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Some books enlighten us by aging badly. James A. Michener’s novel “Sayonara,” first published in 1953 and made into a film starring Marlon Brando four years later, has been dismissed as an example of Orientalist fantasy, with its gushing about the perfect wives that Western men find in Japan. Still, it reveals how much Japanese-Western relationships have evolved, and it’s surprising what still rings true today — beyond the spousal back rubs and cringe-worthy accents.

Sayonara, by James A. Michener
208 pages
Dial Press, Fiction.

Set during the Korean War, the story involves Air Force Maj. Lloyd Gruver, who’d rather fight MiGs than commit to his girlfriend Eileen. Based near Osaka, Gruver is shocked to see many GIs marrying Japanese women, but then falls for Hana-Ogi, a star of the famed Takarazuka Revue dance troupe. The affair is doubly illicit: U.S. Army personnel can’t take Japanese wives to America, and Takarazuka tradition forbids dating. Unable to say goodbye, the lovers defy all odds in a desperate bid for a future together.

From today’s perspective, “Sayonara” is an artifact not of racial attitudes but social status. Eileen’s mother, offended that a Japanese woman should ease Gruver’s fear of domesticity, asks smugly, “Who won the war, anyway?”

What makes the book timeless — and genuinely democratic — is summed up by Hana-Ogi when she reflects on mixed couples: “Because I know you, I now better Japanese. You better American.”

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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