|Sword and Blossom|
Peter Pagnamenta and Momoko Williams
Arthur Hart-Synnot, the scion of an aristocratic Anglo-Irish military family, and Masa Suzuki, a young divorced Japanese woman from the working class, met in Tokyo in 1904. It was the period of a brief, little-known alliance between Great Britain and Japan, and Arthur had been posted to Japan by the British Army in order to learn Japanese. Despite the enormous barriers of class, race, and culture that divided them, Arthur and Masa fell instantly in love. The bond that developed between the tall, reserved, mustached British career officer and the delicate Japanese beauty proved to be unbreakable, even in the face of war and disaster. In Sword and Blossom, authors Peter Pagnamenta and Momoko Williams recount the true story of how their extraordinary passion played out through four decades of tragic history.
Though Arthur and Masa only lived together for a few happy years in Tokyo and later in a small house outside of Hong Kong, they exchanged letters regularly for all but a brief period of their lives. Pagnamenta and Williams use this vivid, intimate correspondence—which ultimately ran more than eight hundred letters—as the basis for their narrative. Arthur’s letters (Masa’s have not survived) open a small but brilliantly clear window not only on the inner lives of two people in love, but on an era fraught with racial prejudice, social snobbery, and crushing world events.
Soon after the lovers began to live together in a quiet Tokyo neighborhood, Arthur was ordered by the army to report to Manchuria to observe the course of the Russo-Japanese War. It was the first of a series of increasingly painful and lengthy separations forced on the couple by war. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Arthur was stationed at the British Army headquarters in northern India while Masa lived modestly in Tokyo with their two sons. Then in 1916, Arthur was instructed to report to the Western Front in France. The letters he wrote Masa from the trenches became a running diary of the horrors of mechanized slaughter—until a nearly fatal wound broke the thread of their correspondence and altered the foundation of their relationship.
With fierce clarity and intimate detail, Pagnamenta and Williams counterpoint the story of Arthur and Masa’s love with the terrible social, political and military events of the early twentieth century. In the decades of their correspondence, as one of their sons grew to manhood and the other succumbed to disease, Japan emerged as a world power—and turned from Britain’s ally to her bitter, determined enemy. Arthur and Masa survived the horrors of the First World War and the Tokyo earthquake of 1923, only to see their son swept into a second and even bloodier world war.
Unfolding the story of a passion that spanned two cultures and forty years of violence and disaster, Sword and Blossom is a haunting story of the endurance of love in the face of tragic history.
Peter Pagnamenta is a writer and documentary maker. He first went to Japan in 1975 and has been returning ever since to make programs for British television. He produced and wrote the eight-hour series Nippon, an archive and testimony history of Japan since 1945. His major historical programs for the BBC include the award-winning People's Century, a twenty-six-part television history of the twentieth century coproduced with WGBH Boston for which he was the BBC executive producer and scriptwriter. He was also editor of the British current affairs series Panorama. Momoko Williams was born and brought up in Japan and went to Britain in 1966 after graduating from Meiji University, Tokyo. She has coordinated and produced programs for Japanese broadcasters in Britain and Japan. She worked on the major NHK series The Twentieth Century and Pacific War. Interested in Anglo-Japanese cultural connections, she initiated and produced the photographic exhibition Japanese in Britain, 1863-2001. She is married to an Englishman and lives in London.
Q. The story of Arthur and Masa’s love opens a fascinating window on nearly half a century of tumultuous history. Why did you choose this particular window to write about? What was it about these two individuals and their relationship that you found most compelling?
A. Yes, the story does run over almost half a century, and in the background there is always this wider narrative, of the way in which the West sees Japan, and how the Japanese act toward the West, and the interaction of the two. But for me it is the years before 1914 and the time when Japan was emerging from that extraordinary period of modernization and reform and was showing the world it was now a major power that have always held a special fascination. Japan was already admired for its aesthetic sense and for its arts and handcrafts, and was perceived by many to be a sort of preindustrial arcadia. But then her victory over Tsarist Russia in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-¬1905) showed that this was also a self-disciplined, competent society, with a powerful new army and navy. Those were the years in which British and Americans tended to admire Japan as a “plucky little nation.” And remember that the Japanese were allies with the British, the French, and the Americans in the First World War. So it’s a time that has been overshadowed by later events, Japan’s actions in China in the 1930s, and then the Pacific war. But this was the period that produced the long forgotten Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902, which is where this story starts, because without it Arthur Hart-Synnot would never have been sent to Japan. The attraction, for me at least, was that this story began in an era almost forgotten now, bringing the advantage that when you start to write about it people are surprised and it has a freshness. And of course in an individual sense, both Momoko and I were attracted to these two characters, who seemed so modern and progressive in some ways, and yet were also held back by the prejudice of their times, and then by the international events over which they had no control. And perhaps Momoko was also interested in the story because she has a very personal perspective on all this. She is married to an Englishman, who she met in Japan, and although she would say that there are still many misunderstandings between the two cultures, she did not have to face these barriers and obstacles.
