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The Japanese Lover (book)

Book cover. Courtesy of Atria
View in the Densho Encyclopedia

Novel by best-selling Chilean American novelist Isabel Allende, the title character of which is a Nisei man whose story of wartime incarceration is woven into the narrative.


The Japanese Lover is set in a Northern California retirement home called Lark House and centered on Alma Belasco, a wealthy widow recently arrived at the home. Moving back and forth between the past and present, we learn the many secrets of Alma's complicated life and of those closest to her: her friend and caretaker, the young Moldovan immigrant Irina Bazili; Alma's grandson Seth; Alma's husband and cousin Nathaniel; and the title character, a Nisei gardener named Ichimei Fukuda. A Jewish refugee from Poland, Alma was sent to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle in San Francisco as a child just prior to parents being caught up in the Warsaw Ghetto and perishing in a Nazi death camp. A diffident child suddenly thrust into a strange place, Alma grows close to just two people: Nathaniel, a cousin five years her senior, and Ichimei, the son of her father's master gardener. In the present, Seth falls in love with Irina—who like Alma was sent to the U.S. from overseas as a child—and enlists her help in gathering information to write his family's story. Together, they unravel the various strands of Alma's and the other Belascos' lives, including the role played throughout by the mysterious Ichimei.

As with the other key characters, we learn much of Ichimei's background. His parents, Takao and Heideko, were more or less typical immigrants from Japan. Like many Issei men in the continental U.S., Takao becomes a gardener, and one of his clients becomes Isaac Belasco, one of the most prominent lawyers in San Francisco. A lover of landscape architecture, Isaac and Takao become friends and partners, designing an elaborate garden at the family estate. But before they can go into business together, World War II erupts and the Fukudas are forcibly removed to Tanforan Assembly Center and to the Topaz , Utah, concentration camp. Over time, Takao becomes increasingly disillusioned over his incarceration. One of Ichimei's older brothers, Charles joins the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and is killed in Europe; another, James, becomes a " no-no boy " who is eventually "deported" to Japan. His sister, Megumi, falls for a white M.P. at Topaz and eventually marries him. After the war, the family settles in Arizona, where Takao dies. But when Ichimei returns to the Belasco estate to recover a sword buried there by his father, Isaac buys a choice five acre plot for the Fukuda family, which they eventually turn into a successful nursery. A decade later, Ichimei and Alma meet by chance and begin an affair that stretches for decades.

Background and Reception

Allende (1942– ) was born in Lima to Argentinean parents; her father, a diplomat, was stationed there at the time. She did not know her father, who left the family shortly after her birth. She was raised in the home of her maternal grandparents in Argentina and, because her mother remarried another diplomat, in Bolivia, Europe, and the Middle East. Returning to Argentina, she married in 1962 and became a well-known journalist. But the assassination of Argentinean President Salvador Allende (her father's cousin) and the overthrow of his government in 1973 led to Allende and her family leaving the country for Venezuela two years later. A letter she subsequently wrote to her grandfather back in Argentina became the basis for her first novel, The House of the Spirits , published in Spanish in 1982 and English in 1985. Drawing comparisons to the Colombian Nobel Prize winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez, Spirits also became an international bestseller. After her first marriage ended in divorce, she married American lawyer William Gordon in 1988 and moved to California shortly thereafter, becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1993. Though fluent in English, she continues to write her books in Spanish. Her books have sold some 65 million copies. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. The Japanese Lover was her 14th novel. [1]

Allende told Jennifer Maloney of the The Wall Street Journal that The Japanese Lover was inspired by a a conversation with a friend, whose elderly mother had had a Japanese gardener who had been her best friend for forty years. "And I said, 'OK, maybe they were lovers.' She said, 'No, why would you think that?' Of course I thought that!" The novel was also inspired by the end of her marriage to Gordon after twenty-seven years. As she told Tim Walker of The Independent , "I was ending a marriage that had dragged on too long. It was time for me to reflect upon love and relationships, romance and passion, aging, memory, loss." [2]

Reviews for The Japanese Lover were largely positive, with critics praising her illumination of the life of the elderly, the portrayal of the central love story, and the scope of the story. But some reviewers found the plot thin and the wide range of characters both unwieldy and unbelievable. The Japanese Lover made the best-seller lists, topping out on the New York Times list at #15 on November 29, 2015.

