The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutuskake (Review)

Readers who like historical fiction might enjoy Lynne Kutsukake’s The Translation of Love. It’s a historical novel about life in post-war Japan following WWII. The novel focuses on a twelve-year old girl named Fumi who is trying to find her sister Sumiko, who has left home to become a hostess for American GI’s. Along with her friend Aya, a repatriated Japanese girl from the U.S., she writes a letter to General MacArthur in hopes that he will help her. Along the way, we meet several other interesting characters: Kondo, the girls’ homeroom teacher who moonlights as a translator; Matt and Nancy, two military translators who are Americans of Japanese descent; and Sumiko, the missing sister who is trying to make a living and support her family as best she can.

It’s an interesting book that goes back to an era and place that I hadn’t seen. I didn’t realize the extent to which MacArthur’s presence loomed over the Japanese, nor did I know of the history of letter-writing that took place at the time. It’s fascinating. The characters in this novel took a backseat to the historical circumstances of the time. It was less a story of Fumi and Aya, and more a story about the poverty and desperation after the war. Usually I’m not a fan of history-first novels, but in this case, I thought it worked very well.

As a volunteer translator (of Japanese and English) at my kids’ school, part of me thought that it would’ve been interesting to hear Matt or Nancy’s ideas on how language and culture affect how people think and act. That itself would have been a fascinating discussion, although I also think that would have been incredibly hard to portray.

4 thoughts on “The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutuskake (Review)

  1. I didn’t realize the extent to which MacArthur’s presence loomed over the Japanese

    No kidding. The reason why Japan doesn’t accept immigrants while Germany took in a million refugees in just one year is because unlike Germany, where Eisenhower implemented de-nazification, MacArthur let Japan’s war criminals off the hook and allowed them to reenter politics. The result is that German kids learn about the Holocaust in detail and even go on field trips to Auschwitz. Japanese history textbooks, however, downplay or deny Japan’s aggression in World War 2 and the Nanjing massacre is reduced to a 1-2 line footnote. To date, not a single Japanese prime minister has ever visited Nanjing’s memorial to pay his respects whereas German chancellors regularly visit concentration camps and war memorials to honor the people they victimized. Instead, Japanese leaders visit Yasukuni shrine to honor class A war criminals. The fact that Japan’s government has been ruled by one party since the end of American occupation and that its leaders are descended from wartime leaders should ring a resounding alarm bell. Shinzo Abe has promised to uphold his grandfathers’ legacy, which included killing and enslaving thousands of Chinese and Koreans, so the Diaoyutai/Senkaku island conflict is cause for concern.

  2. How much of that divide-and-conquer strategy is intentional in order to divide regions into parcels for easier future conquests? The middle-East and India/Pakistan also comes to mind.

  3. @ aardvark

    MacArthur let Japanese war criminals get away with their atrocities out of political convenience. He didn’t want to risk a rebellion by prosecuting wartime leaders, especially Emperor Hirohito, who the Japanese saw as a living god. He wanted to govern Japan smoothly in order to burnish his credentials for a future campaign for US president.

    But some of MacArthur’s decision may have been racially motivated. In the 1940s, White Americans were nowhere nearly as shocked by the tens of millions of Asians killed in World War 2 as they were about the tens of millions of Europeans who had also died in the conflict. So the Holocaust is given its rightful place in American education and media but most Americans don’t even know or care what Nanjing is.

    As for divide and conquer, it is 100% intentional. When Barack “pivot to Asia” Obama visited Hiroshima, he did not apologize for the atomic bombing. Not because he felt it was morally justified (in fact, I bet he does) but for political reasons. If the US president were to apologize for the atomic bombings, it would take the wind out of the sails of Japan’s national narrative that it was the victim and not the aggressor in World War 2. It would also invite unwanted international attention and diplomatic pressure onto Japanese politicians to apologize for their war crimes. For this reason, Japan’s conservative LDP government is actually secretly opposed to the US apologizing for Hiroshima.

    If a diplomatic cascade of apologies by Japan were triggered, relations between Japan and its Asian neighbors would heal tremendously and cause Japan to politically gravitate towards Asia and especially into China’s camp. As a world empire, America has a vested interest in maintaining its foothold in Asia so it does not want this to happen.

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