[Observer]Book’s wisdom could serve Korean consulI’m glad I’m not a diplomat. Diplomatic gentlemen, splendid in beautifully cut suits, and diplomatic ladies, elegant in bare-shoulder gowns, congregate at brilliant receptions and feast on rare delicacies and sip fine Champagne vintages. (Or so one imagines.)
But, alas, their status sometimes requires them to say the silliest things.
Case in point: Kwon Tae-myeon, South Korea’s consul general in Washington, wrote in a letter to this newspaper last week (March 6) that a certain book “is impressive literature” but presents “false ideas of ‘poor Japanese, bad Koreans.’”
What double-talk! If the book presents “false ideas of ‘poor Japanese, bad Koreans’ ” how can the consul general call it “impressive literature?”
Mr. Kwon assures us that he is knocking on doors in Washington, trying to get the book stricken from the curriculum in American schools that use it, “but not because we find fault with the book.”
What? If you don’t find fault with the book, why must American children be protected from reading it?
I will start with the question that any librarian asks when zealots or functionaries demand that a book be suppressed: “Have you read the book?”
It is pretty clear that Mr. Kwon has not read it, or else that he is under orders from his bosses, who have not read it. But I have read the book.
The book is “So Far from the Bamboo Grove,” by Yoko Kawashima Watkins. It is a tale of an 11-year-old Japanese girl’s refugee journey in 1945 across Korea and back to Japan in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in World War II.
The book was written in 1986, many years after the events described and many years ago, but it has exploded just recently into public consciousness. It is based on the author’s experience, but its formal library cataloguing in publication lists the book as “fiction” ― that is, the author, like Shakespeare, has enriched her memories with her imagination. That has encouraged Korean nitpickers to challenge the most picayune facts ― for example the range of a B-29 bomber ― and insist that if an 11-year-old narrator got that wrong, then the entire book is a lie.
Goodness, why so sensitive? Well, because the book, as the diplomat says, promotes “‘false ideas of poor Japanese, bad Koreans.’” All right, then, let’s read it.
On page 3 (in the school-library edition I happen to be reading), Japanese police “burst in through the main door of [the author’s] house, which only invited guests used, without taking off their shoes.”
The crude, unmannerly Japanese demand metal, to be melted into bullets or cannons or battleships ― any kind of metal. They confiscate “Father’s treasured silver ashtray set,” and mother’s bronze flower vase, and mother’s gold wedding ring, the daughter’s lead Mount Fuji paperweight and finally mother’s gold-rimmed glasses, shattering the lenses in the process.
This scene arouses pity for the “poor Japanese”? Which Japanese, the police or the family oppressed by the Japanese police?
Eventually, the family makes it to Japan. Yoko, the author’s alter ego, has a rough time with her Japanese classmates. As a refugee child she is poor, dressed in rags, reduced to scavenging paper out of wastebaskets to write out her homework. The other girls mockingly call her “rag doll.”
Please explain, Mr. Kwon, how a story of Japanese middle-schoolers picking on a Japanese classmate is anti-Korean?
Late in the tale, Yoko’s brother, who has been separated from the family, stumbles, half frozen, into a Korean home. At great risk to themselves, the Koreans save the boy. “Now you are our relative,” the father says. “Stay with us until you regain your health. You will be at home here.” (Page 165)
“Bad Koreans,” Mr. Kwon? Or is it your view that these folks were indeed “bad Koreans,” even collaborators, for showing compassion to a Japanese person?
For that is the point of the story. War, as the bumper sticker says, “is harmful to children and other living things.” In some American and international schools, “So Far from the Bamboo Grove” is taught as a survivor story. It is sad that children should have to imagine themselves as refugees, but this is the way we introduce the complexities of the world to them.
Some Japanese are good, some bad. Some Koreans are good, some bad. So who are the “bad Koreans” that Consul Kwon thinks Americans should not be told about? Perhaps they are the “Korean Communists” who (on page 49) nearly murdered Yoko’s brother.
Or perhaps they are the drunken patriots (page 87) whose idea of celebrating Korean independence was to grab and rape Japanese women.
Of course, there is no excuse for this behavior, and yet on the same page (page 87) the Japanese author offers an excuse: “The Koreans were free of the Japanese Empire after all these years.”
The truth is, we are all sinners ― Koreans and Japanese, Americans and everyone else. Middle school is not too soon to expose children to this idea.
Mr. Kwon makes a good point in worrying about the effect on students who read historical fiction without sound historical context. The answer to this concern, however, is not to withdraw the book, but to design a good history curriculum to support a book that Mr. Kwon agrees is “impressive literature.”
Curricula that include “So Far from the Bamboo Grove” sometimes pair it with another book, “The Year of Impossible Goodbyes.” This book is almost an exact parallel to Yoko’s story, but from a Korean perspective. The author, Choi Sook Nyul, relates her family’s suffering under the Japanese occupation. Yoko’s elder sister escaped rape by Koreans, and Sook Nyul’s elder sister escaped becoming a “comfort woman” for the Japanese Army.
But these are not stories of moral equivalence. No one who reads both books can believe that Korea is somehow equally culpable with Japan.
In fact, if you read only “So Far from the Bamboo Grove,” the book that Consul Kwon wants suppressed, you will understand that Japan alone bears guilt for the war. The author, Mrs. Watkins, has lived her adult life as a peace activist. She has repeatedly expressed her repudiation of her birth-country’s military aggression.
Then, what is this diplomat’s objection to the book? Here are his words:
“Imagine if this kind of book was written by a German girl after the Nazi defeat in the Second World War, or by an English girl who left America after the U.S. achieved independence from Great Britain. I wonder which school in the U.S. would recommend it . . . ”
Which school, Mr. Kwon? All schools, I hope. Stories by German children in the Nazi era and by English sympathizers in the American revolutionary era do exist, and are included in many school curricula. Such stories introduce students to the idea of ambiguity. They ask young people to question their certainties, to understand how others might feel.
Are you so confident, Mr. Kwon, that Korean history is without ambiguity, that there is only our truth and others’ falsehood? Then perhaps, after all, you should not read “So Far from the Bamboo Grove.” But don’t deny its wisdom to the world’s young people.
*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily and a professor at Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies.
by Harold Piper