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Book review: Yoko Kawashima Watkins — So Far from the Bamboo Grove

So Far from the Bamboo Grove - coverYoko Kawashima Watkins: So Far from the Bamboo Grove
Harper Collins, 1986
Reprinted with letter from the author, 2008

This time last year, Wikileaks revealed that when Mitt Romney, then Governor of Massachussetts, visited Korea in December 2006, one of the topics raised by the Korean Acting Foreign Minister Cho Jung-pyo was this short novel:

Cho registered concern over the inclusion of “So Far from the Bamboo Grove,” a children’s book about a Japanese girl in Korea after World War II, in the curriculum of several Massachusetts school districts. According to Cho, the book contributes to a negative perception of Koreans.

The book is in a Time list of top 10 book controversies, because of the “scenes hinting at rape, violence against women by Korean men” in a text read by American sixth-graders.

So, what is so objectionable to Korean sensibilities? Or are Koreans being over-sensitive? Surely an American Library Association “Notable Book” cannot be that controversial?

Well for the neutral to pro-Korean observer, there’s nothing much to object to.

A Japanese mother and her two daughters, at least the younger of which (the author) was born in Korea, is forced to flee southwards from the advancing Russians and Korean communists in the final days of the second world war. The father is a Japanese government official working in Manchuria, and the family is based in Nanam, near Chongjin in North Hamgyong Province. An elder son, working in a nearby munitions factory, has to follow on separately.

The escapees have to dodge the Korean communists on their way to Seoul – shaving their hair and pretending to be boys to avoid getting raped. And when in Busan awaiting a ship back to Japan they have to be similarly wary of Koreans drunkenly celebrating their independence.

But on the journey, the family have almost as much to fear from their fellow refugees, and back in Japan suffer equal hardship.

In short, this is a fast-paced and gripping narrative of a hectic escape from war-torn Korea, and it is hard to find offence. Nevertheless, the author feels forced to write a new preface setting out the historical context for the benefit of readers who might not have known the background of Japan’s colonial occupation, and emphasising the life-saving help provided by a Korean family during the flight. The publisher provides endnotes to aid further reading.

It’s a quick read, designed for ages 10 and up. “Readers will be riveted,” promised the blurb on the back of the book, and that’s not far from the truth.