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A Review of Yoko Kawashima Watkins’ So Far from the Bamboo Groves

January 27th, 2007 . by Sonagi

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.

117 Responses to “A Review of Yoko Kawashima Watkins’ So Far from the Bamboo Groves”

  1. comment number 1 by: ponta

    Thanks for the link.

    It is clear that both Japan and the US had ambitions in the Pacific at the turn of the 20th century.

    Yes, that is one thing I wanted to say.
    And the US and Japan was not cozy relation at the time just because of Taft Katsura agreement.

    In the fall of 1898, President McKinley stated his desire for the creation of an “open door” that would allow all trading nations access to the Chinese market. ……On the surface, it appeared that the United States had advanced a reform viewpoint, but the truth was otherwise. The U.S. had no sphere of influence in China, ….

    It was sort of inevitable, in the hindsight, that Japan’s interest would be in conflict with the US’s.
    And I think Taft-Katsura agreement can be seen as a compromise because they had potential conflicts.

  2. comment number 2 by: Sonagi

    Oops, my typo correction should read:

    The fear of Japan laying claim on Hawaii

  3. comment number 3 by: lirelou

    By the way, some really great posts and photos on both Korean anarchism in the 1920s-30s, and the Korean landings in Korea during the Russo Japanese War, over at the “Gusts of Popular Feeling” site at: http://populargusts.blogspot.com/

    Believe they will be of high interest to everyone here.

  4. comment number 4 by: lirelou

    Quick comment on California “racism’ (or exclusionism). It didn’t just apply to Non-Whites. As I recall, one of the landmark Supreme Court decisions which upheld Americans’ “right to travel” was a case out on California in the 1930s whereby the California state police were turning back “Oakies” whom they deemed did not have sufficient funds to survive on their own within the state. Note that I’m not saying that racism diddn’t exist. Rather, it should be viewed in a context of Californian attempts to exclude those whose prsence would upset the status quo then in effect. (Hmm, any relation to some of their “envirionmental” measures of today?)

  5. comment number 5 by: ponta

    What is interesting is we can discuss WWⅡintellectually and peacefully between Japanese and Americans and I enjoy it. Sadly it does not go this way when it comes to history of Korea-Japan relations.

    Thanks lirelou and Sonagi.

  6. comment number 6 by: pacifist

    To follow is from a Japanese newspaper (Sankei Shimbun):

    ソウル・黒田勝弘 気に入らない話は“歪曲”
    A story they don’t like is “distorted”
    by Katsuhiro Kuroda, Seoul

    A story of Yoko, a Japanese girl, is making a fuss in Korea and also in USA.
    An experience of the withdrawl from the Korean peninsula just after the end of the war in the summer of 1945 is being blamed and bashed as “distortion of history” by Korean media.
    It is a novel written in English by a Japanese woman living in the USA. The Korean American society began to blame it and it brought turmoil in Korea because the book had already been translated and published in Korea.

    The book is going to be a forbidden book under the pressure from Korean parents in schools where Korean American pupils are attending. The publisher in Korea is suspending to publish the book.

    What they are blaming is the depiction about violence and rape that Korean side did to Japanese people during the withdrawal. They don’t like that kind of depiction.

    They insist that to depict Japanese, who did colonial policy, as “victims” is “distortion of history”.

    As usual, a part of the excited media with anti-Japan feeling blamed the book, reporting untrue comment “There weren’t such facts” by historians (!).

    This book is titled as “So Far From The Bamboo Grove” and was published in 1986 in the USA. The author, Yoko Kawashima Watkins, was in her early seventies. The book was published in Korea in 2005 as “Yoko’s Story”.

    The heroin of the book is a 11-year-old girl, Yoko. It is a story of difficulties of three women, two daughters and their mother, during withdrawning from North Korean town to south and then to Japan by way of Seoul and Busan and it also featured story of their life in Japan just after the war.

