Translated from the Japanese by Takuma Sminkey
(Berkely, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2017)
When In The Woods of Memory by Shun Medoruma opens, a number of girls are working and playing in a narrow passageway by the water, a “safe haven” which the locals refer to as “the bosom.” By 1945, when this opening scene takes place, the Battle of Okinawa, and World War II in general, are coming to a close and the girls aren’t “scared of American soldiers anymore.” The Okinawans have settled back into a world where “The soldiers on the perimeter had rifles slung over their shoulders, but they didn’t point them at the villagers; they just stood around smoking and chatting.” As the men approach that day, Medoruma writes, “Only Sayoko seemed worried about the approaching soldiers and uncertain as to whether to flee to the village. She called to Tamiko and the others, but the girls merely edged closer to shore and went on with their work.” Moments later Sayoko, just 17 years old, is dragged off by four soldiers and gang raped. The novel centers around this assault and precipitating harpoon attack on the soldiers by Seiji, a younger Okinawan boy.
While both the rape and the stabbing attack are intensely violent, the central trauma of the novel is the characters’ feelings of guilt due to their various experiences of impotence. The novel shifts point of views and perspectives, and jumps from 1945 to 2005, but each character wrestles with essentially the same failure: from the ten year old girl who “clutched” at the soldiers and “sunk her teeth into his hand” without affecting Sayoko’s release, to the village men “all with the same tormented expression” as “right before their very eyes, the American soldiers had raped two young women”; from Seiji attacking the soldiers with a harpoon, but not killing them, to present day Okinawa where a school nurse cannot stop middle school bullying. Most literal among these failures is the flashback chapter of Sayoko’s rape, where one of the soldiers initially finds himself flaccid and momentarily tries to fake penetration. But then he grows angry, thinking that the “girl’s lips, distorted and covered with half-dried blood, were mocking” him, and he says, “blood suddenly rushed to my penis. Oblivious to the gore and bodily fluids, I forced myself into the body beneath me.” In this moment where his physical impotence is gone, but where his ethical failure surges, it becomes clear that this Woods is not simply a meditation on the failure to act, but on the inability to act either rightly or enough or both.
This chapter from the perspective of the American Solider is particularly stomach-churning because it highlights the omission of Sayoko’s voice in a novel where perspectives shift so frequently. The book becomes an unwelcome addition to the tradition of victims (in literature and the real world) who are silenced. Sayoko does get one phrase at the end of the book, but it is: “I hear you Seiji,” an affirmation from her that he tried to avenge her, not about her own experience or her pain. While the utterance intelligently spins the idea of impotence within the novel (Seiji’s actions, were not as failed as he perceives, and perhaps that is true for the other characters as well) the reader is still left to extrapolate Sayoko’s experience and emotions based on those of other people.
Metaphorically, however, Sayoko not having a voice in the narrative underscores the traditional voicelessness of Okinawans. Translator Takuma Sminkey’s preface details the ways in which some of the structural irreverence of the novel is lost in translation because English does not have equivalent dialects: the original novel uses a cacophony of voices, no chapter titles to identify the speakers or locate them in time, and Okinawan is intermingled with Japanese in a way that even native Japanese speakers may find indecipherable; but even void of the structural underscore, the narrative constantly highlights the ways in which Okinawans have been historically silenced by the Japanese. In addition to that, while World War II is very much located in history for Americans – our land is not a living memory of the battles, and the Japanese have been our allies for decades – the chapter where Matsumoto says of 9/11 that “part of me kind of felt that the US had it coming,” highlights the insanity of assuming America would have been forgiven considering “you can still see American military walking around, what with all the US bases”, and that the US dropped two atomic weapons on Japan.
Just like Japan and Okinawa at large, Sayoko is forced to continue to live in the location of her trauma, triggered constantly by those who harmed her, and retraumatized by mocking villagers. While she has a few years where she manages to work and live a more normal life, eventually her inability to testify to her pain and experience lands her in a mental institution. This novel as part of a resurgence in Okinawan literature feels, in a sense, like a preventative measure to keep Okinawans from a metaphorical mental breakdown.
War, rape, and stabbings notwithstanding, the most viscerally gruesome and emotionally demeaning chapter plays out in a present day Okinawan middle school. When a chronically bullied pre-teen girl is forced to drink other girls’ spit, she throws up, and then takes the blame (both internally and publically) for the incident. As the girl who orchestrated the attack offers to take bullied girl to the school nurse, (“—Let’s wash your face, she says in a gentle voice”) the reader’s stomach turns. The act completes the cycle of abuse, where the controlling party torments and then care-takes the victim, leaving the wounded in anticipatory angst, in the same way that the Americans ravaged, then provided food and protection for, and then re-attacked, the Okinawan people. These scenes exemplify both the depth of violation betrayals of the body can incur and the added layer of horror present when your attacker has convinced you, despite past evidence, that they will not harm you again. This deep desire to believe you’re safe means that when another assault occurs, you erroneously blame yourself both for bringing the attack on and for your naiveté.
The steady American presence heightens the traumatization for the Okinawans, making the impotence of the actors in the novel more tragic. Not only are they unable to stop the traumas on their land, but like Seiji, they are never fully able to re-assert or exact revenge in the end. Throughout his life Seiji sits by the water, now blind, mourning his inability to accomplish his goal – whether or not Sayoko appreciates his efforts – in the same way that the Okinawan people now are unable to relieve themselves of American occupation. This is where the emotional depth of the novel exists: not in the way in which the rape and revenge and destruction could not be stopped, or how it sits with people in jumbled memory 60 years later, but in the way that memory actually continues to humiliate and oppress.
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Jena Salon’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in n+1, BOMB, Bookforum, The Collagist, Annalemma, LA Review, The Literary Review, Upstart Crows, and Philadelphia Stories.