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Book Review: Sword & Blossom: A British Officer’s Enduring Love For A Japanese Woman by Peter Pagnamenta and Momoko Williams

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Madame Butterfly was all the rage on stage. Men were traipsing off to wars and women were left alone to grieve and wait for them. Racism and religious prejudice on both sides of the Atlantic was making Asian immigrants nervous about their future among Westerners. This is a tiny portion of the historical backdrop for a new work of nonfiction: Sword & Blossom.

From the Boer War in South Africa to the Great War in Europe; the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the great flu epidemic of 1918, two British journalists recreate and take the reader into the hamlets and towns of Japan and Europe. We know that their history was intertwined. But what we do not know is how far those vines and roots spread out and encompassed this love story.

A forbidden love affair takes place over three decades between two very different souls. It is based on recently recovered letters dating from 1904 to 1942. We first meet Arthur Hart-Synnot in South Africa sorting out the Boer War for which his father’s participation was celebrated. It is light years away from what he will accomplish over his military life.  Later he will meet Japan and Masa Suzuki, the woman he will love for the rest of his life. When we meet Masa she is a 26-year-old Japanese-born woman taking a chance on a long-shot at love. 

The British were already intrigued by the empire’s jewel in the crown: India. They were well aware of the white man’s burden in Third World countries and how they must conduct themselves — not to be overwhelmed by their own fascination for all things Asian. The British and the Irish needed tutors, guides to achieve a command of the language and culture of the countries to which they were assigned by the army.

Thus there was no pretense of avoiding intimacy when British officers entered into affairs en route to language lessons and dialect mastery in places like Japan. They needed the deep immersion of the language that only living with a native person could provide. The tutor of choice for these men was usually a woman. Why not? This arrangement often led to long-term (sexual) liaisons, between two who were not social equals — heartache and deception was in store for the women involved.

Therefore, the reader wants to believe that this love affair between a British officer and a naïve Japanese woman will be different. It could have been. But Arthur is eventually revealed to be a cold, calculating white man who has used a native woman. It was an opportunity missed for Masa. At one point there is a proposal of marriage and the hopes of her and their son moving to the estate in Ireland. But this never happens. Letter after letter, that numbered in the hundreds in some years, reveal the unfolding tragedy that was to overtake both their lives.

The quotidian for this couple did not include perpetual physical presence and intimacy. Rather it was made up of letters written on special white makigami paper, that rolled out long and thin — like their years of forced separations.  We learn that the heroine will deny herself a lifetime of happiness because she listened too closely to gossip instead of her own heart. She heard stories of racial prejudice that Chinese and Japanese immigrants faced in America. This informed her decision.

However, it turns out that the racism in England was more muted. Masa could have easily overcome this especially in light of the privileged life she would have been marrying into. Masa’s misstep colored the second half of her lonely life. The book is filled with their infrequent reunions. But eventually the reunions cease, only their promise survive. Only hope must have kept Masa’s dream of a married life with Arthur alive. 

Arthur was the descendant of men who had served under the crown in India and Africa. He had much to live up to. The Hart-Synnots were Anglo-Irish landed gentry who made their fortune in the linen trade.  We learn this and more through the extant letters of Arthur and his sister. The majority of the letter references are one-sided, i.e., they are the letters of Arthur to Masa. This is the only way that the authors could reconstruct the story. Included are a few letters from their grown son. This situation in no way compromised the facts, or slanted them in favor of either party. The story has been told, and that is the main thing. It is an extraordinary piece of history recovered.

The co-authors are well-qualified to tell this story. Both have deep connections and research into the Nippon. They weave an even-handed circumspection on both sides. Banzai! The other bon mot for this book: captivating. Its scope intrigued. A lovely landscape of Japan blossoms from a sleepy country to one mature in the art of war. The authors recreate a garden of two lovers not rescued from a landscape that became littered with the bodies of its citizens from a great earthquake and later two atomic bombs.  

The narrative supplied by the authors must fill in the blanks for letters that we are not privy to, that went from Masa to Arthur. This, however, does not diminish its impact on the reader. A well-written, fascinating story holds the interest and makes one forget that here is a true tale of two lives that never fully intersected to the satisfaction of either party. At one point two becomes four. But forces beyond both their control, mostly war, made the story end as it began—one woman living alone. 

This book often waxes poetic, as the reader is treated to some of the long and short poems written by Arthur to either himself or to Masa.  His poetry is well-crafted and the words of his letters (in Japanese) carefully chosen due to his limited command of the language. But the authors, Pagnamenta and Williams, are not limited in their command of the culture of the Nippon and the history of Britain and Japan during these turbulent times.

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