A tapestry of trauma in Okinawa





By Shun Medoruma, translated by Takuma Sminkey (Albany, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 2017, 208 pp., $16.95, paperback)

“In the Woods of Memory,” written by Shun Medoruma, is a complex saga that surrounds two incidences that occur on a small island off the northwest coast in Okinawa in 1945 — the rape of a young girl, Sayaka, by U.S. servicemen, and the retaliation by a young man, Seiji, who injures a U.S. soldier.

“Me no oku no mori” (“In the Woods of Memory”) was first published in 12 installments in Zenya, a quarterly magazine from 2004-2007. The first two chapters are set in 1945, and the remaining nine take place in 2005 during the 60th anniversary of the end of the war. The story is told from nine different points of view, with a chart for readers to follow the connections to the incidences.

In the preface, translator Takuma Sminkey explains that the connection between World War II and today for Okinawans remains a part of daily life with the U.S. military bases as a constant reminder. Devastating losses during the war left no one unscathed. He surmises, “As a result, nearly everyone who experienced the war suffered some degree of trauma.”

“In the Woods of Memory” is a historic fiction based on a rape incident on Yagaji Island that Medoruma heard about from his mother. The revenge plot is similar to a 1945 case in Nago where three U.S. Marines were killed for raping village women. The brilliance of the novel is in how Medoruma weaves together a tapestry of individual points of view to illuminate how trauma and war memories impacts so many individuals and the residual effect that can be carried into the next generation.

Ten years prior, Hisako experiences shortness of breath upon hearing a news story about an elementary girl who was raped by three American soldiers. Her guilt as a witness begins to surface after 60 years. She has a recurring dream of a young woman with long black disheveled hair running through the woods with a piercing scream. More fragmented memories arise — American soldiers surround a cave as a young man emerges, waving his arm and letting out a howl before being shot. Hoping to fill in the gaps, Hisako sends a letter to Fumi, a former classmate, and makes plans for a visit to the island. When the two older women visit the sites of the incidences, Fumi becomes animated in the retelling. She, too, had buried the memories for many years.

Each chapter morphs into another voice and point of view. The first two chapters based in 1945 describe the chilling accounts of a witness to the rape and by Seiji, the young man who harpooned a U.S. soldier to seek revenge. Each voice is laden with tightly held emotion. Tamiko, the sister of the rape victim, offers a view into their home and the devastating trauma that Sayaka must live with.

The 2005 chapter of Seiji using first person consciousness interspersed with interrogation is jarring. In the Afterword, scholar Kyle Ikeda explains, “The boldest literary and textual experiment Medoruma attempts … the chapter eschews visual description and places the reader in Seiji’s sensory realm that relies heavily on sound.” The dramatic tension in “In the Woods of Memory” is sustained throughout, offering an in-depth look at the residual of the war in Okinawa.

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