Here and over at the Marmot’s Hole, the controversy surrounding the book has elicited a contentious debate. Most of the commenters, like most of the Koreans and Korean-Americans protesting this book, haven’t actually read it. I bought the book, read it this week, and would like to accept Matt’s kind suggestion to write a review to give others an accurate idea of what the story is about.

The story is anti-war, not anti-Korean

Chapter One introduces the reader to the violence of war when brutal Japanese soldiers rob the author’s family of valuable possessions and kick the author, Yoko, until she passes out. The book closes with a moving scene in which a Korean family nurses a wounded Hideyo, brother of Yoko, and agrees to shelter him, exposing their entire family to the risk of execution. In between, Yoko’s family struggles to survive amongst the masses of “Korean, Japanese, young, and old” fleeing northern Korea. A dead baby is ripped from its mother’s arms and flung from a train. Hideyo is paid to push the corpses of unidentified war victims off a cliff. Mother and daughters are emaciated and greedily eat whatever scraps Yoko is able to scrounge from garbage dumps.

There are a few brief rape scenes involving Korean men and women whose nationalities are not always identified. Below is an example:

At a small stream I stopped to drink and I heard a cry. In the weeds was a Korean man on top of a girl. She was kicking wildly and screaming. My knees began to shake, and, holding my sack on my head with both hands, I walked as fast as I could to Ko and Mother.

Yoko’s description of her adjustment to Japanese society does not flatter the Japanese. Her classmates taunt her as “trashgirl,” subjecting her to humiliation and bullying. Two Japanese men try to overcharge Yoko for the cost of ferrying her mother’s body to the crematorium.

The Early Beginnings of the Evil Empire

Korean Communists! Run for your lives! The Korean Communists are coming! The phrase “Korean Communist” must appear at least 50 times in the story as mother and girls and Hideyo, separated from the rest of the family, hide out from the evil Korean Communists, easily identified by their uniforms, during their escape from the north. Koreans have complained that this is historically inaccurate as the Korean Communist Party wasn’t established until 1948. Others counter that Korean Communists were active before then. I can believe that Korean Communists were active in rounding up and killing Japanese at the close of the war. I doubt, however, that these Korean Communists would be in uniforms since they were a guerilla fighting force.

And where are the Russians anyway? There is barely any mention of them in the story, yet it was actually the Russian army that marched down the peninsula, capturing Japanese soldiers and government officials, and it was the Russians with whom the Japanese government negotiated the eventual release of surviving Japanese prisoners. This book is historical fiction, but any work of historical fiction risks criticism when the story is weaved with details that are inaccurate or implausible.

The Americans get some action, too, as Yoko and her family take cover during several air raids, and react in horror to news of the bombings of Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. The American air raids on northern Korea have been criticized as historically inaccurate. There were bombings, but they were carried out by the Russians, not the Americans. The book is marketed as fiction, but the foreword, which provides a real historical backdrop to the story, claims, “And the Americans were already bombing industrial sites in northern Korea.”

The nation of Japan does not escape blame

The two-page foreward begins:

Nineteen forty-five was a bad time for a Japanese girl to be living in northern Korea. More than ever, the Koreans resented the Japanese, who had taken over their country and ruled it as their own. Now it was threatened by World War II. The Russians, who had outposts close to the Korean border, might at any time join their allies, the United States and England, in the war against Japan. And the Americans were already bombing industrial sites in northern Korea.

A few more times in the story, Korean hostility towards the Japanese is linked to its colonial occupation, and in an early passage, Yoko’s mother angrily denounces the Japanese government for starting the war:

This Tojo government attacking Pearl Harbor to start the war was bad enough. Your father disagrees with the Japanese government. …The government has been taking away everything we have – peace, love, happiness. I would rather see our country lose the war than lose my husband and son!

This is not a great work of literature

The author seems to try a little too hard to insert historical context into the story. Hideyo and two other Japanese boys are discovered by those evil Korean Communists. The dialog is silly:

“Halt!” someone shouted in poor Korean. From an opposite thicket, two Russian soldiers with machine guns came running.

The boys raised their arms high. If there were just one soldier, Hideyo thought, they could fight him, but there were two, with weapons.

“Are you Korean Communist members?” the Russian soldiers asked.

The boys answered as one, “We are!”

“Where are you going?”

“We are going to Pyongyang.” Hideyo answered.

“Why are you carrying Japanese sacks and blankets?”

HIdeyo lied, “We stole from the Japanese. Our parents got killed. We are heading for our relatives.”

Aw, c’mon! Russian soldiers stumbling upon boys equipped with Japanese gear are not going to open the conversation by asking, “Are you Korean Communist members?”

The story also distinguishes nationality in a peculiar fashion by noting most Koreans as speaking “poor Japanese,” yet Yoko and Hideyo speak “perfect Korean.” There is some disagreement as to how much freedom Koreans had to speak Korean, but young and middle-aged Koreans during that time would likely have been fluent Japanese speakers since Japanese had been the medium of instruction in schools. Yoko and Hideyo, too, would have attended Japanese schools and, even though they were born in Korea, it is unlikely that they would have acquired “perfect Korean” through conversations on the street and in the marketplace.

As a teacher, I wouldn’t choose this book as a class reading, but there is nothing in the story that justifies banning it, and if I were a librarian, I would add it to the library collection. The book clearly singles out “Korean Communists” as the bad guys, and given that America has no historical animosity towards Korea as a whole, but does towards China and North Korea, the story is more likely to reinforce negative impressions of Communist countries than inspire any prejudice against Koreans or Korean-Americans.

Annoyed by the Korean web assault on the book at Amazon.com, I sent a message to Amazon, complaining that the book’s formerly high rating had been dragged down by Koreans who had not actually read the book. I received a form letter reply with this absurd statement:

“Thank you for letting us know how you feel about the editorial review of So Far from the Bamboo Grove. In order to help customers make informed buying decisions, we are interested in cultivating a diversity of opinions in our reviews. ”

Ironic, isn’t it? Korean netizens flooding the book’s page with negative reviews is “cultivating a diversity of opinions.” The outsourced Indian customer service robot screwed up by initially sending me the wrong STFU form letter for Jimmy Carter’s book, with virtually identical wording.

While browsing Amazon’s books on Korea, I came across an intriguing non-fiction work, Under the Black Umbrella, whose book description peaked my interest:

Existing descriptions of the colonial period tend to focus on extremes: imperial repression and national resistance, Japanese subjugation and Korean suffering, Korean backwardness and Japanese progress. “Most people,” Kang says, “have read or heard only the horror stories which, although true, tell only a small segment of colonial life.” The varied accounts in Under the Black Umbrella reveal a truth that is both more ambiguous and more human–the small-scale, mundane realities of life in colonial Korea. Accessible and attractive narratives, linked by brief historical overviews, provide a large and fully textured view of Korea under Japanese rule. Looking past racial hatred and repression, Kang reveals small acts of resistance carried out by Koreans, as well as gestures of fairness by Japanese colonizers. Impressive for the history it recovers and preserves, Under the Black Umbrella is a candid, human account of a complicated time in a contested place.

I have been looking for a book with credible and balanced first-hand accounts of the lives of Koreans under Japanese rule, and the word “ambiguous” caught my eye. Under the Black Umbrella arrived at my door today, and I like what I’ve read already just by skimming through some of the personal stories.

Posted by Sonagi, filed under diplomacy. Date: January 27, 2007, 7:29 pm | 117 Comments »