Where’s Wang: Isabel Allende’s ‘The Japanese Lover’ – Love Knows No Colour

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I’ve always been a romantic at heart, awing at the beauty of love displayed through fictional works of art. Whether it be a book, movie, or even newspaper article, I am one to tear up at anything where romance is involved.

In this case, that work of art is the book ‘The Japanese Lover’ by Isabel Allende, a story focusing on two star-crossed lovers, Alma Belasco (WW), and Ichimei Fukuda, a first-generation Japanese immigrant (AM), both of whom display everlasting love for one another over many decades.

*Spoiler Alert: This review reveals plot details.*

Before we need those tissue boxes, let’s begin with a brief synopsis of the book itself. It begins in the present day, when a care worker, Irina, unearths a portrait of Ichiemi, causing Alma to recount their passionate love affair. Alma begins with the couple’s correspondence during World War II, as Ichiemi’s family is sent to an American concentration camp called Topaz, after Pearl Harbour was bombed. During this time, the Fukuda family experience interrogation and harassment for their Japanese heritage, which takes a toll on the family’s stability.

After the war ends, Alma and Ichiemi maintain a love affair for years, breaking it off sporadically, then rekindling it multiple times, despite monumental life events such as pregnancy, or even marriage to other people. The affair remains secret until the last of their days, when Irina and Alma’s grandson, Seth, discover the truth of the mysterious man pulling at Alma’s heartstrings.

In order to fully understand the concept of ‘The Japanese Lover’, let’s dig a little deeper into the meaning of the story itself.

  • Upon moving to the United States, Alma was shocked to see an individual of Japanese origin. As a result of her naivety, she refers to Encyclopedia Britannica, which goes to show how ‘different’ anyone of oriental origin was perceived during the 1930s. “Alma stared wide-eyed at father and son as if they were from another species: they were nothing like the Chinese she had seen in the illustrations in the Encyclopedia Britannica.”
  • During WWII, Japanese-Americans were heavily discriminated against based on the bombing of Pearl Harbour. These Japanese-Americans were forced to become “Americanized”, despite their birth in the United States. Many of them often chose to ‘comply’ rather than face harsh treatments.
  • Once Alma and Ichiemi were reunited, they both knew of the risks involved with each other. The 1950s were a time of rampant racism in the United States, where visible minorities were often segregated against based solely on their appearance. As a result, Alma chose to marry someone of her own culture in order to avoid scrutiny, which could possibly have led to unhappiness in her marriage. Although, this is not openly indicated when Alma speaks of her late husband.
  • Alma deserted Ichiemi when she found out she was carrying his child. Ichiemi would have wanted to marry Alma however, knew that it would have been socially unacceptable to do so. Also, he wouldn’t have wanted to put Alma in a ‘difficult’ position, which may have involved her forced withdrawal from society based on others’ opinions, especially where a mixed-child was concerned.
  • Alma and Ichiemi reunite once again after Isaac Belasco’s funeral, with both Alma and Ichiemi having had married other individuals. However, deep within their hearts, living without one another was difficult. In order to save ‘face’, both Alma and Ichiemi decided to live normal lives with their spouses, while showing the beauty of their love for one another through sporadic outings, all of which were kept a ‘secret’.
  • Although a story of this magnitude would be difficult to comprehend in today’s society, the 1950s was a different time. Throughout history, we have come to accept couples such as Alma and Ichiemi, and would even be celebrating their diversity today.

    Let’s be grateful that couples like Alma and Ichiemi paved the way for such a beautiful mish-mash of love, one that signifies strength, autonomy, and persistence through time; one that knows no colour.

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