Books Are Pretty

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Sword & Blossom.

In 1982, a retired Tokyo schoolteacher, Tetsuko Suzuki, was sorting through her late mother-in-law's possessions that had been gathering dust in a storeroom. In a long wooden box, Suzuki found over 800 letters written to her late husband's mother, carefully preserved. The letters, dating back to 1904, were all from one person, British general Arthur Hart-Synott. From the letters, a love story between the Japanese working-class girl and the British officer began to emerge, one that was to span decades.

Hart-Synnot, a career soldier whose family owned an Irish estate, was sent to study Japanese to solidify the bond between England and Japan, who had joined together to fight against Russia. While there, Hart-Synnot met 25-year-old Masa Suzuki, a barber's daughter. Suzuki, who had recently been divorced by her husband, was condemned to a life of servitude and contemptuous treatment by her relatives who had been forced to take her back in. Hart-Synnot offered her a job as his housekeeper, which was a thinly-veiled code for "temporary wife," an arrangement that, while not uncommon, was officially frowned upon by the British military. With her family's permission, Suzuki moved in with Hart-Synnott, then a Captain, and began to teach him Japanese. Their relationship became so strong that Hart-Synnot, when his assignment was up and he was transferred, could not bear to be parted with her. Ulike his military comrades who casually discarded the Japanese women they'd formed relationships with, he spent the rest of his military career trying to return to her and their young son.

British journalists Peter Pagnamenta and Momoko Williams spent years piecing together their lives, painstakingly researching the career of Hart-Synott and translating the letters written in his stumbling, archaic Japanese. As Pagnamenta and Williams began to breathe life back into Suzuki and Hart-Synnot, a fairy tale began to emerge, the old familiar story of Cinderella, scorned and hated, doomed to a life of drudgery but saved by the dashing Prince.

In a short amount of time, however, it becomes clear that the powerless rescued by the powerful isn't what it's cracked up to be. Japan in the early 20th century is no place to be a woman.

According to the Ministry of Education the object of female education was to make "good wives, and wise mothers." Women had no political rights, and no vote, and to keep them from any newfangled distraction, the Police Security Regulations of 1900 specifically prevented them from joining political organizations or attending political meetings. Once married a woman could not buy or sell property, enter into debts, or start legal proceedings without her husband's consent. Masa was known as a local beauty, and when she was twenty Kakujiro Suzuki contracted for her to marry a paper wholesaler from the commercial district of Nihonbashi...but within a couple of years her husband decided he wanted a divorce. Separation was easily achieved for men, who could cite grounds that included "not respecting the mother-in-law" or "talking too much." The rule was that in all settlements children were automatically allotted to the father. The paper merchant took their small daughter into his family to be looked after by his new wife. Masa was dumped and discarded. Because she now carried the stigma of divorce, and was past the usual age for marriage, the chances of her family's being able to arrrange another husband for her were slim. ..all Masa Suzuki would now have been able to expect was a life of domestic drudgery, more dependent on her family than ever..."

Overwhelmingly, Western men found this arrangement to be fantastic, and criticized Western women for not being as charmingly submissive as their Eastern sisters. Nevertheless, when Hart-Synott was invited to dinner at the home of a Japanese officer and witnessed his wife crawling across the floor to serve the men dinner, even he had admit this was too much.

In this crushing climate of oppression, Suzuki was being asked to choose between slavishly serving dinner either on her hands and knees or on her feet. Given that, and the fact that she had absolutely nothing to lose, the choice was easy.

The letters written back to Arthur by Masa have never been found, but given her total dependence of the whim of whichever man lived with her, it is hard to believe they would tell us much about how she really felt about him, even though his gushed with love for her. Her survival depended on how well she could perform the role of the doting submissive, and if she was ever angry or even disinterested in him, she could never openly express it.

This is what the old school feminists were talking about when they said a woman's consent to sex could never be truly given in an oppressive society. Given how much she had to lose for failing to please Hart-Synott, how could anyone really be sure what she really thought?

Although Hart-Synott's integrity was miles higher than that of his military colleagues, Suzuki never fully trusted him to keep his word that he would return to Japan and continue to provide for her. She repeatedly rejected his pleas to marry him and follow him across the globe, for not only would she have to endure sexism, but racism and classicism as well. She would never receive the respect due a General's wife, and, as difficult as it is to imagine, if she left her home and traveled two thousand miles to be with him, away from her family and friends, she would have even less power than she did on her home turf.

Aiding her decision to remain in Japan was fueled in no small part by Hart-Synott himself, was so far removed from her feelings that, despite the hundreds of gushing love letters he wrote her, it seemed that "he was totally devoted to Masa as an ideal, [but] did not seem to be able to put himself in her shoes or to see how the world might look from her point of view."

This caused him to act in ways that were occasionally jaw-droppingly insensitive, and Masa felt she had no choice but to accept it, at first for her sake and later for the sake of their son Kiyoshi, who Arthur saw less than five times in his entire life.

Sword & Blossom, while occasionally dry and does venture into being tedious when Arthur's 200th letter, remarkably similar to the previous 199, is quoted. However, Pagnamenta and Williams have done a remarkable job bringing turn of the century Japan alive, as well as the battles in the trenches during World War I. It is to their credit that they did not gloss over the often painful reality of Suzuki's life in favor of portraying the doomed lovers as paragons of romance.

A study came out years ago that said it was found that little girls who loved the passive Princess stories of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty were more likely to grow up to be abused than girls weaned on stories where girls took an active role in their own destinies, such as The Paper Bag Princess.

If there is better evidence that there is no power in being powerless, that the passive Princess stories are nothing but dangerous hogwash, I have yet to see it.
Sword & Blossom
by Peter Pagnamenta and Momoko Williams
June 2007 by Penguin Press
368 pp., Paperback
ISBN: 0143112147

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