtful and discerning, “Love” presents resonating testimony to humanity’s resilience.

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Once governments have declared winners and losers, the ordinary people are left with the challenge to adapt, reclaim, hope, renew their everyday lives – somehow, they must move beyond mere survival. “How should a man live?” a letter from an elderly Japanese writer beseeches MacArthur. One by one, each of the characters will learn, “Just day by day. Going forward.” Some stumble, some stop, some succeed. “And then? Just live.”

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.