April 2016

Little-known letters of postwar hope spark a poignant historical novel

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From the moment that first audacious thought crossed my mind—I will write a novel!—I knew only one thing for sure: the setting would be Japan.
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From the moment that first audacious thought crossed my mind—I will write a novel!—I knew only one thing for sure: the setting would be Japan.

I’d studied the language and I’d spent time living there. In my career as an academic librarian, I’d specialized in working with Japanese materials. I knew exactly where I wanted my novel to be set. What I didn’t yet know was when

Initially, I assumed I would write about the present. This seemed perfectly logical, as I had already written several short stories set in contemporary Japan. I thought I had lots of ideas for a novel, but each time I sat down to write, I couldn’t seem to work up momentum. I went back to working on my short story collection. Maybe I was not meant to write a novel after all. 

And then I read about the letters sent by the Japanese people to General MacArthur during the Occupation, and I knew I had found my time period. It was the past, not the present, that I needed to explore in the story that would become The Translation of Love

The book that sparked my imagination, Dear General MacArthur by Rinjiro Sodei, is a study of the correspondence sent to MacArthur while he was in Japan. In their scope and variety, the letters were very interesting, but most astonishing of all was this: Altogether, MacArthur received a staggering 500,000 letters from the Japanese people.

Half a million letters? From the people you just conquered? It seemed improbable, absurd, preposterous and . . . well, absolutely fascinating. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Somewhere in this intriguing, little-known piece of history was a novel waiting to be written. I knew that the Occupation period was a time of tumult and upheaval, of great optimism and crushing despair. There was homelessness, starvation, black market profiteering, prostitution. On the other hand, many people were filled with hope for what they saw as a new direction for their country. Democracy and freedom were the hot new catchwords, and learning English was all the rage.

What kind of person would write a letter to MacArthur? The question kept coming back to me. What if that person wasn’t an adult, I wondered. What if she were a young girl? And so I decided to create Fumi, a 12-year-old girl with a desperate need to write to MacArthur. I didn’t yet know what her letter would be about, but I was eager to find out. 

As soon as I had Fumi, I knew she needed a friend, and Aya, a 13-year-old Japanese-Canadian girl, sprang to life. Aya and her father are among the 4,000 Japanese Canadians who were repatriated to Japan after spending the war in an internment camp. As a third-generation Japanese Canadian whose own parents were interned during the war, I realized that Aya’s history was one that I absolutely needed to include. 

I immersed myself in the Occupation period by reading anything I could get my hands on, starting with John W. Dower’s extraordinary Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. I devoured history books, academic studies, memoirs, journalistic accounts, biographies of MacArthur. Anything with photographs made me especially excited. 

During the writing of The Translation of Love, I spent some time in Japan. I walked around the area where MacArthur had his headquarters—the original building is still standing!—and tried to look at the landscape not through my own eyes but through the eyes of my characters. Back home, I did some traveling to places I had never been before. I joined a tour of the Japanese-Canadian internment camp sites in the interior of British Columbia, and I visited a friend in California who took me to see Manzanar, one of the biggest of the Japanese-American internment sites. Each time I came back to my writing after a trip, it was with a stronger sense of the past. Most importantly, I came to appreciate the powerful imprint that history leaves upon a particular place—and upon our understanding of ourselves. 

Recently, I went back to Japan and strolled in the famous Ginza district along with all the tourists. People were taking pictures of themselves in front of Wako, the most luxurious jewelry store in Japan, and I wondered how many of them knew that it had once housed the PX where only the Occupation forces could shop. Everywhere I looked, the streets were clean, the shoppers sleek and well dressed, and the store windows overflowing with abundance. It seemed as if not a single trace of the past remained, and yet I knew that if I listened hard, I might hear the sound of my two young characters—Fumi and Aya—running down a dirty alley that no longer exists.


A third-generation Japanese Canadian, Lynne Kutsukake worked for many years as a librarian at the University of Toronto, specializing in Japanese materials. Her short fiction has appeared in The Dalhousie Review, Ricepaper and Prairie Fire. The Translation of Love is her first novel.


This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Lynne Kutsukake

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The Translation of Love

The Translation of Love

By Lynne Kutsukake
ISBN 9780385540674

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