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A Good Book Attacked Unfairly - nhpeacenik
A Good Book Attacked Unfairly
The title of an article ("Professors Get Book Removed from Reading List", Campus News, Summer 2010, Vol. 13, No. 2) in the latest editon of U Mass Lowell Magazine caught my eye because it seemed to imply the UML professors were engaged in censorship. The book in question was Yoko Kawashima Watkins' award-winning 1986 young adult classic "So Far from the Bamboo Grove"  (ISBN 978-0-688-13115-9), and the article was about how two UML professors had successfully petitioned to have the book removed from the middle-school recommended books list published by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

The book, which is semi-autobiographical historical fiction by a Japanese-American author who fled Korea at the end of World War II, at age 11. The cover photo of the book, which accompanied the article is a striking Japanese-style painting of three women (Yoko, her big sister Ko, and their mother) cowering in a grove of bamboo. In the lower left-hand corner of the picture is a bright yellow seal with the word "NEW".

Education professor MinJeong Kim and her colleague, historian Patricia Fontaine scoured the book for historical inconsistencies, found some, and requested its removal from the reading list. Kim is the recipient of an ongoing grant from the South Korean government to promote teaching of Korean history in the schools, and Fontaine is a historian specializing in World War II. So far it sounds like it was a scholarly exercise, somewhat self-interested perhaps, by two well-meaning scholars. But why take the book, a piece of fiction, off the reading list because it has some minor historical inaccuracies. If it's a well-written book that middle school students can read and identify with, and if the historical anomalies can be mentioned in the study guide, why not leave it on the reading list with caveats? The main objection mentioned in the article is that the book portrays (these) Japanese people as victims and (some) Koreans as aggressors, while in the larger historical context it is more correct to portray the Japanese as aggressors and the Koreans as victims. While I was unable to locate a list of historical anomalies found by the two professors, by looking at information available on the world-wide web, I discovered that the most-commonly-mentioned  specific inaccuracies are:

1. Bamboo groves are not a natural feature of the part of Korea where Yoko's family lived.
2. Yoko's father served years in a Soviet prison as an alleged member of a Japanese team that had been engaged in making poison gas, and was therefore not really a government official working on the Manchurian railroad as the book states.
3. The Korean Communist army mentioned in the book did not go by that name at the time of the incidents described, and they would not have been wearing uniforms, since they were guerrilla fighters.

I asked my wife, who works at a local public library, about the book. She said she thought it was a great book and that kids read it enthusiastically. She checked it out for me, and there, on the cover was the yellow seal with the words "NEW: Letter from the Author".
I read the letter from the author, which has been included in printings since 2008. In it, she explains "..my intention is not to hurt any individual or nationality, but rather to tell my story of survival in the midst of war, and offer my hope for peace." She expresses dismay that the Japanese government has not yet apologized for the atrocities it committed during its occupation of Korea and expresses her personal regret for the suffering caused by her nation of origin. She concludes, "I work to pass on to the young people of the world an understanding of the cruelty, the horror, and the human cost of war. My prayer is for all people to live in peace together." These words do not sound at all like those of an apologist for Japanese imperialism in Korea.

Reading the book, I found it fast-paced and full of descriptions of the moral dilemmas of war. This is a powerful anti-war book, set in an exotic place that, to an American teenager might as well be Earthsea. It is not intended as an exposition of the events of the Japanese occupation of Korea or the Second World War, but as a moving personal account, from the point of view of a Japanese girl of the horrors of war. It reminded me of Jan De Hartog's book, "The Lamb's War" (isbn:0060109955), in which a Dutch Quaker girl tries to visit her father in a Nazi prison and ends up being the lover/concubine of the death-camp doctor and surviving when almost everybody else perishes. Guilt and love and tradition and utter madness/chaos mix together with quintessential evil, all of which form the character of the girl in her later life. There is good on both sides of any war, and there is evil on both sides. We are not served by a historiography that says "America good - Germany bad" or "Korea good - Japan bad" and insists that all Germans or Japanese must be evil stick-figures while all Americans or Koreans must be heroic.

When the book was translated into Korean in 2006, the objections to the book started to be raised loudly, first in the Korean press, then in US communities where the issue was suddenly raised after nearly three decades of the book being in print. It is my impression, though I may be wrong, that the South Korean government was behind the raising of the issue of the book's lack of historical context, and that it was conflated with the issue of the lack of an official Japanese apology for the occupation's atrocities.

I was impressed that the author had been honored as the 75th recipient of the Courage of Conscience Award by the Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Massachusetts  as having written a book promoting peace and understanding. I have a great love for the work of the Peace Abbey, so that it was something of a shock to learn that the Dover-Sherborn school board was the first place to consider banning the book in 2006. I can recommend this book unreservedly to any young person as a way to expand her/his empathy for the suffering of people of other cultures and nations, and to increase understanding of the urgent need to outgrow war and learn the ways of peaceful reconciliation of differences.

As for professors Kim and Fontaine, I see what they did as akin to kicking somebody when they're down, and not as a heroic act to ensure that teenagers learn only correct history. What they have done is not actual censorship, but it may prevent some kid from reading a book s/he really needs to read, and it may do its small part to make future generations less understanding and compassionate and more prone to support warfare. In my opinion, U Mass Lowell does us all a disservice by lauding these two women for this act.

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From: (Anonymous) Date: September 23rd, 2010 03:19 pm (UTC) (Link)

Historical Lies

In defense of my colleagues, who asked that the state remove its recommendation of this work that alters history to the detriment of the Korean people, I note these omissions from your list of "facts:"

1) There was no US bombing of the area in the book during the time period mentioned. Hence, there was no reason for the family to flee, as stated in the book.
2) There were no North Korean Communist soldiers operating in the area, hence no persecution to flee from.
3) The Japanese remained in control of the port from which Japanese were repatriated, and controlled this process. Hence, there was no Korean prejudice preventing them from leaving.
4) The repatriation of the Japanese in Korea proceeded much faster than portrayed in the book. Hence, the suffering portrayed during that time is exaggerated.
5) The writer's grandmother did not die during the time period portrayed in the book, so the family was not alone without surviving family.

The book is listed as historical fiction by the MA state department. When an author changes history, one can only assume it is for a reason. At best, one would say these changes make the book more dramatic and the characters more worthy of sympathy. At worst, they constitute hate speech, promulgating lies that portray the Korean people as persecutors. In either case, children reading this “delightful" book are being done a disservice.

I congratulate my colleagues for standing up for the truth.
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