Monday, November 24, 2008

From Seoul Searchers blog about Korea's response to a book.

Misdirected Nationalism

A Japanese-American woman published a novel in 1995, telling a story about a pre-teenage Japanese girl who had a harrowing experience of being beaten and raped in Korea shortly after Japan was defeated in the Second World War. Her family was trying to return to Japan from northern Korea where her father had been one of Japan’s colonial officials.

The book, “So Far From the Bamboo Grove,” by Yoko Kawashima Watkins, was nominally called fiction but it was apparent to most readers that the story was based on the writer’s personal experience in the chaotic atmosphere that gripped Korea after it was freed from the Japanese imperialists.

When Korea was liberated from Japan in August 1945 after 35 years of ruthless and brutal colonial rule, it was divided into two at the 38th parallel with the Soviet Army occupying the northern part of the Peninsula, what was to become communist North Korea, and the U.S. military administering the South, what became the democratic Republic of Korea.

Thanks to swift U.S. action in disarming the Japanese army in southern Korea and massive economic assistance for the impoverished Koreans, peace and stability was quickly restored in the South. But the Soviet Red Army that came down from Siberia was reported to have rampaged through the northern half, destroying property, looting and stealing and raping Japanese evacuees as well as local residents.

Perhaps, influenced by the lawless behavior of the occupation Soviet troops, and taking advantage of the state of anarchy, many North Koreans were also said to have run wild, dealing what they thought was justifiable revenge against the hated Japanese colonial overlords.

While there were relatively few incidents in which Koreans attacked the Japanese in the South, many Japanese who had been living in the North were brutalized, some raped and murdered by the local people.

It was against this background that the Japanese author wrote her book. But no one can be sure how much of what she described in her book was based on fact since it happened such a long time ago nor can we know if it was an isolated incident.

Nevertheless, the book has upset many Korean-Americans because, as they claimed, the story “distorted” Korean history. Some Koreans also charged that the novel contains “a pack of lies” that defames the character of the Korean people.

Despite the protest from the Korean community, however, the book was selected by some elementary schools in America as recommended reading. Thereupon, some Korean parents threatened to stop sending their children to school unless it was removed from the list.

In the latest development, the education authorities in California decided to scratch the novel off the list, apparently under the strong and continuing protest from Korean-Americans.

But the Korean parents’ action made me wonder about their emotional reaction to what, after all, was only a book of fiction. The Koreans were angry, no doubt, because they apparently believed that none of their compatriots “could have committed such hideous crimes.”

But as the human race goes, the Koreans are no better or no worse than other people. We, too, have a vast number of decent and law-abiding people. But at the same time, there are quite a few nasty people—thieves, gangsters, frauds, rapists and murderers as well. The Japanese writer could very well have been an unfortunate victim of one of those violent people.

Talking about crimes, I would like to know how those Korean parents reacted to the incident in which a Korean-American student shot and killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in April 2007. That ghastly incident occurred while the Japanese book was still a subject of controversy.

What did Korean parents tell their children about the shooting? If their reaction to the Japanese book is any indication, might not some of the parents have told them that the report of the killing was also a lie contrived to defame the Korean people?

In fact, what many in the Korean communities across the United States did in the wake of the shooting was brace against “possible reprisals.” They were preparing, I heard at the time, for the worse because the gunman happened to be a Korean-American. If I remember correctly, even the Seoul government, through its embassy in Washington, was preparing ways to cope with a possible backlash.

As it turned out, however, they could not have been more wrong in their way of thinking. For, a vast majority of Americans said they believed that the question of the gunman’s national origin had nothing to do with the crime. To them, the perpetrator of the crime was simply a troubled American.

In contrast to this way of thinking, the Korean reactions to the two incidents I have related above were too nationalistic in the first case and too paranoid in the second.

It is true that Japan’s forcible annexation of Korea in 1910 is a shameful and ignominious development in our history and that the Japanese colonialists’ brutal treatment of the Korean people was unjustifiable and unforgivable. That is why it is easy to understand why most Koreans, once they were freed from the yoke of colonialism, felt the urge to “repay the debts,” as it were, to their colonial overlords who had treated them harshly and inhumanly for 35 years.

These facts, however, should not--indeed do not--give any individual Korean a right to attack their erstwhile oppressors in revenge, least of all, an 11-year-old girl whose only misfortune was that she was a daughter of a colonial official.

What’s more, we cannot force the American publisher, who is just a third party, to withdraw or discard the book because it “presents” the Korean people “in a bad light,” as those campaigners claim. Nor is it right to pressure the school boards of elementary schools to scratch the novel because we do not like the author’s description of Koreans.

Their demands not only run against the principle of freedom of expression, but are also harmful to the well-rounded development of their children who should realize that all kinds of things—good as well as bad--happen to Koreans as well as by the hand of Koreans.

There is nothing wrong—in fact it is good—for parents to bring up their children to be proud of being Korean. But kids should also learn that although Koreans are special in their own way, so is every other group of people. Koreans cannot claim to be better than anyone else, much less a select or “chosen” people.


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