Today’s Curious Find is a book of real letters that reveal the love story between a man and woman, and told in the lovers’ own words. The letters are interesting in that they chart the romance between two people of very different cultural backgrounds, bringing to life the subtleties in character that first brings them together and eventually drives them apart. They also illuminate the reality of Japanese home life, including an account of private divorce proceedings, which was not known to the West at that time.
Kenrio Watanabe was a middle aged socially distinguished Japanese man who met Mertyl Meredith, the English girl to whom the letters were addressed, while studying art in Vienna. Miss Meredith originally believed that the fact Mr Watanabe was married was sufficient guarantee of the stability of the foundation of their friendship. However the later letters reveal how Mr Watanabe received news from home informing him not only of his wife’s lack of affection but of her actual unfaithfulness and her wish for a divorce, an attitude highly unusual in Japanese society at that time. When Mertyl left Vienna the friendship had deepened considerably, though he had not told her of his domestic problems. Their correspondence begins at this point in their lives, charting a friendship bound by mutual sympathy into an extremely personal relationship driven by their words to one another.
In her introduction to the volume of letters British author and campaigner for women’s rights Marie Stopes indicates a great admiration for Mertyl and Kenrio, suggesting that “It is seldom that a lover is able to express in any degree the feelings that are surging in him; still more seldom that a pair of lovers are both so articulate; and most rare of all that two lovers, from the uttermost ends of the earth, trained in traditions wide as the poles asunder, should not only love comprehensively rather than sexually, but be able to weave between them the tapestry of words in which the thoughts and feelings materialised still palpitate with life. Mertyl Meredith and Watanabe were such lovers.”
However Stopes also emphasises how the letters are a warning, that they also reveal how delicate the balance is such a unique relationship can be. The pair grew together and learned from one another, however there was a sense that at that time in Japanese society relationships were secondary and subservient to family, political and material ends, which contributed to his increasing distancing of himself from her. Eventually the letters portray the frustration Mertyl felt towards Kenrio, especially in regards to him not writing to her for weeks at a time, in the words of Mertyl herself:
“I felt, or course, even before I reached Japan, that your love had changed a little – I thought that perhaps you had become a little careless through the long want of the stimulus of meeting….. Now that our betrothal is broken, is it not perhaps better to give me back all the letters I have written you? If to you they have no value, if to you they have no more of sweetness and sacred promise, to me they are all that is left of my life.”
The letters end with an explanation from Kenrio regarding his behaviour:
“…the after effect of my time in Europe remained for the first year or more after my return to Japan, and I had still strong feeling of love. But becoming more returned to my original state, among Japanese, and also with work, the idea of love changed. Then also I remembered you had spoken, and even I myself had spoken, to die or kill us for love, and that gave me now a very bad impression to me, for such shows that love is not a good thing. Also that I should have loved any lady, in such strong way as I loved you, is quite out of my natural thought, and the thought of any Japanese. I think I told you in earlier times that love is thought to be immoral with us. And now I know that it is really so, if it had such a strong power over me, against my natural habit….. I hope that it is not true for you what you say, that you cannot love any second time, and that your life is finished. Please do not think of that.”
As Stopes says:
“The thing they had treasured, the marriage-desiring love, was dead. Little as she had suspected it probably, her doubts, though lovingly and patiently expressed, had helped to kill it.”
Perhaps their love for one another was derailed not just by cultural expectations but also the expectations they placed on one another, however as this quote from the Introduction to the volume indicates, there was a time when they believed in what they were creating together, a time when all possibilities were still before them.
“Among the many friends who waved farewell to Mertyl Meredith at the railway station at Vienna was Kenrio Watanabe, Like the others, he brought chocolates and flowers, and with the flowers was an envelope enclosing a card with the following words:
‘We will meet as though we met not, and part as though we parted not. Out of dreams into dreams.’ ”