Q. The letters are obviously the heart of the story—but around that heart you worked in extraordinarily vivid and fine-grained details about the times they lived in, the wars, the social background of England and Japan, etc. How much did you rely on books and how much on archival material, interviews, published memoirs, etc.? What were some of the surprises you came upon in the course of your research?
A. As for any project like this I did a great deal of reading, not so much of the secondary sources and the histories written much later, but of contemporary accounts written by western visitors to Japan from the 1860s onward. These were years when Japan seemed exotic and fascinating, and there was almost a surfeit of “traveler’s tales” from the pens of journalists, academics, missionaries, and straightforward tourists. Then there were more serious and considered books written by a handful of Westerners who had gone to live in Japan, knew the language, and had a deeper understanding of the culture. These included Lafacadio Hearn and Basil Hall Chamberlain. And there were unpublished journals and letters of early visitors and travelers, for example in the Royal Geographical Society, which often provided the little details and insights that help suggest a time and place. When it came to the character and background of Arthur Hart-Synnot himself there were a limited number of family papers relating to his estate in Ireland, and at the National Archives in London they have unit records from his time in the British army on the Western front in 1917 and ’18. But the best break we had was finding the diaries and letters of two other young “language officers” who were in Tokyo at the same time as Arthur was.
All these events happened so long ago that there were very limited chances of finding firsthand witnesses who knew the protagonists at first hand. We traced two people in England who met Arthur in the 1920s and ’30s. And in Tokyo Momoko found the family records of the Suzuki family, which allowed us to reconstruct her family tree, and it was still possible to meet some people who had known Masa as an elderly woman. Despite all the destruction in Tokyo from the 1923 earthquake and the fire bombings of 1945, there are very complete municipal archives, and we were able to find ward maps and tax records showing the precise location of the houses they had rented together. And we discovered that they had lived in two very special places, with historic connections.
Q. Could you recount the story of how exactly you learned of this trove of letters? Did you know as soon as you read them that you would write a book around them?
A. I am afraid there wasn’t a eureka moment, at least as far we were concerned. The existence of these letters had been known about in Japan since the 1990s, when a Japanese writer, Takako Inouye, was told about them by Masa Suzuki’s daughter-in-law, and she wrote a book based on them. But her perspective was very much a Japanese one, and she had done no research in Britain, so though she had identified the main parameters of the story there were a great many outstanding questions about the encounter, and many details to tease out. When Momoko told me about the letters and Miss Inoue’s book, we did preliminary research in London into who this man was and we realized that this was something we both wanted to do, each bringing our own perspectives to the project. But it was only when we started to go through the letters one by one with Momoko translating and me transcribing, sitting round a table, that we realized quite what we had taken on.
Q. Collaborating on a book is a unique creative process with its own joys and frustrations. How did you divide up the work? How did you ensure that the book would have a uniform narrative voice?
A. Collaborating on researching and understanding the principal events and the characters is one thing. Actually writing is another. Preparing this book and establishing the facts that it brings together was very complicated, and you could say it was a two person task, in two languages. Research had to be done in England, Ireland, France, Japan, and Hong Kong. This took a lot of time, and it was great to be able to share this. And then it was Momoko, who is the Japanese speaker, who had the huge burden of actually translating the letters. There were eight hundred of them, written in Arthur Hart-Synnot’s own brush stroke or pencil kanji characters, running in vertical columns, from right to left, on rolls of thin handmade paper up to a meter in length. And as far as possible we went through them together looking for the clues and references that needed to be followed up. We shared the reading. I read the English papers and books, Momoko worked in the libraries in Japan. We interviewed members of Masa’s family and the British relatives together. But once we knew the story we both wanted to tell I think only one person can actually write, and hold a structure and sense of tension and character in their head. So I wrote, and we then discussed the chapters together, and I responded to things Momoko thought were missing, or were wrong, and we worked through endless drafts in that way. We both shared the same curiosity and attitude, and we were very much in tune with each other. It needed complementary skills and I don’t think it could have been done in any other way.
Q. You wrote in the Preface that though the world has changed since Arthur and Masa’s day, “individuals can still find themselves trapped by forces and events beyond their control, and their personal lives torn away from them.” Would you say this is the central theme of the book? Is there anything in their story that redeems it from the darkness implicit in this theme?
