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Summary

Summary

An emotionally gripping portrait of post-war Japan, where a newly repatriated girl must help a classmate find her missing sister.


After spending the war years in a Canadian internment camp, thirteen-year-old Aya Shimamura and her father are faced with a gut-wrenching choice: Move east of the Rocky Mountains or go "back" to Japan . Barred from returning home to the west coast and bitterly grieving the loss of Aya's mother during internment, Aya's father signs a form that enables the government to deport them.

But war-devastated Tokyo is not much better. Aya's father struggles to find work, compromising his morals and toiling long hours. Meanwhile Aya, born and raised in Vancouver, is something of a pariah at her school, bullied for being foreign and paralyzed when asked to communicate in Japanese. Aya's alienation is eventually mitigated by one of her principal tormenters, a willful girl named Fumi Tanaka, whose older sister has mysteriously disappeared.

When a rumor surfaces that General MacArthur, who is overseeing the Occupation, might help citizens in need, Fumi enlists Aya to compose a letter asking him to find her beloved sister. The letter is delivered into the reluctant hands of Corporal Matt Matsumoto, a Japanese American serving with the Occupation forces, whose endless job is translating the thousands of letters MacArthur receives each week. Matt feels an affinity toward Fumi but is largely powerless, and the girls decide to take matters into their own hands, venturing into the dark and dangerous underside of Tokyo's Ginza district.

Told through rich, interlocking storylines, The Translation of Love mines this turbulent period to show how war irrevocably shapes the lives of people on both sides--and yet the novel also allows for a poignant spark of resilience, friendship, and love that translates across cultures and borders to stunning effect.


Author Notes

Lynne Kutsukake worked as a librarian at the University of Toronto, specializing in Japanese materials. Her short fiction has appeared in The Dalhousie Review, Grain, The Windsor Review, Ricepaper, and Prairie Fire. Her first novel, The Translation of Love, was published in 2016.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 4

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* More than half a million Japanese citizens sent letters to General MacArthur during the American occupation of Japan following WWII, and Kutsukake uses that fact as the framework for her first novel. Twelve-year-old Fumi enlists Aya, a new girl in school, for help with a letter asking the general to find Sumiko, Fumi's older sister. Aya has a good command of English because she grew up in Canada, from where she and her father were deported after spending time in an internment camp. Corporal Matt Matsumoto, a Nisei born and raised in the U.S., has a job translating the letters that pour into occupation headquarters. Kondo, Fumi's middle-school teacher, moonlights in Love Letter Alley, reading and writing letters for young women desperate to contact GIs who have returned to the U.S. What Fumi doesn't know is that Sumiko is not actually missing. Instead, she works in a dance hall in Tokyo's Ginza district and uses the money and gifts she receives (a peck on the cheek might yield a jar of peanut butter) to help support her family. Kutsukake skillfully weaves these characters' varied perspectives together to create a vivid and memorable account of ordinary people struggling to recover from the devastations of war.--Quinn, Mary Ellen Copyright 2016 Booklist


Publisher's Weekly Review

Kutsukake's moving debut novel focuses on the intertwining stories of several protagonists in post-World War II Tokyo. Matt, a Japanese-American military man, and Kondo, a middle-school teacher with considerable language skills, both ply their trade by translating letters: Matt for General MacArthur, who has invited the Japanese people to mail him their thoughts, and Kondo on the black market, where he works weekends writing letters for lovelorn women to their G.I. boyfriends. Twelve-year-old Fumi, one of Kondo's students, finds herself befriending the shunned Aya Shimamura, who was sent to live in Japan after internment with her father in a Canadian camp. Aya's mother had committed suicide by drowning, and Aya keeps the stones that had been found weighing down her pockets. Fumi is desperate to find her older sister, Sumiko, who left the family to work as a bar girl in order to provide food and medicine for them. With Aya's strong command of English, Fumi writes to MacArthur to ask him for help with locating Sumiko and bringing her home. The characters further intersect when Fumi asks Matt for help getting the letter to MacArthur. Kutsukake's story is consistently engaging, though a smattering of unlikely plot points can be distracting. The result is a memorable story of hope and loneliness with a cathartic ending. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Library Journal Review

