This novel is set in post-war Japan. It describes life in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat, focusing on the impact on individual lives. Aya Shimamura, 13, was released from a Canadian internment camp and repatriated to Japan with her father. She is enlisted by a classmate, Fumi Tanaka, to write a letter to General MacArthur asking for his help in locating Fumi’s older sister, Sumiko, who was working at a dance hall as a companion to American soldiers. The letter is received by Matt Matsumoto, a Japanese-American working for the Occupation forces as a translator. He and a colleague decide to search for Sumiko themselves.
What stands out in the book is the situation of the Japanese both during and after the war. The Japanese in Japan lost so much: property, livelihood, family members. The lesson that they learned is “’that everything you have can be taken away from you in an instant’” (190). Because her family has been reduced to poverty, Sumiko takes a job to help but that job leaves her at the mercy of an unscrupulous dance hall owner and ruins her reputation. Mixed-race children of Japanese mothers and American fathers are unaccepted and abandoned.
Japanese-Canadians, like Aya and her family, lost everything; her father lists all the belongings taken from him and adds, “They took his dignity and his honor and his pride and his sense of self-worth” (148). When Aya and her father arrive in Japan, they are not welcomed; the opinion is that the immigrants “’shouldn’t have come back. The immigrants eat all our food’” (6 – 7). Aya is called “the repat girl” and is bullied and shunned by her schoolmates.
Japanese-Americans also face discrimination. Matt’s brother fought and died in Europe to prove his loyalty to the U.S., but Matt is turned away from an American bar in Tokyo by Japanese doormen even though he is clearly a G.I. One of Matt’s co-workers is a Japanese-American who was in Japan looking after a family member when the war broke out; because she entered her name “in the family registry in order to get a ration card’”(93), she is no longer considered American and has been waiting for years to have her American citizenship reinstated.
A major theme is how people continue after war has devastated their lives. One of the letters sent to General MacArthur is written by an 85-year-old man: “Ever since the beginning of this terrible war, I have been plagued daily by the same question: How should a man live?” (287). An answer of sorts is suggested: “In the end there was only the task of moving forward, one step after another, making your way through the dust and dirt of living” (309 – 310). Of course some people do not have the strength to continue, hence the reference to suicides, but that advice to live “Just day by day. Going forward. . . . Just live” (310) applies to many situations where people are faced by catastrophic events.
The perspective offered by this novel is unique. I have read Obasan by Joy Kogawa which focuses on the predicament of Japanese-Canadians during World War II, and I have also read Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson which highlights American anti-Japanese sentiments following World War II. The Translation of Love sheds light on the events in Japan following the war. The book is well-written, interesting, and informative and should be read along with the other two novels.