Shun Medoruma’s novel In the Woods of Memory (translated from the Japanese by Takuma Sminkey) revolves around the rape of a fifteen-year-old girl by American soldiers in Okinawa. This layered, textured novel throws into stark relief the interconnections between experience and memory, and the enduring nature of trauma. Medoruma, who is an Okinawan writer, infuses his work with a keen sense of the island’s landscapes, its people, and the long shadows cast by the war.
The 1945 Battle of Okinawa was one of the largest and most ferocious engagements of the Pacific War. American and Japanese forces struggled for control of the island for over two months. When it was over, most of the island was destroyed, and nearly 140,000 civilians were killed. Despite the passage of time, for Okinawans the battle remains a searing memory. The novel’s opening lines are a character explaining: “The Americans are coming!” For the Okinawans in this novel, their arrival will leave a long wake of agony. Fifteen-year-old Sayoko is soon brutally raped by four American servicemen. Medoruma does not spare the reader details of the rape; he depicts the crime graphically. Reading this account is difficult but necessary, for this pitiless assault will resound for years to come for the characters in this novel.
In the first chapter, “Fumi ,” ten-year-old Fumi witnesses the rape in a wooded area adjacent to the beach and notes Sayoko’s posture after the crime in “the dim light . . . squatting and hugging her naked body.” After the rape, Fumi is warned by her parents never to go out alone. In “Seiji ,” a young Okinawan fisherman, Seiji, who has long harbored romantic feelings for Sayoko, listens to her crying in her house after the rape: “her sobs pierced Seiji’s heart, the pain cutting into him like thorns. . . .” After even more brazen rapes, in which American servicemen enter homes to assault Okinawan women, Seiji decides to seek revenge. At first, Medoruma only hints at his actions and fate—but over the course of the book, we learn more.
In “Hisako ,” events come into greater focus. Hisako has a recurring nightmare:
“She could hear footsteps running . . . in the dark. Then the woman’s feet and calves appeared, dashing across the village road. . . . Blood dripping down, forming a speckled pattern on the woman’s sand-covered feet. . . . The woman’s screams cut through the sounds of the crashing waves and buzzing cicadas, and pierced the hearts of all who heard them. . . . Even after she disappeared into the woods, her final scream lingered in their ears. . . .
In 2005, Hisako travels back to Okinawa, her girlhood home, to discover the origin of this horrible image. This is Hisako’s first visit to Okinawa in years. As Hisako rides the bus to meet an old friend, the landscape, at once familiar and strange, enables her to recall that the dream of the running woman is a real memory. She does not remember the woman’s name, but recalls American soldiers in the shattered woods near the mouth of a cave, guns drawn. An Okinawan man emerged from the cave and was shot. But beyond that, she remembered little, for “after sixty years, everything had grown hazy.”
In “Hisako and Fumi ,” Fumi, Hisako’s childhood friend, takes her on a tour of the island. Fumi remembers the events of 1945 with greater clarity than Hisako. Fumi tells Hisako she is dreaming of Sayoko, who was raped by American soldiers. The man in the cave is the fisherman Seiji, who used a harpoon to stab two of the four Americans who raped Sayoko. Later he hid in a cave, only to be flushed out by US troops with tear gas, which rendered him blind. Hisako is bewildered. The island has changed. The forest around the cave is thick with trees, while during the war, bombing had left nothing standing. The site where Sayoko was raped is no longer dense with thickets, but is a concrete embankment along the water. Sayoko’s house is still in the village, but has been long abandoned. We learn that Sayoko never recovered from the rape, that she would often escape from her house screaming and naked, and that local Okinawan men sexually abused her, she became pregnant, and the baby was given way for adoption. Eventually, Sayoko was sent to a sanitarium.
Tellingly, Sayoko does not narrate a chapter. We learn of her fate through the other characters, and actually encounter her only when her sister Tamiko visits her long-term care facility in 2005. She looks for her sister, who is not in her room. She examines drawings on the walls. Tamiko explains: “Shortly after moving here, she had started drawing at the suggestion of one of her caregivers. All three pictures were drawn in crayon with dark, somber colors. Dark green, blue, and purple had been layered to create the impression of being deep in the woods.”
The drawings evoke the scene of the dark, forbidding woods of Sayoko’s enduring trauma. Tamiko finds Sayoko overlooking the ocean trying to form words. Her lips move—she appears to speak, calling Seiji’s name—but it is far from clear. All we can infer about Sayoko’s mental state is from her crayon drawings rendered in dense and unforgiving earth tones.
The final chapter is related by Robert Higa, who acted as a Japanese interpreter in Okinawa during the battle. He refuses to take part in the sixtieth-anniversary commemorations on the island. In a letter to the organizer of the event, he relates the story of Sayoko. He saw her desperate condition after the attack, leaving him “with unbearable guilt. As long as I have these feelings, I can’t allow myself to accept your proposal.”
Guilt is the crippling legacy of Sayoko’s rape: lives are derailed, minds are destroyed, bodies disfigured, and souls are tormented. In the end, the title of Medoruma’s accomplished novel is telling: the woods of memory are a thicket filled with the overwhelming guilt of human helplessness. This is a dark conclusion, but the author suggests that by the telling and retelling of a great trauma, the stage is set for a wider sense of redemption. If no one forgets what happened to Sayoko—and others like her—then perhaps her story will never be repeated.
About the Reviewer
Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two children and is currently at work on a book on Jewish religious recluses, a novel and short stories.