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Tinker Bell 54, March 2009.

Constructing Cultural Memory beyond the Limits of Narrative
in So Far from the Bamboo Grove



Yoshida, Junko


Ⅰ. Introduction

  In this paper, I examine the semi-autobiographical novel, So Far from the Bamboo Grove (1984), written by Japanese-American Yoko Kawashima Watkins. I focus on the representation of the protagonist’s war experiences and the limitations of this war narrative in comparison with Korean-American Sook Nyul Choi’s Year of Impossible Goodbyes (1991), which similarly deals with refugees during the immediate post-World War II period on the Korean Peninsula. The first novel is written by a repatriate and the second by a refugee. Both authors directly experienced the postwar confusion as teenagers.
  Each novel, I suggest, contributes in a different way to the construction of “cultural memory” (Sturken’s coinage), which “is shared outside the avenues of formal historical discourses yet is entangled with cultural products and imbued with cultural meaning” (Sturken 3). In her discussion of America’s memories of traumatic experiences such as the Vietnam War, represented in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Marita Sturken maintains:

    Cultural memory is produced through objects, images, and representations. These are technologies of memory,
    not vessels of memory in which memory passively resides so much as objects through which memories are shared,
    produced, and given meaning. (9)

Sturken’s assertion about cultural memory is also applicable to the discussion of survival stories by Asian-Americans.
  In Watkins’s Bamboo Grove, an 11-year-old Japanese girl, Yoko, narrowly escapes the advancing communist forces in northern Korea with her mother and 16-year-old sister in the summer of 1945, just before the defeat of Japan. They flee from their home in a bamboo grove1 in Nanam, northern Korea, to Kyoto in Japan, via Seoul and Pusan, constantly threatened by anti-Japanese forces and suffering from hunger, surviving on meager food such as wild mushrooms or half-rotten apples found in piles of garbage. After returning to Japan, