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book review

In 1946, Ruth Benedict published her groundbreaking study of Japanese culture, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. The book quickly attracted attention for its examination of the paradoxes surrounding America's wartime enemy. Why had the Japanese chosen to continue fighting even when they were losing? Was it possible to square their apparently equal devotion to death and beauty? Though based on interviews with Japanese-American immigrants, for years it served as the primary field guide for American forces in Japan – a country that remained, to many, shrouded in myth.

Lynne Kutsukake's debut novel is set in the same year that Benedict's book appeared – though, unsurprisingly, it never crosses the radar of her 13-year-old protagonist. Aya Shimamura has just been released from a Canadian internment camp and repatriated to Japan with her father. Arriving in American-occupied Tokyo while still grieving the loss of her mother, she faces an uncertain future in a culture reeling from the humiliation of defeat.

To further complicate matters, Aya is enlisted by classmate Fumi to help her solve a family mystery. Here the narrative divides into interlocking storylines. One follows the beautiful Sumiko, Fumi's missing older sister, who has been lured into the seedy back alleys of the Ginza district to work in the dance halls as a companion to American soldiers. The other follows Corporal Matt Matsumoto, a Japanese-American working for the Occupation forces, whose job is to translate some of the thousands of letters addressed to General MacArthur.

Fumi plans to send a letter to the general asking him to help find her sister. Although the Emperor has been retained, it is MacArthur who attracts the fanatical devotion of hundreds of desperate ordinary citizens, and MacArthur who Fumi believes can bring Sumiko safely home. Instead, her letter, translated by Aya, finds its way to Matt, who decides to try to find Sumiko himself.

More than half a million American troops remained in Japan during the Occupation, and Kutsukake's exploration of the complex identities of Japanese-Americans, both at home and abroad, is compelling. Like Aya, Matt is grieving – his brother died in Europe, fighting to prove his loyalty to the United States – and struggling to navigate life as a foreigner in Japan (even in his GI uniform, he is turned away from an American bar by Japanese doormen). While haltingly pursuing a friendship with one of the office secretaries, there are also suggestions that he harbours deeper feelings for his lieutenant.

For Aya – known by her classmates as the "repat girl" – school is equally perplexing. Kutsukake offers a lively description of the "democracy lunches" donated by American soldiers to the students, who are told that eating Spam, white bread and peanut butter will help them "think clearer, think freer." Hard-boiled eggs are a special treat, because "while not strictly speaking an American food, they were said to make you democratic faster."

Other encounters with the Occupation are less appealing. Students are sprayed with DDT by American soldiers to prevent lice, and when their teacher unveils a classroom map sent from America, Aya's classmates are shocked to discover that Japan doesn't occupy a central position and resembles "a shrivelled bean."

But it is Sumiko who experiences firsthand the price paid by a younger generation of Japanese constrained by poverty and social expectations, and motivated by a sense of duty and a desire for independence. In the Ginza, another girl shows her how to hide a long sewing needle in her blouse to poke any dance partner who gets "fresh" – a defence that seems like child's play compared with an incident that later forces Sumiko to go on the run.

Barring one or two memorable scenes, the novel steers away from the grittier details of life in the border areas where Japanese and Occupation lives intersect. The underworld Sumiko inhabits is seedy but rarely ugly or truly dangerous. It's not clear whether she ever makes the full transition to pan-pan girl; regardless, much more could have been said about the explosion in prostitution in Japan during this period. The sanitized treatment of these topics sometimes seems more appropriate for a book for young adults, while the too-easy resolution makes the concluding sections feel slightly hollow.

Yet although the stakes are never quite high enough for the novel to gather significant momentum, many scenes pack an emotional punch and are enhanced by the author's clarity and restraint. Like Benedict's book, The Translation of Love offers rich insights into an underreported period in history, despite holding some of its subject matter at arm's-length. Certainly, there is plenty to suggest that Kutsukake's next novel can deliver on the promise of this one.

Trilby Kent's new novel Once, in a Town Called Moth, will be published in September.