A. I don’t see it as a totally dark book. After all, they managed to spend a lot of time together, during which time they were obviously very happy, and you could say that for a few years, when he was living in Hong Kong, they had devised a workable, if not ideal, way of seeing each other regularly. Japan inspired and liberated Arthur Hart-Synnot. You could also say that in crude economic terms Masa’s connection with Arthur rescued her from what might have been a pretty miserable and exploited existence, given her situation—given the fact that she carried the stigma of divorce and did not have many options in Japanese society.
Though they were certainly trapped by events after 1914, the book shows that they also made decisions that affected their future together knowingly. They were not simply “victims” from the start. They both could have played it differently, most notably when Masa rejected Arthur’s offer of marriage in 1911. There is another question about Arthur’s behavior toward her much later, and in the book we try not to be judgmental, but to let readers make up their own mind. Did he have any real option?
Q. You wonderfully conjure up the old Edo atmosphere of Tokyo. Where did these details come from? Has this atmosphere utterly disappeared? How many of the places mentioned in the text did you visit? How helpful were these travels when you sat down to write?
A. Most of the description and the texture come from the Western traveler’s tales I mentioned earlier, from early directories and handbooks, and from contemporary Japanese accounts that Momoko found. If we wanted to know what a Japanese postman wore in 1904, or what the street vendors in Shitamachi called out, or arrangements for childbirth, then she looked for these. A lot of the detail and background also came from the newspapers of the time, both English and Japanese. But unfortunately there is very little left of Edo and early Meiji-era Tokyo that you can see with your own eyes, in the sense of streets and neighborhoods that evoke the period in the way you can still say parts of London suggest Dickens’s city. Of course there are big public buildings, ministries, banks, that have survived (not forgetting the Imperial palace walls), but there has been so much destruction and rebuilding and replanning of streets, that all the patina and sense of the old neighborhoods has been obliterated. But there was one place, the site of Arthur and Masa’s first rented house by the Matsuchiyama temple in Asakusa, where there is still the same pattern of little streets as there was in 1904, and where you can still look out over the Sumida River from the temple, on a bluff of high ground, as they must have done. But the places that these two visited together outside Tokyo are less changed&mdashLake Chuzenji, Nikko, the temples in Kyoto, or the coast of northern Japan. And certainly having been to some of those places was a great help when writing. And it was also helpful to see the photographic record, old postcards and so on—and in that sense the Tokyo of a hundred years ago is remarkably well documented, again, despite what has happened in the meantime.
Q. One of the difficulties of basing a nonfiction narrative on correspondence is that the letters cease when the figures are together—and that’s exactly when their lives and shared experiences are most intense. Did this frustrate you? How were you able to piece together the portions of their lives when no “paper trail” existed?
A. I have already said how useful the diaries of other British officer contemporaries were, because Arthur and Masa flit in and out of these, and they give a sense of day to day expatriate life and a little circle of friends, several of them with Japanese girls who would meet and go for picnics or to the sumo wrestling together. The English language papers in Japan and Hong Kong give lists of European visitors in the big hotels, and arrivals and departures. But for the most part the details of when they were together came in letters that were written ten or twenty years later, when, during the separation caused by the Great War, or in the 1920s, they were looking back nostalgically to this period as some sort of idyll. So Arthur would write “Do you remember the goldfish at Funatsu?” or recall houses they had lived in, characters they had met, or rail journeys they had made. He would write about country inns, or beaches, or the persimmons or figs they had eaten. Sometimes you find him responding to something she must have written, as in “I certainly remember the fireflies in Nakano very well. They went inside your kimono sleeves didn’t they?” By noting these references we were to some extent able to reconstruct the time when they were together. What was frustrating was the fact that we knew he had kept a detailed diary, which has been lost, along with Masa’s own letters to him.
Q. The chapters on Kiyoshi are so moving and so deeply sad. What were your reactions and feelings toward Arthur and Masa’s son? Did you find him more sympathetic and easier to relate to than his parents? Who, at the end, do you feel you understood better—Kiyoshi, his mother, or his father?
A. You could say that Kiyoshi was the real victim here, despite the education and entry into the Japanese elite that Arthur’s remittances paid for. His parents were adults, who entered into this relationship with their eyes open, even if you think Arthur was to some extent exploiting her. Kiyoshi seems to have been psychologically scarred and embittered by what transpired. And because of what happened to him later his life seems a terrible waste—he was obviously extraordinary clever, talented, sensitive.
I would say I understood Arthur best. He is so much a product of his time, and of a particular class background, and I think I can see the effect that Japan would have had on this particular type of Englishman. Perhaps Momoko would say she understood Masa best.
