In the history of the 20th century, the internment of Japanese-Americans following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor stands out as a shameful period for U.S. democracy. But the U.S. was not alone in their treatment of citizens of Japanese descent. Canada also instituted the large-scale internment, though they took the matter one step further than the U.S. In 1946, 4,000 Japanese-Canadians were repatriated to Japan, forcing them to uproot their lives and move to a country experiencing extreme hardship and turmoil.
What was that experience like for the thousands of men, women and children working to build new lives in the aftermath of World War II? In her new novel, The Translation of Love, Lynne Kutsukake explores this time in Japanese and Canadian history through the eyes of the people living during this challenging post-war transition.
The narrative centers around two young girls: Aya Shimamura, who has lived her whole life in Canada but is repatriated to Japan with her father, and Fumi Tanaka, a Tokyo native who takes Aya under her wing and is searching for her missing sister. Together, the girls attempt to contact General MacArthur, launching them on a journey through post-war Japan’s complex reality.
Paste chatted with Kutsukake to discuss the history behind the novel, her own relatives’ experience with repatriation and hope amidst grim conditions in an occupied Japan.
Paste: Can you share some of the historical context for the novel?
Kutsukake: In the period right after the end of the [Second World War], 4,000 Japanese-Canadians were repatriated to Japan. Just before the war ended, the Canadian government gave the Japanese-Canadians who were in internment camps in British Columbia only two choices. One was to move east of the Rocky Mountains and to disperse, so as not to form a community. The other was to go to Japan. It was a time of great confusion and, obviously, panic. Many of them weren’t given very much time to make this decision, and a lot of families didn’t know what to do. It was pretty emotionally traumatic, I think.
I wanted to write about the early period, because during that early period in Japan, conditions were grim. There were severe food shortages, especially in urban areas. If you lived in the city, you relied on food being brought in. The rationing system had broken down. If you had only eaten the amount of food you were allowed under the ration system, you would have starved to death. And so everyone had to rely on other methods of getting extra food, especially the black market.
Paste: You are a third generation Japanese-Canadian. How did your own connection to this part of Canada’s past shape the story?
Kutsukake: I was born after the war, but my mother and my father were born in Vancouver. They didn’t know each other at the time, but each of them had gone to internment camps in British Columbia. But my grandparents on my mother’s side [were repatriated] to Japan. Two years after arriving, my grandfather died, and then a few years later, my grandmother had to be brought back to Canada.
The story is entirely fiction, but I have this connection to this particular part of history that I don’t think many people know about. I think most people are quite familiar with the internment of Japanese-Canadians and Japanese-Americans. But in the case of Japanese-Americans, they were allowed to return to the west coast. It wasn’t easy. There was a lot of discrimination and many of them were going back to absolutely to nothing at all. But they were legally able to return to the west coast, to where they came from.
In Canada, they were not allowed to return to within 100 miles of the Pacific coast until 1949. Incredible when you think about it. Politics was at play, clearly. A lot of racism and a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment. British Columbia politicians running very racist campaigns were determined to keep the Japanese-Canadians from returning, and that’s why the government gave them this ultimatum. Many did eventually return to Canada, because life in Japan was pretty hard for all kinds of reasons—economically, but also culturally. They were Canadians.
Paste: One of the themes that stood out in the novel was the many layers of change—people and countries shifting, and the tension that comes with that. On the micro level, you have a young girl adjusting to a culture that’s at once her own and totally new, while on the macro level Japan is in a huge state of flux.
Kutsukake: There’s a central irony to the fact that the U.S. occupation brought democracy to Japan. Prior to that, it had been a fascist state. The constitution they wrote in Japan right after the end of the war had many wonderful, democratic components. They were bringing democracy to Japan; that was the main reason they had occupied. But at the same time, there was the irony of what the American government had done to their own citizens of Japanese descent throughout the war.
I wanted my characters to embody that irony. I thought that each of the characters has had a kind of different experience through the war and into the aftermath of the war, and I wanted their experience to echo off each other in different ways.
I purposely made the two main characters young, 12 and 13, because I like that age very much. It’s a period of transition when you’re not a child really anymore but you’re not an adult either. It’s that passage from innocence into knowledge. But also, I liked the idea that Fumi is 12 for a very particular reason. I don’t know how widely this is known, but MacArthur referred to Japan as a nation of 12-year-olds. The phrase he used was, “If America as a nation can be likened to a grown man of 45, then Japan as a nation is like a boy of 12.” It always infuriated me.
Paste: Fumi and Aya, in a sense, are trying to confront the very center of power when they try to communicate with General MacArthur. What do you feel that means, in terms of history and the story, to have these two young girls coming face to face with authority?
Kutsukake: MacArthur received many letters from ordinary Japanese people. What we think of as a kind of reticent, docile society, when given the chance, they started writing letters directly to him. It’s quite astonishing to think of the range of correspondence that was sent him. To my knowledge, I don’t think he replied to anything. But the idea that so many people—500,000 letters, that’s an awful a lot—would be writing all sorts of things, many of them asking for his advice and many asking directly for help. So Fumi gets this idea that she will do the same. I liked the idea of a kid writing a letter, not an adult. But also without realizing it, by writing the letter, she’s challenging the authority of the occupation. Because maybe if the occupation wasn’t here, her sister wouldn’t have gone away.
Paste: The 70th anniversary of the forced repatriation is coming up in Canada. Do you feel fiction has a role to play in helping people both understand and process what happened?
Kutsukake: Fiction has the role of making every individual reader connect with another person’s story. In this case, hopefully I’ve made my characters real enough that readers will connect both intellectually and emotionally with the things that they go through. I think that if this tiny corner of relatively unknown history—history perhaps only known among Japanese-Canadians—becomes clearer to people who read the book, that would be great. But I didn’t write a book setting out to explain history.
I wanted to write about the occupation period from the perspective of the people who we don’t often think about—from the perspective of Japanese-Canadians and Japanese-Americans, who, for different reasons, found themselves in Japan in this particular time. A time that was extremely turbulent and full of great change, but also a time that was full of immense potential and hope, because no one quite knew which way it was going to take off and how it was going to move. I think most people were just glad the war was over and to have survived. I was trying to get at that hope that people have. You just pick up and try to move forward.