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Bringing the Worlds of Nihonjin and Nikkeijin Together: An Interview with Lynne Kutsukake

A Japanese schoolgirl with an older sister who goes missing. A Japanese Canadian classmate who is willing to help the first girl with her search by writing a letter. A Japanese American Nisei translator working under General MacArthur who reads their letter and decides to take action. The lives of these characters (and more) intersect in the post-WWII occupied Tokyo of Lynne Kutsukake’s novel, The Translation of Love (2016). It’s a book that skillfully gathers disparate characters under the profound question, “How should a man live?”

A former librarian, Kutsukake’s Japan is rendered in exacting detail, from keepsake stones from Canada’s Slocan Lake to the shapeless blue monpe pants worn in wartime Japan. The novel also benefits from a poetic sensibility. “Absence was not emptiness or nothingness,” a character muses in the wake of her mother’s absence. “It was the opposite. Insistent and ever present.”

Kutsukake was kind enough to answer a few questions below about her book and its writing for Discover Nikkei.

* * * * *

Tamiko Nimura (TN): One of the most exciting aspects of this book is its connections between Japan and the Japanese diaspora—Japanese nationals, Japanese Canadians, and Japanese Americans. Other than Ruth Ozeki’s book A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING, I’m not sure I’ve seen many other books that make these connections. It’s a lot to tackle but it’s also a great selection for Discover Nikkei readers. Can you describe the research and writing process for this book?—timeline, difficulties, rewards?

Lynne Kutsukake (LK): When I first began writing my novel, I wasn’t at all confident that I would finish. I had been writing short stories, and the idea of writing something as long as a novel seemed very daunting to me. But I wanted to write about Japan during the Occupation period, and this was a topic that I couldn’t “fit” into the size of a short story. So in a sense the subject matter dictated the form. Specifically I wanted to write a story built around the astonishing fact that General Douglas MacArthur, when he was supreme commander in charge of the occupation, received a total of half a million letters from ordinary Japanese citizens! The sheer volume of mail was staggering, and it set my imagination on fire. Who would write such a letter? What if I created a character who writes to MacArthur? What kind of person could it be? What if that character were a twelve year old schoolgirl? And so forth.

Once I decided on Fumi, my twelve year old Japanese schoolgirl, I wanted her to have a friend, someone who would help her write the letter. I wanted someone who knew English. And so I created Aya, a Japanese Canadian girl who was interned during the war and then “repatriated” to Japan with her father. The idea of sending a letter to MacArthur also allowed me to include the world of the Japanese American Nisei who worked for the Occupation, either as part of the military or as locally hired foreign nationals.

The story of the Occupation period is often told from the perspective of the (white) American GI. Or it’s a binary dichotomy of Japanese versus American. Instead I wanted to write a novel that would allow me to look at Japan through the eyes of Nikkeijin—Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians who found themselves in Japan during this dramatic time period. Nobody thinks about what it was like for Nikkeijin, yet their perspective was unique. The novel was a way for me to bring the worlds of Nihonjin and Nikkeijin together. I also wanted to write about the ironies of “democracy”—the hypocrisy of America bringing democracy to Japan when it had incarcerated Americans of Japanese ancestry during the war.

For my research I did as much reading as I could, seeking out anything I could get my hands on about the Occupation period—scholarly books, personal memoirs, magazine articles, conference proceedings. Of course, I also did a lot of reading (much of it re-reading) about Japanese Canadian and Japanese American history.

I’d been back and forth to Japan many times, so I already had a strong sense of the main setting for my novel. But I had never been to any of the internment sites. By chance I heard about a bus tour of the ghost town camps in the interior of British Columbia, so I joined. I was really glad that I did. There is something about being there in person that is very special, very emotional. The same can be said for my visit to Manzanar. When I visited a Sansei friend who lives in LA, the first thing she suggested was that we drive out to Manzanar. I had seen it in photographs before but to see it in person was a unique and moving experience.

TN: What was the easiest part of writing the book? The hardest? And why?

LK: To be honest, everything was hard! Much of the book was written through trial and error, trying to figure out what would work. I am sure that is the way it is for many people. I don’t write from an outline, and that means that sometimes you have to write a lot, only to discover that you may have to discard a lot. Two things were especially challenging. One was creating the right balance among all the different characters; there were many times when I worried that I had too many voices. The other thing was plot. I’m not naturally very good at developing plot, so that was hard.

TN: A bit of a flip side to the last question: What got left out of the book, and why?

Lynne Kutsukake

LK: I discovered that in writing historical fiction one is forced to leave out lots of interesting material. You simply can’t use all the things you learn in your reading and research, for reasons of narrative flow or characterization or whatever. It’s a novel, not a history book. For instance, I wasn’t able to include all the complexities about military service for Japanese American men in the camps, about how not everyone was a keen volunteer. Many were actually drafted from internment camps. Drafted! It’s so incredible and so appalling. In my novel, the older brother of my character, Matt, is someone who volunteers to serve in the 442nd, but clearly there are many other fascinating stories about those who were forced to serve and also about those who resisted.

TN: In the book’s Acknowledgments, you mention several history books that helped your writing. Are there other books that you would recommend to Discover Nikkei readers that influenced your writing? (They could be about the wartime/postwar experience, or other fiction books, etc.)

LK: I’m a great admirer of many Japanese American and Japanese Canadian writers. Here are a few fiction titles that have meant a lot to me:


  • Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being
  • Julie Otsuka, When the Emperor was Divine
  • Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, Why She Left Us
  • Joy Kogawa, Obasan
  • Kerri Sakamoto, The Electrical Field
  • Mary Yukari Waters, The Laws of Evening


TN: For aspiring Nikkei writers, can you talk a bit about your path to publication?—first, where and how have you learned your craft, and then how you found your agent and publisher? What advice do you have for these writers, especially in a publishing climate that sometimes resists these kinds of stories?

LK: I’m a really late bloomer and came to writing after having had a career as a librarian. I started by taking creative writing courses in a continuing studies program at the University of Toronto (which is where I was working as a librarian). I also attended a workshop at the Banff Centre, and enrolled in a one-to-one correspondence course through the Humber School for Writers. Although I never got an MFA, through all of these programs I was able to work with great authors and meet wonderful fellow student writers. When I had finally finished the draft of my novel, I told one of my former instructors and she introduced me to her agent. It was such an act of incredible kindness on her part. I feel extremely fortunate.

The only advice I have for others is to keep persevering and to believe in yourself. You have a story only you can tell and you have a style of writing that is uniquely yours. There are a couple of good lessons you often hear in writing classes: (1) tell the story that only you can tell and (2) write the story that you yourself would like to read. Those are good things to keep in mind.


© 2016 Tamiko Nimura

author book review Douglas MacArthur fiction Japan occupation postwar The Translation of Love World War II