BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
FALLING BLOSSOM: A British officer's enduring love for a Japanese woman
, June 24, 2006
An absorbing, true love storyFALLING BLOSSOM: A British officer's enduring love for a Japanese woman
by Peter Pagnamenta and Momoko Williams
(Century / Arrow Books Ltd)
Paperback: 299 pages
Rec. price: $32.95In a multicultural society such as Australia, in which marriages between people of a European and Asian background are commonplace, it is hard to believe that 100 years ago such unions were taboo.Falling Blossoms
tells the tale of such a liaison. The writing of this extraordinary, tragic, yet moving, story was inspired by the discovery of letters written by British army captain Arthur Hart-Synnot to his beloved, Masa Suzuki.
They met in the Tokyo Officers' Club, where Masa was working, and to which the young Captain Hart-Synnot had been granted visiting rights, during his assignment in Tokyo to study Japanese.
The background of the couple could not have been more dissimilar. Hart-Synnot was born into a wealthy Anglo-Irish establishment family, most of whose male members were officers in the British Army. In the wake of the 1902 Anglo-Japanese alliance, officers with linguistic skills such as Hart-Synnot were sent to Japan to learn Japanese, in case expert British translators were needed in the event of war.
By contrast Masa was from a working-class background. Having been divorced by her husband, she took a job at the Officers' Club to gain some independence from her family.
Arthur soon invited her to come and keep his house. While such liaisons were not unusual, when Arthur left Japan a few years later, he did so with the intent of maintaining their relationship, unlike Captain Pinkerton of Madame Butterfly
In the period before World War I, Arthur unsuccessfully applied for a posting in Japan, his applications possibly being blocked because his liaison had become known to his superiors.Family disapproval
However, he was often to visit Masa, by whom he had two sons (the younger of whom died in childhood). At one stage, Masa came to live with him in Hong Kong. He begged her to marry him and move to the United Kingdom, but she refused on the grounds of family disapproval. Although it was his intention to retire from the British Army, move to Japan and marry Masa, the Great War was to tear the couple apart.
Rising to the rank of Brigadier-General, Arthur was seriously wounded on the Western Front, losing both his legs. Fearing loneliness, and believing he needed the companionship and personal care of a wife, Arthur married Violet Drower, a voluntary nurse in 1919, four months after they met.
They eventually settled in France, as the Hart-Synnot family estate, Ballymoyer, was in Armagh, in the heart of disputed Irish territory during the unrest following World War I.
Masa was naturally enraged, as she and her surviving son, Kiyoshi, had suffered discrimination on the basis of her circumstances. However, the friendship and the correspondence continued. Arthur continued to send Masa an allowance until it was no longer possible after Japan's entry into the war in December 1941.
Arthur was eventually to be reconciled with his son, who resented his father's marriage. This occurred on the eve of World War II, when Kiyoshi paid him a visit en route from Paris, where he had been studying, to Tokyo.
Tragically, Masa was to learn after the war that Arthur had died of a heart attack in 1942 and her son was never to return from Manchuria.
This is an extremely well-written narrative that was hard to put down. One of its strengths is that the author places the relationship in its historical background, outlining, for example, the changing political ethos in Japan from a society that espoused the values of Western liberalism to one that succumbed to totalitarian militarism bent on aggression.