Peter Pagnamenta, Momoko Williams. Sword and Blossom: A British Officer's Enduring Love for a Japanese Woman. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. ix + 345 pp. $16.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-14-311214-3.
Reviewed by David Smith (Department of History, Lingnan University, Hong Kong)
Published on H-Albion (November, 2007)
Sword and Blossom, subtitled A British Officer's Enduring Love for a Japanese Woman, is both a contribution to the history of Anglo-Japanese relations (from the protean shifts of high politics to the most intimate affairs of the human heart) and a haunting narrative of thwarted dreams.
Neither of the authors, Peter Pagnamenta and Momoko Williams, are academic historians, but both have extensive experience working on television documentary series on twentieth-century Japanese and British history for the BBC and NHK, respectively. There is certainly little faulting their impressive breadth of research, whether in the interviewing of individuals in Britain, Japan, and Ireland with knowledge of the book's protagonists, or in consulting historians, or in sifting though a wealth of British and Japanese archives.
The foundation of the book is a collection of hundreds of letters discovered in a nagamochi, a traditional Japanese wooden box, in 1983. They had been written by Arthur Hart-Synnor, an Anglo-Irish officer in the British Army, to Tetsuko Suzuki, his Japanese lover, during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Taking these letters as the bedrock, Pagnamenta and Williams go on to detail the minutiae of the lives of their protagonists, both when they are together and during the much longer periods of separation, within the context of the broader shifts of global history. And beyond whatever the reader may glean in terms of a deepening of his or her historical understanding, this work foregrounds a more universal truth--the limits on individual agency. There is nothing more poignant in these letters than how external circumstances mitigate to keep Arthur and Tesuko apart: the prescriptions on miscegenation; Arthur's financial difficulties that compelled him to remain in the army, often languishing in remote outposts of the Empire; the familial pressures on Tesuko; and ultimately, the outbreak of the Great War.
It would be an egregious disfavor to potential readers of Sword and Blossom to reveal either the denouement of Arthur and Tesuko's relationship or the ironic fate of their son, Kiyoshi, for the narrative flow of the work is novelistic, and it is only in the closing pages that one discovers how matters are ultimately resolved. Having said this, it is to Pagnamenta and Williams's credit that although they often legitimately speculate on their protagonists' thoughts and feelings at various conjunctures, they never stoop to the level of those popular historians whose omniscience seems to extend to reading the thoughts and reproducing the conversations of their subjects. For instance, they are rightly circumspect on the reasons why Arthur Hart-Synnor, a high-flyer from an illustrious military family, was continually frustrated in his ambitions for professional advancement. Although it seems commonsensical to infer that Arthur's relationship with Tesuko had a deleterious effect on his career prospects, Pagnamenta and Williams quite rightly do no more than express it as a possibility in the absence of any solid documentary evidence.
Besides the attraction of the book for the general reader, what, if anything, does Sword and Blossom contribute to scholarly debate? The two most salient--and inevitably imbricated--themes of the book relate to attitudes toward miscegenation and to the shifting tropes of Anglo-Japanese relations in the early twentieth century. Surprisingly perhaps, the book's discussion of the origins of the Western antipathy towards miscegenation in the context of the influential doctrines of racial science and social Darwinism is cursory to the point of nonexistent; rather, the authors accept it unproblematically as a given. The book is much better on delineating the often paradoxical contours of how the British and Japanese perceived each other during this period, seemingly a journey from mutual infatuation to mutual disillusionment. Those who are sympathetic to David Cannadine's critique of the more dogmatic acolytes of Edward Said and postcolonialism, as outlined in the former's Ornamentalism (2001), will find ammunition in the extent to which Pagnamenta and Williams foreground the prevailing pre-1920 zeitgeist in which the Japanese and British elites found much to admire in each other's cultures. A pamphlet from the Japanese Foreign Ministry at the height of the First World War expresses this succinctly:
"Behind our mutual interest and aspirations there is the great moral and sympathetic tie of national characteristics.... The English gentleman is a peaceful Samurai and the Japanese Samurai is an armed gentleman. Thus, the best of England and the best of Japan constitute a gentleman's brotherhood for East and West" (p. 185).
Thus, the heirs of both the Bushido code and the public-school ethos of muscular Christianity could find shared ground, a commonality of values that elevated them above lesser races and inferior classes. Unfortunately, as readers of this book will discover, for Arthur Hart-Synnor and Tetsuko Suzuki such considerations must ultimately have been of little consolation.
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David Smith. Review of Pagnamenta, Peter; Williams, Momoko, Sword and Blossom: A British Officer's Enduring Love for a Japanese Woman.
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