This poignant first novel is set in post-World War II Japan during the American occupation. Told from multiple viewpoints, it is a story of nationality and identity, family and friendship, love and loss. Twelve-year-old Aya and her father have been repatriated to Japan after their release from a Canadian internment camp. Aya struggles to fit into an unfamiliar country where even though she looks like everyone else, she is viewed as an outsider, a "repat," an "Amerikajin." Aya is befriended by Fumi, who asks her to write a letter to Gen. -Douglas -MacArthur seeking help in finding her older sister, Sumiko, a dancer in the Ginza district. The girls' teacher, Sensei Kondo, moonlights in "Love Letter Alley" translating letters between Japanese women and their American GI sweethearts. Meanwhile, Cpl. "Matt" Matsumoto, an American nisei (second -generation Japanese American), translates missives addressed to MacArthur. These characters, all struggling with issues of self-discovery, are -eventually united through the search for Sumiko. VERDICT Through this coming-of-age tale Japanese Canadian Kutsukak, a former librarian, offers a fresh perspective on life in postwar Japan. An excellent choice for readers who loved Jamie Ford's The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. [See Prepub Alert, 10/26/15.]-Catherine Coyne, Mansfield P.L., MA © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


School Library Journal Review

Beautifully written, this novel examines the complexities of post-World War II Japan for the Japanese and the Americans living there as part of the occupation. The citizens face shortages of food and medical supplies. Discrimination and mistrust are everywhere-especially toward Japanese Americans who have been forced to repatriate, the women who became romantically involved with American soldiers, and the biracial children who resulted from those liaisons. Despite difficulties, the characters find the inner strength and resiliency that they need to survive. Teens will relate to the complex friendship that develops between 13-year-old Aya, who was born in Canada yet was sent "back" to Japan, and her tenacious classmate Fumi, who enlists Aya to write a letter in English to General MacArthur asking for help in finding her missing older sister. Other translators in the novel include the girls' teacher, Sensei Kondo, who supplements his income translating letters, and Corp. Matt Matsumoto, who finds himself haunted by Fumi's letter. Both men appreciate the hope behind each letter and believe their role is to give a voice to those who have none. Readers seeking more in-depth details about this dark period will want to read Charlotte Taylor's The Internment of Japanese Americans and Yoshiko Uchida's Picture Bride. VERDICT An engaging piece of historical fiction highly recommended for leisure reading and to support the history curriculum.-Sherry J. Mills, Hazelwood East HS, St. Louis © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Tokyo, 1947 The car is in a parade all by itself. Traffic must stop whenever the boy's father travels, so the road is completely empty. Crowds line the street to watch them. Normally the boy is not allowed to ride in the big Cadillac, the special car reserved for work, but today is special. Today the boy is in the parade, too.   It is a short ride to GHQ, General Headquarters, the office from which his father rules Japan.   "Look at all the people!" The boy raises his finger to the car window. He sees a tiny old woman in a gray kimono, a sunburned man in a white shirt and black pants, a mother with a baby strapped to her back.   "Arthur, don't point."   The voice is firm but not harsh. Even when it reprimands him, it is the voice he loves. "Yes, Father," he murmurs and steals a glance at the figure seated beside him in the backseat. His father has not turned his head once since they got into the car, not toward the boy or toward the crowds.   "Your mother explained about the photographers, didn't she?"   "Yes, sir." He will have his picture taken with his father, and it will appear in all the newspapers and magazines in America.   "You're not nervous are you, Sergeant?"   "No, Father."   "That's right. Nothing to be nervous about. Just a few photos. You should be yourself. Act natural."   "Yes, Father."   "When we're finished, your mother will meet you and take you to the PX. The photographers may want to take more pictures of you. Maybe your mother will get you one of those special hamburgers. Would you like that?"   His father's mouth takes the shape of a smile, but the boy cannot see his eyes. The dark lenses of the sunglasses reveal nothing.   Up ahead, the boy spots two girls lining the route. He can't help noticing other children, especially if they look at all close to his own age. Suddenly one of the girls breaks from the crowd and dashes onto the road. She is heading straight for them, as if she means to run directly in front of the car's path. There is shouting, loud cries in an unintelligible language.   The girl is close to the car now, close enough for the boy to see her eyes. She is staring right at him, locking her wild gaze on him, and he finds he cannot turn away. Then as abruptly as it started, it is all over. A Japanese policeman grabs her and her body snaps backward as if she has reached the end of an elastic band. The boy cranes his neck to see what is happening. He wants to turn around and look out the back window, but he doesn't dare. He wants to tell his father what he has seen, to share this extraordinary thing that has happened on this extraordinary day, but General MacArthur is chewing on the end of his pipe, deep in important and private thought.     