    It is only one of various books, to Japanese, that featured experiences of withdrawal after the war, and it is rather a simple story.

    As a whole, it criticizes the military Japan from the viewpoint of war victims. It is a kind of a “anti-war” and “praying for peace” novel written through the eyes of a girl or a mother. It may be one of the reasons the book was translated and published in Korea.

    In the USA, the novel has been used as a supplemental textbook in junior high schools. The book cover is an illustration of a girl frightened by Soviet soldiers. The book featured Soviet soldiers and North Korean communists as the story is from the summer of 1945. It may have attracted American people because it had an aspect of criticsm of communism.

    The turmoil began as the news arrived in Korea. It reported that the Korean Americans are blaming the book and that they wanted to exclude it from school textbooks and also that there were Korean pupils who didn’t want to go to school.
    The mother and a child living in New Jersey who first blamed the book were reported in Korea with their photos, which made them heroes.

    Accoring to the Korean media, the Korean Americans’ dissatisfaction and claims were towards the depiction that Koreans were written as assailants especially in the scene where Japanese women were raped by Korean residents. They say that it is a “distorted history” that may make the American society and Korean children misundertand. They say even if that is a novel, they can’t help resisting. There were lots of claims and blames in the Korean media, they even attacked the publisher in Korea.

    In order to attack the book, a untrue and “history distorting” comment like “There were no murders and rapes after August 15th 1945 because Japanese police and army stayed for a long period” (by a researcher of an institute of north-east asian history) appeared and some reported inaccurate speculation such as “Was her father a notorious germ unit officer?”, although the author disclosed that her father was a railroad man of the Manshu Railroad.

    The publisher in Korea refuted at first saying, “the novel is not depicting a simple assailant-victim relations, it depicted diversity in history and human beings. It featured female difficulties common to all the females and messages for anti-war and peace. The Koreans who were kind to Japanese also appeared in it. It has been apparaised well and there were no problems”, but at last they had to stop publishing it.

    The netizens, a part of younger generations, reacted swiftly. The 90% of them blamed Yoko’s story with anti-Japan feeling, only 10% of them blamed “Immaturity of Koreaans and Korean society” and “the society of easy patriotism without freedom of press and freedom of speech”.

    I want to add the following fact for the honor of Korean media: only 中央日報 and 韓国日報 supported Yoko’s story. They say that to criticize a book after picking up a part of it is not fair. It is a natural thing to say but as far as Japan is concerned, it still seems to be hard for Korea to think naturally.

    (2007/02/03 08:27)

  7. […] A review of the book by Sonagi, one of the few bloggers who have actually read the book, in which she declares the book to be “anti-war, not anti-Korean.” [Link] […]

  8. comment number 8 by: kjeff

    After reading the book, I agree… It’s not anti-Korean, it’s anti-war. I also agree that “this is not a great work of literature.” However, your years of education and extensive knowledge of Korean history enabled you to judge that. I doubt that sixth graders possess the historical contexts that you acquired during your stay in Korea, and that there is sufficient class time to teach such.
    Many have described “Bamboo Grove” as a story of survival, of the war and its horrible effects to those who are ‘caught’ in it. I’m affraid however that war is a concept too abstract for children.(I may be wrong for I haven’t been one for a long time) I remember that ‘good vs evil’ defined much of how I understood the world. I’m worried the ‘good vs evil’ is how some, if not many, students will frame their understanding of the book, and that the Korean gets the short end of the stick on this. So, maybe not banning the book from the library, but perhaps from classrooms.

  9. comment number 9 by: sora

    This is my first time to comment on this issue. Thanks to the great Sonagi’s review, I enjoyed all of your discussion in following. However, Sonagi, I have one question. As far as I know, the author doesn’t describe Yoko as a perfect Korean speaker. My understanding from the reading between lines is that she did not have a good command of Korean at that time. That is the reason why she often described that her elder brother and sister’s Korean as ‘perfect’. Therefore I my view, that adjectives were there more to show Yoko’s attachment and respect to her siblings and, I think, it was a good contrast to her often naughty remarks to Ko. In the book, Yoko always had difficulties to show her gratitude to Ko and that mixed feeling let Yoko to describe Ko as honourable sister and ‘perfect Korean speaker’. The contrast is important theme of this work. For example, Yoko’s family’s explicit anger to Japan and war while their strong longing for their homeland. Ko one day said to Yoko that she shouldn’t give her water to others because herself would need it later but on the other day Ko or mother scolded Yoko when she were reluctant to share her blanket with wounded others in worrying that her blanket would be stained with blood. I cannot note all here but I thought there were lots. I think it was not author’s intention to show contrast between good Korean speaker by one nationality and poor Japanese speaker by others though. In fact, many of Hideo’s Japanese friends described as poor Korean speaker, so as Yoko’s mother etc. After all, in my view what the author wanted to say was anti-war and complex reality of war. By showing this complexity, Yoko wanted to say that things cannot be explained by black and white type of understanding and if people take this type of interpretation of the world that leads us to wrong.
    Well, the latter part is my understanding, but Sonagi, did you see some parts which describe Yoko as a perfect Korean speaker? I think this is important because that is the one of only two criticisms you made.

  10. comment number 10 by: Sonagi

    You are correct, Sora, that it was Yoko’s elder siblings, not Yoko herself, who spoke “perfect Korean” and not all Japanese were described as speaking “perfect Korean” although to my recollection, no non-Japanese were described as speaking “perfect Japanese” in a land that had been annexed by Japan 35 years before, had large Japanese populations in major cities, and had long established Japanese as the official language of business and medium of instruction in schools. Many of the Korean respondents in Under the Black Umbrella, a collection of narratives of life under Japanese rule, reported attending school with Japanese classmates or working alongside Japanese colleagues. I would expect that some of the Koreans Yoko and her family knew and encountered would have been fluent in Japanese, yet no Korean character is noted as such. The closest Mrs. Watkins comes to acknowledging that some Koreans could speak excellent Japanese was the old man who spoke Japanese to Hideyo as he was walking along the tracks. Hideyo was uncertain of his nationality although he was later revealed to be Japanese. I don’t think this is overt bias; rather, it’s just strange and unnatural.

    My main objection was the boring repetition of dualistic poor/perfect in describing the language proficiencies of the characters. Language proficiencies vary greatly and sixth graders can handle more descriptive words like “fluent,” “flawless,” “passable,” and “awkward.” It is Mrs. Watkins’ dramatic real-life experiences, not her literary talent, that made her a published author and it is her accessibility as a Cape Cod resident who has made personal visits to Boston area schools that has helped put her book on reading lists.

  11. comment number 11 by: uralier

    your review sucked, and it is totally not true, So Far From the Bamboo Grove is a true, touching sad story about the evils of Korean Communists, and the World War Two for a young Japanese girl! YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED. By the way I have read the book so I know what I’m talking about.

  12. comment number 12 by: tonton















  13. comment number 13 by: tonton

    I add the following.
    Considering a diary of King Kalakaua’s travel to Japan and Emperor reply document, I will think that the contents of the conversation of the Emperor and King ARAKAUA are true.

  14. […] For more information on the controversy, see guest writer Sonagi’s thorough review of ‘So Far From the Bamboo Grove’. […]

  15. comment number 15 by: consoleman

    You should see what Japanese Unit 731 did to other asians during pacific war. Again, Japanese ppl are trying to forget the war they they have caused.

    Shame on you ppl.

    In my opinion, the Book contains some false information and should not been allow to be published at first place.

  16. comment number 16 by: General Tiger

    Before acting like an idiot, I want to ask you something: How is that relevant to this topic?

  17. […] MA, have put together a webquest on the controversial book with related links, including one to my book review at Occidentalism. As I skimmed through it, I winced at the acronym “STFU.” If kids are […]