Historical Accuracy

The chapters set in Tanforan and Topaz are generally handed well, though as in the case of many fictional accounts of the forced removal and incarceration, things are made worse than they really were. For instance, the author claims that in addition to firearms and shortwave radios, "small religious statues, ceremonial kimonos, and documents in another tongue" were also routinely confiscated. In Topaz, she writes that the "lines for the latrines stretched for several blocks..." Additionally, she refers several times to Ichimei's letters to Alma being censored by having blocks cut out of them; such censorship did occur, but only in the internment camps run by the army or the Immigration and Naturalization Service, not in the War Relocation Authority -run camps. She also largely mischaracterizes the meaning of James Fukuda's "no-no" status in a couple of ways. First of all, she writes that Takao and the family are embarrassed by his stance and that they are ostracized by other inmates as a result. Such reactions would be quite unlikely among Issei , who would be more likely to ostracize them for their other son joining the army. Later, we are told that James could be sent to Fort Leavenworth, which would not have been the case simply for answering "no-no" and that he is later "deported" to Japan. Afterwards, Megumi is rejected by colleges (presumably through the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council ) because of James's "arrest," which again would not have happened. After leaving Topaz at the end of 1945, they are deposited in Arizona because they are not allowed to return to San Francisco. By that time, the exclusion orders had been rescinded, and they would have been able to return.

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

Might also like: What the Scarecrow Said by Stuart David Ikeda; Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford; Southland by Nina Revoyr


Anderson, Beth. Library Journal , Nov. 1, 2015, 78. ["Allende's latest... a glorious family saga, with its rich cast of decent, complex characters caught up in America's struggles with war, prejudice, AIDS, and society's old taboos that are fast disappearing, is a beautiful tribute to devotion. Readers will do well to savor Allende's literary artistry."]

Cadden, Mary. " Allende's 'Japanese Lover' Is Magical ," USA Today , Dec. 30, 2015. ["We are invested in not just Ichimei and Alma's story, but all the love stories that are intrinsically linked to theirs. And through these many subplots, Allende crafts a narrative that is both magical and real."]

Charles, Ron. " Isabel Allende's 'The Japanese Lover': A Tale of History and Romance ," Washington Post , Nov. 2, 2015. ["... a story of genuine and refreshing generosity. Allende manages to blend domestic comedy, historical fiction, mystery, romance and even a note of fantasy to create a novel that's a pleasure to recommend."]

De Robertis, Carolina. San Francisco Chronicle , Nov. 6, 2015. ["One of the gifts of this novel is its vibrant attention to what we Spanish speakers call la tercera edad : 'the third age,'" that of the last stages of life; "As Allende shows us, the inner worlds—and passions—of the elderly have plenty to share."]

Kirkus Reviews , Sept. 15, 2015. ["Vividly and pointedly evoking prejudices 'unconventional' couples among the current-day elderly faced (and some are still battling), Allende, as always, gives progress and hopeful spirits their due."]

Klein, Julia M. Boston Globe , Nov. 28, 2015. ["It is to Allende's credit that she manages to make this unlikely romance [between Alma and Ichimei], with all its twists and turns, both believable and affecting."]

Negative or Mixed

Brown, Janelle. " Review: Isabel Allende Is a Star, But 'The Japanese Love' Doesn't Shine ," Los Angeles Times , Nov. 12, 2015. ["... a sweeping history told at such a distance that it's like reading a book through the wrong end of a telescope."]

Ferriss, Lucy. New York Times Book Review , Dec. 9, 2015. ["When Allende sets her tales in distant or exotic locales, it's easy to go along for the ride. Unfortunately, love's intoxication, like the scent of the gardenias Ichimei sends Alma over many years, fails to lift this new novel above its thin plot and weakly motivated characters."]

Stanton, Maya. Entertainment Weekly , Nov. 6, 2015. ["Character and plot are fairly thin, ... making it hard to become emotionally invested."]


  1. Biographical sketch based on "Allende, Isabel (1942-), An Introduction to," in Contemporary Literary Criticism , edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 264 (Detroit: Gale, 2009); "Isabel Allende," Contemporary Authors Online , Gale, 2015, accessed on Feb. 13, 2017 at
  2. Maloney quote cited in "Isabel Allende," Contemporary Authors Online ; Tim Walker, "Isabel Allende, The Japanese Lover: 'Fiction comes from the womb, not the brain'—Book review," The Independent, Dec. 1, 2015, accessed on February 13, 2017 at .
Media Details
Author Isabel Allende, Nick Caistor (translator), Amanda Hopkinson (translator)
Pages 336
Publication Date 2015