Q. SPOILER ALERT: Arthur and Masa do not remain together, “happily ever after.” Were you disappointed that Arthur did not return to Masa after the war, despite his injury? That Masa did not choose to move to Ireland to be with Arthur? Do you think they made a mistake?
A. It is true she could have gone with him to England at one point, but one has to question how easy it would have been for her. At that stage she had two small children. Her family was clearly worried she would be discriminated against and would have a difficult time. Perhaps Arthur was unrealistic about this. What would the neighbors in Armagh have made of her? As for Arthur’s failure to carry through his pledge to make it back to Japan after 1918, that is really the central question which governs how you judge him overall. My own feeling is that at the time he really didn’t think that he could make the journey because of his injury, and still get the medical help he needed. But if he had left it another year, then he might have felt differently. And why didn’t he ask Masa to come to him?
Q. Do the two of you plan to work together again? Is there a book in the works for either of you?
A. I am now working on another book which is also a true story, and also about Englishmen abroad, but nothing to do with Japan or Asia. We both hope that if we ever found a suitable Japanese subject we would be able to collaborate again, and I am still very interested in modern Japanese history from other work that I have done. But I fear there will not be another story as emotionally involving as this one.
- Arthur Hart-Synnot is, at the start of the book, the classic late-nineteenth century officer and gentleman—and in some ways he remains true to this model throughout. And yet his passionate devotion to Masa is highly unusual for a man of his background. What is typical and what is extraordinary about Arthur? To what extent does his passion for Masa fundamentally change him? Does he remain the quintessential officer/gentleman?
- In the heyday of the Anglo-Japanese alliance, Japanese culture was all the rage in the West—and Japanese women were considered delicate, “tripping doll-like” beauties. In fact, on page 29, Masa is described as having a “rather modest downcast look, and delicate, almost childlike complexion.” How do the authors use these stereotypes of Japan and Japanese women as background for Arthur’s passion for Masa? Was it truly love at first site for Arthur—or was he initially just infatuated with Masa because she was a Japanese woman?
- The authors tell their story in a very simple, almost austere style—the prose is perfectly clear and unornamented, descriptions are straightforward, analysis minimal. Why do you think they chose this approach instead of a more poetic, brooding, or philosophical style? Why does this style work well with their subject?
- “The soldiering tradition conditioned Arthur’s outlook and made him the sort of man he was,” the authors write in the first chapter (p. 4). Masa also lives a life dictated by tradition and convention. And yet both of them found the strength and the passion to utterly break with convention. Where did this strength come from? Do you think their break from convention doomed them to unhappiness? How would their story be different if they lived today?
- In many ways, this is a book about the waning of the British Empire and the emergence of Japan as a modern world power. How much did you know about this era before reading the book? What did you learn? What surprised you? Do you think the authors effectively weave together the big historical picture with the private lives of the lovers?
- One of the book’s authors was born and raised in Japan, the other in England. Do you think the book is more informed by a Western or an Eastern sensibility? What makes it Western? What makes it Eastern? How do these terms influence the way we read, analyze character, and react to stories?
- All of Masa’s letters were destroyed, so inevitably this story is somewhat one-sided. In what way does the lack of Masa’s correspondence affect your reading of the story?
- Arthur writes in one letter “I am the lucky one, because you love this man, wicked as I am” (p. 78). Why does Arthur consider himself wicked? In what ways is wickedness is part of his character?
- The authors stay largely removed from Arthur and Masa—why do you think they adopted this stance? Some judgments, however, do slip through. Take a look at page 104 in which they write “Arthur did not seem able to put himself in her shoes or to see how the world might look from her point of view.” Do you agree with this assessment? Where are the shades of imperialism in Arthur’s attitude toward Masa? How about in the way he dealt with his children?
- Discuss your reactions to Arthur’s marriage. What elements would have to have been in place for Arthur’s and Masa’s relationship to survive the war and Arthur’s injuries? Would they have married? In your discussion of Arthur’s marriage, consider how the authors describe his reasoning process on page 230. Are the authors, perhaps unconsciously, siding with Arthur? Or with Masa? Who do you think is at fault for the end of their relationship?
- Readers remain engrossed even after the end of Arthur and Masa’s relationship. Discuss the final chapters and how the authors sustain interest and build suspense. Did you find the ending satisfying? In what ways would you have liked it to be different? In the end, was there a character you wish you had gotten to know better?
- The book’s epilogue opens with a quote from the French philosopher Alain: “We should never listen to nor allow ourselves to believe the statement that war can ever be compatible, in any sense whatsoever, with justice and humanity.” To what extent do you see this book as an illustration of this quotation? How can a couple of lives, seen intensely and caught up in history, illuminate the struggles and tragedies of an era marked by war?