Kerri Sakamoto warms one hundred hearts at York

On Thursday, Jan. 27, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented novelist Kerri Sakamoto. Chris Cornish, a teaching assistant for the course, sent the following report to YFile.

What is love between two people….As you say, we are two hearts, but merely two out of one hundred million hearts across all of Japan, beating triumphantly as one.

– from One Hundred Million Hearts by Kerri Sakamoto

Kerri Sakamoto and the students who came to hear her read fell mutually in love on this Thursday night. Fresh from a reception in her honour at Stong College, Sakamoto read from her latest novel One Hundred Million Hearts. As one student commented, “the whole evening was amazing.” Sakamoto was just as effusive in describing her experience and the students as “great, so thoughtful and insightful, and so open to whatever transformative influences art might offer. I truly had an especially wonderful time on Thursday – this reading was a real high point for me, one of the best events I’ve participated in.”

Right: Kerri Sakamoto

In her first novel, The Electrical Field, Sakamoto examined the effects of the Second World War on Japanese communities in Canada. Her second novel expands this exploration to Japan itself, a darker look beyond its beautiful traditions and aesthetics. Sakamoto’s interest began with an interest in the kamikaze, a term which in Western perception has now become more of a caricature than heroic figure. It is her attempt to understand the psychology of the tokkotai (special attack squadron) and the nation behind them, “one hundred million hearts beating triumphantly as one.”

This journey is carried through the personal narrative of Miyo, a young Canadian woman who travels to Japan to discover her father’s hidden past as a kamikaze pilot. Miyo has lived a sheltered 32 years, bereft of her mother at birth, and dependent on her father Masao to take care of her and her disfigured left side. Masao has been like a silent but devoted giant until his death. In the middle of this, Miyo also discovers love and sexuality for the first time (the awkward love scenes are probably the tenderest renditions of first-time sexual experience in recent literature). Sakamoto created Miyo with the idea of someone emerging from a chrysalis, moving into a larger and more complex world, discovering not only the hidden past but hidden strength. Her father’s last words for her are to “endure the unendurable.”

In Japan, Miyo meets Hana, the half-sister her father never told her about. Hana is a visual artist, bitter about their father’s abandonment of her and his dedication to the kamikaze code. The artwork she creates plays with the kamikaze imagery of blood, air, fire and flower, stitching her paternal resentment together with her disillusionment with the war and the Emperor Hirihito. The imagery is both terrible and beautiful, equating the explosion of a kamikaze plane with a fiery blossom in the sky. With all the striking imagery in the novel, it is no surprise that Sakamoto is herself a visual artist who explores the same themes.

Trying to understand the feverish love of Emperor and nation is key to understanding the Japanese people at that time. The figure of Hirihito is like a distant but benevolent father, with all of Japan as his children. It is this kind of love and devotion that Western readers might find difficult to understand. As Sakamoto noted, “George Bush is not divine and we don’t love him.” The disillusionment felt when Hirihito surrendered to the allies, no longer an idealized entity but merely human, is something all the characters must wrestle with.

When asked about the element of silence in her work, the author considered its many levels. There is the silence that comes from trauma, the reason why the truth of those times has stayed submerged so long. In researching her book, Sakamoto found that many people weren’t interested in talking about that period, wanting to forget the atrocities of the past. She noted that there is also an aesthetic and grace of silence in Japanese culture that is full because it carries implicit understanding. However, this kind of silence can become awkward when it is transplanted into a western environment like Canada. There is also the silence between languages, as Western-raised Japanese are isolated from their ancestral language. It is a combination of these elements that characterize Miyo’s relationship with her father: “Those two meager words, infantile words, ichi ni, were all he’d given her; they spoke of everything and maybe nothing between them.”

Underlying everything is the love and sacrifice between two people, parent and child, sister and sister, or man and woman. As a kamikaze, Miyo’s father is a failure because he survived and thus did not sacrifice himself for his country. It is this that keeps him from being reincarnated as a hero with the cherry blossoms at the Yasukuni shrine. However, Masao makes innumerable little sacrifices over his lifetime for the love of his daughter. Positioned against this is the story of Masao’s wartime friend, Hajime, one of those who died in the war. In a sequence of letters to his sweetheart back home, Hajime questions his sacrifice for Emperor, for nation, for the hundred million hearts, when his only desire is to be with her.

In her quiet and artful voice, Sakamoto concluded the night with one of these love letters: “This heart whispers good night.”

More about Kerri Sakamoto

Kerri Sakamoto is a Toronto-born writer of fiction with an international reputation for film and visual arts criticism. Author of One Hundred Million Hearts (Vintage, 2004) and The Electric Field (Vintage Canada, 1998, Knopf, 1997), Sakamoto was the winner of the 1999 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best First Book. Her works have been short-listed for several international awards and the Governor General’s Award for fiction in 1998.  Identified by critics as a major new force in the landscape of Canadian fiction, Sakamoto is anthologized in the celebrated collection of Asian North American writing Charlie Chan is Dead (Norton, 1999) and is a contributor to the Canadian visual arts and literary journal Harbour.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. On Feb. 10, Wayde Compton visited York University to read from his poetry collection, Performance Bond.