[VIEWPOINT]Novel is not anti-Korean, it’s anti-war“Yoko Story” is the title of the Korean edition of the “So Far from the Bamboo Grove,” written by Yoko Kawashima Watkins. The scene in the novel in which Korean men sexually assaulted Japanese women who were returning to Japan after its defeat in the war provoked the anger of some Korean readers. I went through those lines as soon as I got hold of the book, but I could not find any clue as to why Korean readers were angry until I finished reading the last page. I was rather moved and felt sad reading the story. Without reason, I started to feel sorry for myself. I was supposed to get angry, but I wasn’t. Why?
“Yoko Story” is non-fiction literature about the war devastation witnessed by a 12-year-old Japanese girl who lived in the northern part of Korea during Japanese rule.
The story starts with Yoko’s exodus from Cheongjin, North Hamgyeong province in Korea, together with her mother and elder sister on July 29, 1945.
The first half of the novel describes the tension and horror that Yoko, her mother and sister, experienced until they arrived at Busan via Seoul, after narrowly managing to get on a refugee train. The latter half of the book describes how they endured and overcame the disregard and contemptuous treatment from their Japanese compatriots after they returned to Japan.
The scenes of sexual assault only occurred in a few places and the descriptions of the scenes are rather short and indirect.
They are written in a manner like this, “Several Korean men dragged women to the woods, and they were screaming ‘help’ in Japanese.” It is my frank opinion that if someone, after reading this passage, got angry because it distorted history and insulted Korean people, that is an overreaction because of the feeling Koreans were victimized by the Japanese.
They are, rather, descriptions of the chaos and violence that were brought about by the war, as well as the horror that women had to endure. At that time, Korean women might have experienced the same horror, too.
The novel is not anti-Korean, but anti-war. The theme of the novel is the pain of survival caused by the war, such as throwing of the corpse of a child out a train window; the wearing of dead soldiers’ military uniforms because it was so cold, and searching for food in a garbage can.
Because of its strong criticism against the Japanese government, that provoked the war, the Japanese publishing companies refused to release the book in Japan. Yoko’s mother declared to her brother, who wanted to join the army, “There is nothing that can justify Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor to provoke a war . . . I think it is better to see Japan defeated in the war than losing my husband and son.”
Yoko Kawashima Watkins’ classmates at Sagano Girls’ School, who teased her as a “tattered doll,” left unforgivable wounds in her mind. By comparison, the writer’s affection toward Koreans is revealed here and there in the book. Her appreciation toward a Korean family who saved the life of her brother and treated him as their real son when he was left behind on the family’s way back to Japan is overflowing in the book.
The epicenter of the sensation this time is in the United States. Although the book conveys anti-war messages, it seems problematic that the novel has been adopted as a middle school textbook in the United States.
For the American students who do not know about Asia’s colonial history, there’s a chance that the book will portray Japan as a victim of the war.
There is a reason, therefore, for Korean-Americans to react against the book.
There is no reason, however, that the book should not be published in Korea. We know too well about Japan, don’t we?
Rather, it is about time for us to be liberated from the collective sorcery of nationalism that equates Japan as the offender and Korea as the victim.
Why must we always win over Japan in soccer games? Why should we have stomach pains whenever things go well with Japan?
The problem does not lie with “Yoko Story,” but in the perception of a “nation” that has become an ideology. In the cold winds of modern history, it was certainly strong nationalism that made us survive.
However, the task we now face is not the safeguarding of the notion of the nation that did not exist before the 19th century, but co-existing with other Asian countries and trying to upgrade ourselves to be strong citizens of the global community.
For that, we should become mature enough to generously overlook this novel, even if there is something in the book that makes us feel uncomfortable.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hoon-beom