International Love Story
Being married to a Japanese woman myself I have a personal interest in this type of story, like the films Sayonara and Heaven & Earth, of those who dealt with the prejudices and sometimes seemingly insurmountable barriers of marrying someone whose race and culture is so different from your own. It is a good reminder that the hoops I had to jump through, the immigration issues and visas, are nothing compared to what others went through in the name of love. And I am also always surprised at the things that have not changed, that the essential customs and hearts of the East and West remain much as they were a hundred years ago. And I have read enough of these stories to know that they seldom have happy endings.
“Sword and Blossom” is fascinating even from its initial premise. An Irish army officer and his Japanese love continue a multi-decade long relationship mainly through letters, as circumstances do not permit them to be together. Beginning in 1904 and going through World War II, they see each other through great upheavals and changes, through Japan’s emergence as a world power in the defeat of Russia, through the initial peaceful promise of a British/Japanese alliance, and the bitter struggle as enemies those nations would later endure. Many of these letters survive, carefully packed away in a box to be re-discovered by a later generation who had no inkling of the powerful love and suffering that their grandmother had endured.
Co-authors Peter Pagnamenta and Momoko Williams used these letters as the basis for their story, doing extensive research on the politics and movements of the time to tell the story of Captain Arthur Hart-Synnot and Masa Suzuki, who met in 1904 and fell in love while Hart-Synnot was stationed in Japan. Unlike most men of the time, who treated their Japanese women as “temporary wives,” Arthur was truly in love with Masa, and dreamed of a future where they could be married, raise children and live in happiness and comfort. This love endured monumental circumstances, as Arthur’s army career had him stationed in places as distant as Burma and India as well as fighting on the front in World War I.
Aside from the love story, I really enjoyed the historical aspects of “Sword and Blossum” as well. I knew very little about the British/Japanese alliance pre-dating WWI, when both nations saw themselves as reflections of each other, small island countries that had made themselves masters of their respective spheres. The “English Gentleman” and the Samurai were seen as two sides of the same coin, and the two countries felt that they would forge the future together.
The story of Arthur and Masa is ultimately a slightly frustrating one, as that dream of perfect happiness seems to be continually in their grips if only they would close their hands. It was not legal issues that kept them apart. In the same year that they met, Arthur’s countryman Lafcadio Hearn was living happily with his Japanese wife and their brood of children. But Arthur wanted to marry Masa and bring her to his ancestral estate in Ireland, while Masa would only agree to marry Arthur if he joined her in Japan. In the end, when Arthur eventually marries another woman even though he clearly still loves Masa, it seems like a betrayal of their promise except for the fact that Arthur begged and pleaded with Masa to marry him, only to be refused time and again. To fall in love is easy, but to leave the country you love forever for a place where everything is strange and unwelcome is a daunting prospect indeed.