1 Ever since her sister had gone away, Fumi looked forward to the democracy lunches with a special, ravenous hunger. The American soldiers came to her school once a week with deliveries, and though she never knew what they would bring, it didn't matter. She wanted it all, whatever it was. Sometimes it was powdered milk and soft white bread as fluffy as cake. Sometimes it was a delicious oily meat called Spam. Occasionally it was peanut butter, a sticky brown paste whose unusual flavor--somehow sweet and salty at the same time--was surprisingly addictive. The lunch supplements supplied by the Occupation forces reminded her of the kind of presents her older sister, Sumiko, used to bring in the days when she still came home. Fumi's hunger was insatiable, and although she couldn't have put it in so many words, some part of her sensed that her craving was inseparable from her longing for her sister's return.   All the pupils knew that the lunches were to help them think clearer, think freer. To become creative and independent. On very rare occasions, hard-boiled eggs were distributed. Eggs were a special treat, high in protein, and while not strictly speaking an American food, they were said to make you democratic faster. They were Fumi's favorite. Throughout the war and ever since the surrender, fresh eggs had been in extremely short supply in Tokyo, almost impossible to obtain except at great expense in the black market.   She knew today was an egg day because Akiko's younger brother Masatomi had spotted the army jeep at the end of recess and a GI had given him one. From that moment on it was all Fumi could think of. Under her desk, out of Kondo Sensei's sight, she cupped her hand in her lap and pretended she could already feel the weight of the egg in her palm. It was nature's most perfect food, she'd decided, for what else came in its own self-contained package, a smooth thin shell that peeled off in sheets to uncover the slippery skin inside.   The eggs were especially coveted because the Americans never seemed to bring enough to go around. The other items--the milk, the bread, the peanut butter--could easily be stretched so that everyone got something, but an egg was an egg. The elementary grades were served first and inevitably there was a shortfall by the time the older pupils like Fumi, who was twelve and in the first year of middle school, had their turn. On the last egg day, despite jumping up as soon as class was dismissed, she had been pushed out of the way by two larger girls who were determined to beat her to the line. She vowed she wouldn't make the same mistake again. Strategy was key. This time she planned to use her smaller size to her advantage, to slip between everyone's legs, crawl on the floor until she was through the door, and then run down the hall to where the makeshift distribution table was set up.   So Fumi simply couldn't understand why, today of all days, she had gotten stuck with looking after the repat girl.   ***   The new girl had arrived shortly before noon. There was a sharp rap at the door and the principal, who was rarely seen outside the teachers' office, stepped into the classroom. Everyone automatically stood up, bowed in his direction, and remained standing while he and Kondo Sensei conferred in low whispers. The principal was a short, stout man, not much taller than most of the girls in their all-girls class, and Fumi couldn't help noticing that he stood on tiptoe when he was speaking into Kondo Sensei's ear. After this brief consultation, the principal returned to the doorway and reentered, this time followed by a girl who hunched her shoulders like an old woman and hung her head so low no one could see her face. She looked miserable.   "This is your new student," the principal said aloud. He was speaking to Kondo Sensei but now everyone could hear.   "I see."   "Shimamura. Aya Shimamura." He jerked his chin in the girl's direction. "She'll start today."   "Yes, sir. But as the term has already started--"   "Please. Do your best." The principal turned and walked away. It wasn't clear to whom this last remark was addressed.   There was a moment of confusion, with some of the girls continuing to bow toward the empty doorway through which the principal had retreated. Kondo Sensei rapped his pointer on the side of his desk.   "Class, rise!" he said, even though everyone was still standing. "Let's welcome our new classmate, Miss Aya Shimamura."   They bowed formally, but not quite as low as had been required for the principal. After all, this was only another student.   "As of today, Miss Shimamura will be joining our class. We are very lucky." He paused as if uncertain how to continue. "She is from America."   This remark caused an almost electric charge to flow through the classroom.   "From America," he repeated, his voice stronger. "As you are all aware, the mastery of English is one of the goals of our new middle-school curriculum, and I am sure that Miss Shimamura will be able to make many helpful contributions toward this end."   He paused and looked from left to right until his eyes fell on the desk Fumi shared with Akiko in the center of the front row. Briskly he tapped his pointer on the side where Akiko sat.   "Right here. Miss Shimamura, you can sit at this desk. Fumi, it will be your responsibility to look after your new seatmate. Take care of her. Make sure she knows what to do."   Fumi immediately sat up straight. What about Akiko, she wanted to protest. But Akiko had already gathered her books and Kondo Sensei was directing her to a desk at the back.   No sooner had everyone gotten settled than a bell began ringing and Kondo Sensei looked at his watch. He sighed and set his pointer lengthwise across his desk.   "Very good. Class dismissed for lunch."   Fumi was halfway to the door when she heard her name.   "Miss Tanaka!"   The other girls rushed past her and stampeded out of the room.   "Sensei?"   "What are you doing? Come here. Did I not give you a special responsibility?" He tipped his head in Aya's direction.   "But, Sensei, it's an egg day."   "Well, take her with you and help her get something." He picked up a book from his desk and left.   The new girl was frozen in the same hunched posture she had assumed as soon as she sat down, her forehead within inches of resting on the desk. They were alone in the classroom.   "You heard the teacher. Come on!"   The girl did not move or give any indication that she heard or understood.   "Get up, let's go! We have to hurry or we'll miss out." Fumi leaned over and put her mouth next to Aya's ear. "What's wrong with you? Are you deaf? Get up!"   Still the girl didn't budge. Instead, she seemed to be trying to retract her head into her neck like a turtle. Something about that ridiculous action infuriated Fumi and she grabbed the sleeve of Aya's blouse. "Get up!" Fumi tugged once, twice, and on the third tug the thin material tore right off at the shoulder. For the first time the girl came to life. She burst into tears and ran out of the room.   ***   "How's your new friend?" Akiko's laugh sounded a bit malicious.   "Yeah, the repat." Tomoko snickered.   "How should I know?" Fumi muttered.   "My mother says the  imin  shouldn't have come back. The immigrants eat all our food. There's not enough to go around." Tomoko spoke with authority.   "Stupid  imin ," Fumi said. "She can't even talk."   "Do you think she knows Japanese?"   "She can't even move, never mind talk."   "Stupid.  Baka ."   " Imin no baka. "   Fumi was beginning to feel a bit better. She'd debated running after Aya, but hunger led her to the distribution table, just in case something was left. As she expected, everything was gone. By the time she joined her classmates, they had finished eating and were gathered under the shade of the big oak tree in the far corner of the schoolyard. Her own lunch, minus the hard-boiled egg she had so looked forward to, had been a millet "rice ball," which she'd had to eat very fast because she was late. She could still feel it stuck like a hard stone in the middle of her chest just below her breastbone. It hurt a bit when she laughed. Akiko and Tomoko were laughing, too, and didn't seem to hold it against her that she had to sit next to the  imin . The three girls joined hands to form a circle and swung their arms back and forth, higher and higher, acting as childishly as the elementary pupils with whom they shared the yard.   Just as Fumi was starting to get a bit light-headed, she felt Akiko and Tomoko let go of her hands and in the spot where they had been standing Kondo Sensei appeared. He stepped directly in front of Fumi and slapped her hard on the cheek with his open palm. Fumi felt the entire schoolyard go quiet and still. Her cheek burned. Although she'd been disciplined many times at school before, this was the first time by Kondo Sensei, the new teacher.   "What did you do to Aya Shimamura!" he shouted. His face was mottled purple right up to his receding hairline, and his thick glasses had slid to the end of his nose.   "She wouldn't move." Fumi began to cry.   "Is that any reason to tear her clothes! How am I going to explain this to the principal? I had to send her home. On her first day!"   There was an audible gasp from Akiko, Tomoko, and the other pupils who were nearby.   "I didn't mean to." She could hardly get the words out between sobs. "She wouldn't get up. I missed my egg."   "Nobody cares about that." Kondo Sensei turned to the other students. "What are you staring at? Go back to the classroom. Immediately! Go!"   The girls began running away before he had even finished talking.   "As for you, Fumi Tanaka, you stay here. Stand facing this tree and don't move until I come back to get you. Do you understand?"   At that, he turned and marched back to the main entranceway, little puffs of dust rising behind his heels.   Fumi kept her head hung low for the rest of the afternoon just in case Kondo Sensei was looking out the window to check up on her. The sun was warm, flies buzzed around her head, and the sand in the schoolyard blew up into her eyes. Her cheek stung for a long time, a prickly tingle like millions of tiny pins. To distract herself, she tried pretending that each tingle was a grain of white rice, that she was being showered mercilessly with buckets of rice. But it didn't really help. So instead she thought about how the shiny oval bald spot on the back of Kondo Sensei's head looked just like an egg.  This  made her feel much better.   It was all the fault of the stupid new girl. Why had Fumi gotten stuck with her? Why hadn't Aya been paired with Sanae? Skinny, ugly Sanae who might be the smartest in the class but who had bowed legs and unsightly blotches on her face. Or Tomoko who was the prettiest, no one could argue with that, but who had a stuck-up nature. For that matter, why not Akiko? At least her father had a proper job. In her mind, Fumi went through the list of all the things she was not. Not the prettiest, not the most popular, not the best at sports, certainly not the one with money. She knew that to most people she was just an average ordinary girl. But her sister had always told her she was special, and whether it was true or not, Fumi missed hearing it. She missed Sumiko and wished she knew how to find her and make her come home. Excerpted from The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.


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