Sword and Blossom — Discovering a Love Story

Japanese Origami

She found a stash of old letters, still in their original thin white envelopes, with foreign stamps and sealing wax. The letters inside were on rolled, thin, hand made “makigami” paper, and many of them contained pressed flowers.

By: Peter Pagnamenta, co-author of Sword and Blossom: A British Officer’s Enduring Love for a Japanese Woman

In 1982 a retired Tokyo teacher was going through boxes in a storeroom, when she found a stash of old letters, still in their original thin white envelopes, with foreign stamps and sealing wax. They were bundled tightly together and there were over 800 of them. The letters inside were on rolled, thin, hand made “makigami” paper, and many of them contained pressed flowers which disintegrated, as they fell out. They were from a British officer who had been sent to Japan to learn Japanese in 1904, written to his love, Masa Suzuki, and they spanned a period of nearly thirty years. The finder of the letters was a relative of Masa’s by marriage, and she had heard about the Englishman. But she had no idea of the full story.

Those letters are the principal source for our book, and we could only reconstruct the story by working through them, and finding the clues, and the chronology, which allowed the narrative of this relationship to emerge.

Momoko Williams and I were not the first to see this extraordinary cache — the Japanese writer Takako Inoue had looked at many of them and written a book published in Japan, but she had not been able to do any research in Britain, so her version was not complete. She helped set us on our way, but it was only when we got full access to the original letters that we realized what a daunting task we had taken on. They were difficult to decipher even for a Japanese, because the language and the ways of writing characters had changed so much, and Captain Hart Synnot’s language and syntax, specially at the start when he was learning, were not very good.

We spent nine months going through the letters, one by one, from 1905 to the 1930’s. We worked in real time, sitting at a table. Momoko would try and read them, and I would transcribe and type the contents in rough English as we went along, so we could pick up the references and ask each other questions. There were Japanese allusions that she could catch, or could ask others about, and there were English related references that I could understand. So there was a lot to do before we could get to what, for most books, would be regarded as square one.

One of the difficulties was that Arthur had helpfully (for Masa) rendered all the English names, of other officers, or places in Ireland, or family members, into phonetic Japanese. For example we were confronted with a cast of characters with strange sounding names — Blododo, Toku, Sarmondo, and had to check army lists and other sources until we found he meant General Broadwood, or Major Toke or Captain Salmon. He called her “Dare” and for a long time Momoko couldn’t work out what this meant, until she realized, from just one letter in which he used some English as well, that this was his Japanese spelling for “Dolly”. That was what he must always have called her.

As we went on we built up an index of names and places, and dates, and then started to do lateral research into army records, birth certificates, marriage certificates, wills, and land records in Japan, England and Ireland, to build up the picture. The newspapers of the time yielded vital information. We ploughed through yellowing copies of the small English language papers that had been published in Tokyo and Yokohama for the foreign community, and one of their staple ingredients were columns listing passengers arriving and departing by ship. In the “Japan Weekly Mail” for March 12th 1904 we were pleased to find: “per British steamer “Java” from London via the Chinese ports — Mr F.J. Abbott, Mrs F.J. Abbot, Miss Abbott and nurse, Mr H Fleming, Master Fleming, Mr G. Kingswell, Captain Hart Segnott

They had the name wrong, but it was good enough for our purposes. There were only three European style hotels that westerners used in Tokyo then, and the same papers published lists of guests who were staying. So we were able to place him at the Imperial in Tokyo on several occasions, or staying at Hakone, and for three or four years it was possible to track most of his comings and goings around the Far East, and check these dates against his own letters. The Japanese system for registering births and deaths was much more difficult to crack — the “Kosekki“.

Our greatest piece of luck was finding the diaries of two of the four other British language officers who were in Tokyo at the same time, because they described this world of foreign bachelors, the trips to the sumo wrestling, the tea houses, the picnics with the girlfriends at cherry blossom time, and Arthur and Masa flit in and out of them.

There was one major element we hoped to find, but never did — and that was the correspondence in the other direction, and Masa’s own letters to Arthur. We know where they were at various times, but they disappeared, probably during the Second World War.

© 2007 Peter Pagnamenta


About the Author:

Peter Pagnamenta is a writer and television documentary maker, with a special interest in Japan. He conceived and wrote the eight-part BBC series Nippon, an archive and testimony history of Japan’s recovery after 1945, as well as Bubble Trouble, about Japan in the 1990’s. Other series for the BBC include the twentieth-century industrial history All Our Working Lives, for which he wrote the book with Richard Overy, and the twenty-six-part People’s Century. He is a former editor of the weekly current-affairs television program Panorama.