A Dishonest Book And A True Tale

Don Chapman
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March 07, 2007
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This column is written especially for Hawaii schoolteachers who may assign what I find to be an offensive book, and for the parents of young students who may bring that book home.

It’s probable that there are historically accurate elements in the book So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins - the autobiographical tale of an 11-year-old Japanese girl fleeing Korea with her family at the end of WWII, highlighted by a few Koreans killing and raping Japanese.

In fact, I don’t for a moment doubt some of that happened.

But let’s put it in an honest perspective:

The U.S. victory in the Pacific and Japan’s surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay ended 36 years of brutal Japanese occupation of Korea that included Japanese soldiers forcing Korean women into prostitution and forcing young Korean men to hard labor in coal mines that provided fuel for the Japanese war machine. And as I learned in Korea during my East-West Center fellowship and U.S.-Korea Journalists Exchange, the Japanese removed Prince Yongchin, younger brother of Sunjong, last monarch of the native Choson (Jeoson) Dynasty that had ruled since 1392, and forced him to marry a minor Japanese princess, Masako Nashimoto. That effectively dead-ended the Korean royal line. The Japanese also sent Korean rice and other produce back to Japan, thus forcing many Koreans to starve. And they relocated Korea’s best artists and craftsmen to Japan, made the Korean language illegal on the peninsula and forced Koreans to take Japanese names.

That’s a lot of ironfisted forceds. And let’s be clear on this point: Japanese citizens in Korea in August 1945, including Kawashima Watkins’ family, were not just there for the hot spring spas.

So after two-plus generations of such degrading treatment, you can’t much blame a few Koreans for angrily lashing out at their oppressors when they had the opportunity for some instant pay-back.

I have here another young girl’s story from that time, one that paints a more accurate picture of Japan’s vicious and dehumanizing rule. It’s told by my good friend Mi-Soo Smith, Ph.D., a former math professor at UH and Chaminade, who was about the same age as Kawashima Watkins when the war ended on Aug. 15, 1945, the day Koreans still call Kwang-Bok Jeul, the Day the Light Returned.

“My father had been the assistant director of the Sugamo train station in Tokyo, but after an American B-29 bomber flew over our house in 1943 we came home to the Daegu area where my mother is from, and he bought an apple orchard. My father thought that area was not likely to be bombed.

“When the war ended, my father wanted to go up to Seoul because he knew the new government could use his experience, but first he went to his home town of Sang-Nam to see his family. The mayor of Sang-Nam had just been kicked out by the people because he was a collaborator with the Japanese, and the people asked my father to become the mayor - everything was in such confusion with the war ending, and he was well respected. He said OK, but only for one week until you can decide on a new full-time mayor, then I have to go up to Seoul.

“On his sixth day (Aug. 24), Japanese navy men came to Sang-Nam - the Americans were still using them (as well as the Japanese army for policing). They came under the pretext that they heard some wells were being poisoned by Korean people. They were fully armed. The next day they came back to take my father. They came to murder him.

“They kidnapped my father, carried him over the mountains to the coast, took him out in a boat, tied him up in heavy chains and threw him overboard in the deepest part of the bay.

“My mother was very angry, she hated the Japanese for killing her husband. I didn’t hate them, but I remember crying, and feeling sorry for the Japanese who did it - they would have to live with that in their hearts for the rest of their lives.”

One can only hope that it gnaws at their souls still.

In my business, I’m entirely opposed to government censorship, so I’m pleased that the state Department of Education did not outright ban So Far from the Bamboo Grove from classrooms and libraries, as some people have called for, but instead provided guidelines for its use.

But I also believe that it would be irresponsible for teachers to use So Far from the Bamboo Grove in the classroom.

If they must, then it’s essential to put it in the context of Japan’s murderous inhumanity toward Korea’s people, history and culture for 36 years, and then to tell the true story of what those Japanese sailors did to young MiSoo’s father.

three star

Mi-Soo’s story is also a cautionary tale for those critical of the Bush administration for dismissing the Iraqi military, police and Baathist Party bureaucrats in the government immediately after the fall of Baghdad. Keeping them on - as the Americans did with Japanese military in Korea - would not necessarily, as critics have contended, have kept Iraq from disintegrating into religious civil war, terrorist breeding ground and general thuggery. And it could just as easily have led to incidents such as this one ...

Finally: Did you see the quote attributed to a senior Air Force official in an AP report last week about electronic/computer problems that F-22 Raptor fighter jets experienced on a test flight from Hickam? “Until you fly the airplane,” he said, “that’s when the rubber hits the road.”

Go figgah ...

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