Japan, 1957. Seventeen-year-old Naoko Nakamura’s prearranged marriage to the son of her father’s business associate would secure her family’s status in their traditional Japanese community, but Naoko has fallen for another man—an American sailor, a gaijin—and to marry him would bring great shame upon her entire family. When it’s learned Naoko carries the sailor’s child, she’s cast out in disgrace and forced to make unimaginable choices with consequences that will ripple across generations.
America, present day. Tori Kovac, caring for her dying father, finds a letter containing a shocking revelation—one that calls into question everything she understood about him, her family and herself. Setting out to learn the truth behind the letter, Tori’s journey leads her halfway around the world to a remote seaside village in Japan, where she must confront the demons of the past to pave a way for redemption.
The Woman in the White Kimono sounded like it would be a really interesting read but I’m afraid I found it a huge disappointment, mainly down to a lack of focus and poorly drawn characters. It’s a shame because the premise of the book is a really interesting one and concentrates on a little explored era in Japanese history when the country was still occupied by American forces. Relationships between Japanese women and American sailors were frowned upon by both countries which had tragic consequences for any children born as they were regarded as having “impure” blood.
In the story, Naoko falls in love with an American sailor, Jimmy Kovac, but her attempts to introduce him to her traditional family are a disaster and the Nakamura family make it clear marriage with a foreigner will bring them nothing but shame. Naoko’s father is already negotiating a match for his daughter with the son of a wealthy business associate that will ensure the prosperity of both families for generations to come. While Naoko likes Satoshi Tanaka, she doesn’t love him in the same way she loves Jimmy and things become even more complicated when she realises she is carrying Jimmy’s child. With the help of her mother, Naoko escapes from her family and marries Jimmy in a Shinto ceremony which will have to suffice until Jimmy is granted permission from the US Navy. However, Jimmy’s ship is called to active duty in Taiwan and she never sees him again.
Naoko returns home when she learns of her mother’s untimely death and is tricked into going into a maternity home for the sake of her unborn child. Naoko is appalled when she realises the home is for unmarried mothers and is even more dismayed when she learns Housemother Sato is actually murdering the babies, especially those of mixed race. After a thwarted attempt at escaping, Naoko is kept sedated for the rest of her pregnancy which results in the premature birth of her daughter. Long suspicious of the high death rate amongst the babies, the authorities finally have enough evidence to arrest Housemother Sato and Naoko is forced to choose between her child and her family.
In the afterword, Ana Johns explains how Naoko’s story was born from research she carried out on a personal matter pertaining to her own father and is also an amalgamation of the true stories she discovered about the fate of mixed race babies during her research. Housemother Sato’s murderous exploits are based on the true story of Miyuki Ishikawa, a Japanese midwife who is believed to have murdered more than one hundred infants throughout the 1940s. Like Housemother Sato, Miyuki Ishikawa was eventually sentenced to just four years imprisonment which is quite incredible considering the number of infants she murdered. The inclusion of the maternity home in Naoko’s story feels forced though and there aren’t enough chapters to really do it any justice.
The characters also make a lot of comments about a mixed race orphanage in the town of Oiso which was never actually featured in the book. As it turns out, the Elizabeth Saunders Home was established in 1948 by Miki Sawada, a Mitsubishi heiress, specifically to care for bi-racial children who were abandoned by their parents and ostracised by Japanese society. Miki Sawada claims to have gotten the idea for the orphanage when a black baby wrapped in layers of newspaper fell from an overhead compartment onto her lap while she was travelling on a train. According to what I’ve read subsequently, Miki Sawada had to endure a lot of criticism from both Japan and the United States when attempting to repatriate these babies. All of which would have made a fascinating story in itself.
Naoko’s story gets somewhat lost amongst all these other threads even though Ana Johns does a really good job of describing Japanese society and we certainly get a firm understanding of how disagreeable a mixed race marriage would be for the Nakamura family. Naoko’s father is a very traditional man who wants to see Japan thrive independently from the influence of the Americans but there are younger Japanese men, like Satoshi Tanaka, who see America as a good prospect for investment. As Naoko’s future husband, Satoshi has a far more modern outlook but his apparent lack of concern in the fact Naoko has already contracted a marriage and given birth to another man’s child is a bit of a stretch.
The story is told in the past-present format which only highlights the gaping holes in the plot as the narrative is taken over by Tori Kovac, the daughter of the aforementioned Jimmy. After returning to the States, Jimmy has obviously married and had another daughter, however none of that is explained. We are given no clue as to whether Jimmy even tried to return to Japan after being discharged from the navy or when he discovered Naoko had married Satoshi. We know he attempted to write to her as he has a letter which was returned to him undeliverable, however the Nakamura family business is a prominent one so it’s not like he couldn’t have tracked her down. Jimmy’s lack of voice is incredibly frustrating and makes it feel like a huge chunk of the story is missing which isn’t helped by the fact he conveniently dies before he can tell his daughter about Naoko..
Tori is left to piece the evidence together from the sparse clues in the context of Jimmy’s letter and his personal items. We are told next to nothing about Tori, other than she is an investigative journalist, and we don’t even find out what she looks like until the book is practically over. Using her contacts, Tori tracks down the Nakamura house and finally meets the elderly Naoko who knows exactly who Tori is from her resemblance to her father. Naoko finally tells Tori about the past and leaves her with one final riddle which will lead her to her sister but it all just fizzles out in the end.