Twenty-year-old Stephen leaves his home in Hong Kong just as the Japanese are poised to further invade China, towards Hong Kong. He is sent to Tarumi, a small beach-side village in Japan, to recuperate from tuberculosis. There, he meets and develops friendships with three adults, Matsu, Kenzo, and Sachi, and a young girl, Keiko, who is his own age. Keiko becomes his first love, but it can’t be because she is Japanese and he is Chinese. The Japanese and Chinese were fighting a war at that time, and Keiko’s family had prejudiced opinions about Chinese people (especially Keiko’s father). Yet Keiko still sees Stephen. Then Keiko’s brother eventually dies fighting for Japan, and that causes Keiko to feel guilty for dating Stephen. She ends the relationship because of that. Also, there is a bitter love triangle between Sachi, Kenzo, and Matsu. Sachi is now an old woman with leprosy. Lepers are forced into exile and are said to dishonor their family, because of their disfigured bodies.
Sachi says that society thinks of her as a monster, and those thoughts have obviously rubbed off on her self-concept. She always makes sure that no one can see the right side of her scarred face (the left is unblemished and considered to be the most beautiful face Stephen has ever seen). Such beauty existing next to the scars shows that beauty is in everything. Now, when Sachi was younger and “one of the most beautiful girls in Tarumi”, she was engaged to Kenzo, another good looking boy who had promise for a great, successful future. But when Sachi got leprosy, Kenzo’s parents forbade his going to Yamaguchi, and Kenzo was also afraid of seeing what happened to Sachi. He never realized it, but he had fallen in her love with her beauty, and not the soul. In order to keep in some contact in the later years with Sachi, Kenzo sent messages through his childhood friend, Matsu. Matsu is one of the main characters in this book and housed Stephen. Matsu was Stephen’s grandfather’s servant, and is a very understanding, quiet man.
Matsu taught Stephen many lessons about honor, the cruelties of humanity, and what it is to love someone. Matsu was the only person who was truly there for Sachi, and over the years he and Sachi had started a loving relationship. This was very understated throughout the book, as if Gail Tsukiyama wanted to point out how simple everything was then. Also, Stephen’s Ba-ba (father) had an affair with a Japanese woman, and even gave money to his mistress. This tarnished Ba-ba’s reputation in Stephen’s mind, and he felt betrayed by his father. Throughout the book there is an underlying sense of society being out place, what with their crazy ideas of honor and the fact that there was a war going on. The unwinding stories of his new friends, war, and family eventually bring him to the beginnings of wisdom, love, honor, and loss.