BOOK REVIEW: In the Woods of Memory by Shun Medoruma

In the Woods of Memory

In Japan, Shun Medoruma is one of the most important authors from Okinawa. He’s won several awards for his short stories, including the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. While some of his stories have been translated for anthologies of contemporary Japanese writing, his novel In the Woods of Memory is the first full length work of his to be translated into English.

In the Woods of Memory begins in 1945 in a small Okinawan village occupied by American forces. Four American soldiers rape a young girl named Sayoko. When Sayoko’s friend Seiji, a fisherman’s son, hears about the attack, he attempts to take revenge with nothing but a harpoon and a grenade. The narrative jumps between several characters and between 1945 and 60 years later, exploring the fall out of the incident.

“In war, you see, it’s not just that many lives are lost. The lives of the survivors are often ruined, too. For that girl and her family, the war still isn’t over…”

The summary makes it sound like a rape and revenge story. However, Medomura is far less concerned with the incident itself and more how it affects the people involved and just how far this single atrocity reaches. A couple of the chapters are told from the perspectives who learn about the incident second hand.

One of the more interesting chapters is told from the perspective of an unnamed character simply called “Bullied Girl.” The girl is a shy middle school girl who is relentlessly mocked and harassed by her peers. One of the witnesses to Sayoko’s rape, named Tamiko, comes to her school and talks about her experiences during the war. The girl wants to express her gratitude for coming to the school to talk about it, but is too shy. The girls who bully her, however, ask Tamiko insensitive questions that later cause her to break down crying in the next chapter focusing on her.

Medomura is not just critical of the actions of the US military during WWII, but of Japanese society. In the “Bullied Girl” chapter, we see parallels to how the girl who doesn’t “fit in” is alienated in modern Japanese as were people like Sayoko and Seiji back then. In later chapters we learn that the men of the village treat Sayoko as “damaged” and rape her once again. Seiji ends up blind from his confrontation with the soldiers and is ostracized by much of the village as a result.

Of course, Medomura is still incredibly critical of American foreign policy. The US military’s heavy presence in Okinawa makes the after effects of WWII still felt very strongly there. In one chapter, a girl named Hisako who also witnessed the Sayoko’s attack, has repressed her memories of it. When she visits her old village sixty years later, she breaks out into a sweat. However, she attributes her fear to memories about a 1995 incident in which US soldiers sexually assaulted elementary school girl.

In one chapter, another unnamed character only referred to as the “Okinawan Writer,” receives a pendant made from the harpoon that Seiji attacked the American soldiers with. The man who sends him the pendant received it from the grandson of one of the soldiers. That grandson ended up dying in the twin towers on 9/11. The man sending him the pendant tells him he can’t help but see parallels between the harpoon pendant and the planes that hit the World Trade Center.

Something notated by the translator, Takuma Sminkey, is that much of Medomura’s style is lost due to his heavy use of Okinawan dialect. This is especially true in one of Seiji’s chapters which is told in a stream of consciousness that jumps between past and present and the voices different people. In the original Japanese, this chapter also jumped between standard Japanese and the Okinawan dialect, the relation of which has no good equivalent in English.

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In the Woods of Memory
Shun Medoruma's In the Woods of Memory is a powerful, thought-provoking exploration not just of the effects of war, but of how the aftermath of all tragedy ripples from the people it directly affects to the people around them. Even though it loses some things in translation, it remains an engaging story with each chapter having a distinctive voice. I highly recommend this novel and I hope it will bring Medomura to a wider English audience.