Postal Reading group
September 2022
Notes on the book The Woman in the white kimono by Ana Johns

Ana Johns’ The Woman in the white kimono first appeared to be something of an intriguing book. It is set in Japan, in 1957, shortly after the end of the American occupation. This alone is sufficiently unusual as it is difficult to remember when I last read a book set in Japan; presumably the cultural and language barriers make it a difficult place for an author to write about. Even the title and the cover seem to promise a certain ‘other worldliness’; yes, I know, never judge a book by its cover!

The basic story is that Naoko is coming of age and her family has prearranged a marriage for her which would secure the family’s status. However, Naoko has already fallen in love with an American sailor and is determined to marry him. When it is understood that she is already carrying the sailor’s child, she is cast out in disgrace.

However, there are two basic stories in this book , with the other being set in present day America with Tori caring for her dying father. In his final days, he hands her a letter, hinting at another life: “but before that life, I lived another” (p. 69). Tori, being an investigative journalist, is determined to find out the truth, a search which takes her to a remote seaside village in Japan.

The book starts out well, with beautiful, almost poetic prose, which together with the traditional Japanese proverbs and philosophies does give a real feel of the Japanese culture. The author has clearly done their research as much of the book is loosely based on places which did exist and events which did happen: There really were children born to American servicemen and Japanese women; approximately ten thousand according to the notes at the back of the book. These notes, incidentally, give some of the author’s reason for constructing the narrative and writing this book. At least in part, it is an attempt to tell the stories of those children: the “babies of mixed blood”.

Along with the parallel story of Tori, the book is told in a ‘split time’ format, with alternate sections set in 1957 narrated by Naoko, and in the present day by Tori. It seems to have become a common format and it is one that I, personally, have some difficulty with. In this case the switch to present day America after the wonderfully written prologue came as a surprise: I was expecting Naoko would at least get to start the story. The switches between the two narrators seem to have been arranged to create suspense. However, this is not really meant to be that kind of book, and indeed much of what happened is implicit from the beginning. I found the book to be entirely predictable, and even the final twist is not the great revelation that it might otherwise have been.

Although the first half of the book is well paced with both Naoko and Tori’s stories unfolding gradually, the second half does seem rather rushed. From the time that Naoko finally escapes from the ‘maternity clinic’, and the time that Tori arrives in Japan, their respective stories are told with great rapidity, and many details are passed over. Although it can be inferred that Naoko lost her first child, and eventually married Satoshi, we learn few of the details of how each came about, and what her life was like in the meanwhile.

Additionally, one further criticism is that for all of the promise of the well written early sections, the standard of the writing seems to drop later in the book. In particular, its noticeable that Tori’s chapters seem to have a different, less poetic, style. To an extent this could be a way of giving both characters a distinctive voice, but it also feels rather jarring, almost as much as that first switch to present day America after the start in Japan. What the book does do well is to give an insight into the Japanese culture. The notes at the back show how well researched to book is, and help to put the elements of the story into their real context. Of course, by our standards, the subservience and lack of independence of the women does seem particularly unexpected. The change in Naoko after the second abortive attempt to escape seems particularly abrupt. Perhaps she had little choice, but somehow we would expect the heroine to put up more of a fight.

While observing the different culture of Japan, it is only fair to point out some of the similarities, too. Western society used to be a lot more patriarchal than it presently is, while falling pregnant outside of marriage has been a common taboo in many societies. By 1957 the situation had started to change in the Western world, but, perhaps, its simply a case that we had a head start. Similarly, one could easily draw parallels between the maternity clinic and the Roman Catholic mother and baby homes which operated in Ireland. As for inter-racial marriages, while this continues to be a preoccupation of some people in many societies, such liaisons have been producing children for as long as there have been anything like humans on the planet!

In conclusion, this is a book which shows great promise, and which presents a well researched insight into Japanese society and customs from the time. While the author is clearly capable of an excellent standard of writing as shown by the early parts of the book, the standard has not been maintained throughout. Other minor criticisms are the way in which parts of Naoko’s later story are glossed over, and the overall predicability of the book. Despite this, however, this was an opportunity to try something different and to learn about another society.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler