February 15, 2007
Written by C.N.
As I’ve written about before, for centuries now, there has been tension and even hostility between Japan and Korea over Japan’s history of colonial rule over the Korean peninsula and in particular, its actions against Koreans during World War II. Sixty years later, as the Boston Globe reports, these same tensions are now being played out in a controversy regarding a children’s book:
The South Korean Consulate has asked the state Department of Education to rethink its use of “So Far From the Bamboo Grove,” an award-winning memoir of an 11-year-old Japanese girl fleeing Japanese-occupied Korea with her family at the end of World War II. The book is part of the curriculum in a number of Massachusetts middle schools but became a source of controversy last fall when a group of Dover-Sherborn parents, including Korean-Americans, objected to it, calling it propaganda that glosses over brutality inflicted on Koreans by their Japanese occupiers. . . .
The South Korean consulate, based in Newton, further complained that the book depicts Koreans as “evil predators” and asked the state to “seriously reevaluate the appropriateness of this book for reading at the middle school level.” The consulate wrote the state on Jan. 16, but the letter is surfacing just as the book’s author, Cape Cod resident Yoko Kawashima Watkins, prepares for a press conference tomorrow to defend herself against the complaints about her book. Watkins has said that she didn’t intend to avoid the history of Japanese-Korean relations but was trying to focus on her story of survival.
I have not read the book in question, so obviously I cannot definitively comment on its contents. However, I have two initial observations. The first is, with most children’s books, it is generally not very realistic to expect authors to provide a comprehensive overview of the historical context in which their story is told. By definition, children’s books can only do so much and only provide one of many narratives that can be applied toward any situation or event.
Having said that however, if in fact the book portrays Koreans as “evil predators,” then we have a problem here. It would be one thing to portray the Japanese military as predatory because as history shows, that is largely true. However, history also shows that in almost all cases, Koreans in fact were the victims of Japanese aggression and brutality, not the other way around.
Upon further research, New American Media has a very enlightening article that describes in more detail some of the book’s depictions of Koreans:
In the novel, Watkins writes about Japanese women who were raped by Koreans and other atrocities following the surrender of Japan to Allied forces. Koreans in the United States and in Korea have challenged the authenticity of these and other accounts in the novel, however, arguing that the rape of Japanese women by Koreans could never have occurred as the Japanese military presence remained throughout the country until well after American and Russian forces arrived in the area.
They also contend that Watkins’ accounts of U.S.-led bombing in Korea never occurred during the period covered in the novel, and, for example, her descriptions of removing the uniform of a dead Communist soldier are false since the Communist army did not exist until 1948, years after the events in Watkins’ tale.
Admirers of the novel include Linda Sue Park, a Korean American and author of “When My Name Was Keoko,” an account of her family’s experiences living under Japanese colonial rule in Korea. Watkins’s supporters say her tale speaks from an anti-war perspective, and that it is not presented in class as a historical work but as historical fiction.
So from what it sounds like and from what critics charge, the author has taken liberties with historical accuracy and in doing so, has disproportionately portrayed Koreans in a much more negative light than the Japanese. If that is the case, ultimately I have to side with the critics on this one.
Freedom of expression certainly gives authors like Kawashima Watkins the license to write fictionalized accounts of history. However, when such fictionalized accounts are so distorted that they are seen as biased, prejudicial, and ethnocentric, then the same freedom of expression she enjoys should be used by critics to denounce her work as such.
Finally, as the New American Media article also points out, let this whole episode be a lesson to all those who foolishly assume that any work by an Asian American author is good and is likely to receive praise from all Asian Americans. As you can plainly see, ethnic differences do exist and do produce tensions between different Asian groups.
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Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Controversy Over Childrens Book" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2007/02/controversy-over-childrens-book/> ().
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