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Translation Houses


Following the Pacific War, there was a place among the ruins of Tokyo called Koibumi-Yokochō—Love Letter Alley. Dramatized in Niwa Fumio’s novella Koibumi and Tanaka Kuniyo’s film adaptation of that novella, Love Letter Alley contained a small translation agency where Japanese women went to have letters to their American sweethearts rendered in English—but the atmosphere in Tokyo’s Love Letter Alley was slightly different than the Koibumi-Yokochō found in the neighborhood of Nakanomachi in Okinawa City. After the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco, US occupational forces began to leave and Japan became an independent nation again, but in Okinawa, from the Korean War through the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and even today as North Korea eyes Japan with a malice that continues to cause global concern, the US military personnel and their lovers yet remain a constant in Nakanomachi’s Love Letter Alley. 
 The people who worked as translators in Koibumi-Yokochō are now elderly, but it would make too light of their work to call them “Love Letter Translators” or some similar nonsense. It is no exaggeration to say that by translating love letters, these people have seen the United States and its neighboring countries more clearly, and indeed seen the world more clearly. These translators have been witness to racism, the arrogance of global powers, and most of all, the misery of the country of Japan.

Within the US military, soldiers are not divided only along the racial lines of white and black— there are many soldiers from the Caribbean who demonstrate their loyalty to the United States by putting their lives on the line in order to obtain US citizenship. Their love letters are composed in English so broken as to be almost unintelligible. One elderly translator explained, “Words aren’t needed for people to convey love to one another. In fact, words are often a hindrance.” But when it comes to international marriages, these same Caribbean-born soldiers are caught up in a difficult quagmire akin to baptism by fire in order to obtain their US citizenship. 
 There is no way to ask a lover about their citizenship status until after you’ve already fallen in love.

Even during peace times, these relationships give rise to numerous quiet tragedies, never mind the even greater sacrifices demanded by countries in the theatre of war.
 And this job was not merely one of translating love letters—translators had to think not only of the relationships between US soldiers and the women of Okinawa, but also of the children they had. From economic problems to citizenship, from how to raise a child in an environment that treats them with prejudice and contempt to the fact of having to explain your child’s existence when entering their birth on the Japanese family registry—and even before this mountain of hurdles, some couples are made to attend holistic counseling. 

The occupying forces’ cheerful and bright attitude immediately following the Pacific War was, in an instant, dropped into the black hell that was the Vietnam War. Before soldiers departed for Vietnam, they were made to write letters to be sent in the event of their deaths. How is a translator to convey the texture of paper straight from the battlefields of Vietnam, still smelling of gunpowder and smeared with mud, a letter “containing no lies, because it was written by a person who faces death”?
 Sometimes, translators were unable find any words of comfort for the letter recipients. 

There were also new tragedies to be had from cultural differences between a soldier’s parents after he returned to the American mainland with his new Okinawan wife. “Lies inevitably ended in disaster.” Only after a translator understood what a wife needed in order to keep up appearances and maintain appropriate humility could they translate her words into English. Here there is no Shakespearian turn of phrase. The rhetorical flourishes of the Queen’s English are unnecessary. Translators must convey only the naked truth of human passion and feeling. 

Following the Vietnam War, the US military grew increasingly aggressive, and by the time of the Gulf War, amicable and affable US military personnel had virtually disappeared, while those who were distant and stiff only grew in number. 
 Vainglorious soldiers, surly soldiers, indifferent soldiers—I cannot help but feel that in the fifty years since the Pacific War1, the humanity in US soldiers’ hearts has been splintered.
 Even in times of peace, those who’ve shouldered war have felt their hearts shrivel away little by little.
 “War and humanity”—in spite of the US’ talk of just cause, war is a worm that eats through the souls of all those touched by it, not only the soldiers themselves.

In the sacred calling of translation, we can see the United States, and we can see Japan, but more than anything, we can see humanity itself, and in this day and age, translation remains heartbreakingly bitter work.
 Now, there is no longer a bustling Love Letter Alley to be found in the heart of Nakanomachi.

Editor’s Note:

  1. This article was written in 1999.