It is almost impossible to find a serious novel that does not touch on the subject of death. “In the Woods of Memory,” taking for its theme the death of the soul, is no exception.

In the Woods of Memory, by Shun Medoruma, Translated by Takuma Sminkey.
208 pages

Those who follow Okinawan literature will know Shun Medoruma, an Akutagawa Prize-winning writer and political activist, whose work focuses on the enduring legacies of war trauma and occupation. The persistent themes running through all of Medoruma’s work are violation and carnage, understood through the grievous suffering of non-combatants. The rape of a 17-year-old girl by four U.S. soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa forms the animating horror at the core of this story, based on a number of similar cases related to the author by his relatives.

This is not a novel for the squeamish; Medoruma does not shrink from exacting realism in describing the experience of Sayoko, the principal victim who, as a consequence of the attack, suffers a “profound violation of her body and soul.” Almost as shocking as the attack on Sayoko and other women who are abused in the early pages of this story is the moral paralysis of the villagers.

A young man, Seiji, sickened by the impotence of village elders mollified by American gifts of “canned goods, sweets, liquor, cigarettes, and the treatment of their wounds,” decides to exact revenge, plunging a harpoon into the stomach of one of the Americans. Holed up in a cave to elude a search party, Seiji’s state of mind and increasingly feral physical condition are skillfully conjured by the author’s use of hallucinations, delirium, apparition and powerfully exaggerated imagery. There are no comforting conclusions, no reassuring resolutions in Medoruma’s fiction. Mangled by war, Seiji survives, a ghost of a man, now blind from over-exposure to a canister of tear gas thrown into his cave. Meanwhile, half deranged, Sayoko ends her days confined to an institution.

The continued military presence in Okinawa, the conviction of young recruits in the righteousness of their mission, reminds us that indoctrination is not confined to the training camps of the Peshawar Valley, the terror cells of Mogadishu, or the classrooms of North Korea. In the minds of many Japanese, Okinawa occupies an ambiguous space that is part of the modern state, but a much later, ultimately expendable, addition to the home islands. Others put it more bluntly. Female activist and anti-base organizer Takasato Suzuyo once characterized Okinawa as Japan’s “prostitute daughter.”

In writing this novel, Medoruma creates a sound chamber of voices, time shifts and associations, moving back and forth from 1945 to 2005. He filters experiences through eye witnesses, a wartime Okinawan-American interpreter, an obsequious village ward chief, an American attacker now tormented in his old age by his collusion in an act of barbarity, and his grandson, who is given the harpoon head used by Seiji in the attack on his grandfather. The weapon has been fashioned into a pendant. The heirloom is left behind in the grandson’s New York apartment when he goes to attend a meeting in the Twin Towers on the day of the 9/11 attacks. When an Okinawan writer who comes into possession of the object examines it, he finds that “the shape of the harpoon point began to look like one of those planes that flew into the towers.”

Looking out of the bus as it passes an American base, one of the girls who witnessed the rape, now elderly, recalls another event that caused Okinawans great collective anguish. On the evening of Sept. 3, 1995, three U.S. servicemen abducted a 12-year-old Okinawan girl at knifepoint and drove to a remote area in the northern part of the island, where they beat and then relentlessly gang-raped her. The monstrosity of the crime caused an outcry against the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, one fanned by U.S. Navy Admiral Richard C. Macke’s comment that the incident could have been avoided if the servicemen had hired a prostitute, adding “for the price they paid to rent the car, they could have had a girl.” The crime was widely interpreted as a metaphor for the violation of the islands by outsiders.

The translator, Takuma Sminkey, should be commended for creatively resolving a number of challenges presented by the original — which in places has highly experimental text — by adding new chapter titles where there had been none for structural clarity, marking dialogue with quotation dashes, rendering internal dialogue in italics, and finding stylistic parallels for Medoruma’s occasional use of Okinawan, which is not, as commonly understood by many Japanese, a dialect, but a number of independent Ryukyuan languages.

The writer E.L. Doctorow once said, “The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.” Medoruma’s work is a fine example of this ability of literature to transmit authentic states of mind — the very psychology, in this instance, of a people.

In its unsparing squint into the darkest moments of human experience, this masterpiece of Okinawan literature continues to speak to us all.


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