[OUTLOOK]Separating fact from fiction

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[OUTLOOK]Separating fact from fiction

Two years ago, I published a memoir, “Before and After Liberation,” about what I experienced and witnessed as a young boy. I was delighted when the book received positive reviews.
However, some unexpected reactions opened my eyes in many ways. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, I was living in the town of Jeungpyeong, North Chungcheong Province. My family learned of the news through a newspaper. I wrote about my parents talking about what would happen to us in a worried voice with the newspaper in front of them. My family had the Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese daily, delivered at home.
Upon reading the scene, a much younger friend told me he was surprised to learn that we had an Asahi Shimbun subscription in such a small town at the time. To me, his reaction was even more startling. The Asahi Shimbun was transported by sea on the Kampu Ferry operating between Shimonoseki and Busan, and was delivered around the Korean Peninsula via railway. The obvious fact seemed very strange to the younger generation. Why did he feel so surprised? It is because his imagination was based on today’s perspective of the past. In other words, he had overlooked the frustrating yet undoubted fact that at the time, the Korean Peninsula was a part of the Japanese Empire, and Imperial Japan was by no means a foreign land.
Newspapers written in Korean had all been forced to discontinue, and the Maeil Shinmun, a propaganda organ of the Japanese colonial government, was the only newspaper published in Korean. The first time I ever saw Japanese military policemen was right after the liberation of the country. When some Japanese were quarantined in a theater by order of a county office, Japanese military police were dispatched to protect them. Some young readers expressed their surprise at this part. They were all familiar with scenes from movies or television dramas where Japanese military policemen harass Koreans for no apparent reason and interpreted that those scenes captured the essence of the colonial era. After its military rule was revised, the Japanese colonial rule of Korea was carried out far more intelligently and efficiently.
While these are trivial examples, they made me feel once again how hard it is to understand a past that you have not experienced. However, even a survivor with a first-hand experience does not necessarily deliver the past accurately. I once read a novel about a Japanese girl’s experience of returning from Korea to Japan after the liberation, and the story contained some fabricated facts. The author was a daughter of a high-ranking Japanese official, and she was a middle school student when she returned to Japan after the war. She now lives in the United States. The book, “So Far from the Bamboo Grove,” was introduced in Korea with the title, “Story of Yoko.” It is a touching and educationally valuable book.
However, some details are far from the facts and make the book unconvincing. The false information can mislead readers. The writer had lived in Nanam, North Hamkyeong Province in North Korea, and wrote about a bamboo forest around her old house. It is not likely that bamboo trees can grow at 42 degrees north latitude. She must have confused them with some other trees. She also wrote that she took out her savings on July 15 and escaped from Nanam on July 29. However, the Soviet Army entered the war on August 9. Even if she had access to confidential military information, her timing was just impossible. She also wrote that her father was wanted by the People’s Army around that time, which could not have happened.
Readers often mistake fiction for historical fact. Having an accurate understanding of the past is especially hard when many inaccurate documents are distributed and readers lack enlightened historical views. The question of who started the Korean War is also problematic. I was quite surprised that so many students believed in the theory that the South invaded the North, when there are extensive, authoritative analyses proving the invasion from the North.
For the last two decades, I have felt the changing view on modern history every day as I teach students at the university. For instance, a history book based on an optimistic view that the collapse of capitalism in Korea is imminent can hardly be flawless. We desperately need to record subjective and verifiable history, and train enlightened historical views. “New Understanding of Post- Liberation History” was the talk of the town even before it was published. If we consider the excessive influence that the historical view of the situation around the time of liberation has, it is natural that people pay so much attention to the book. A faulty historical view is sure to lead to a flawed plan for the future.

* The writer is a professor emeritus of Korean literature at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily Staff.

by Yoo Jong-ho
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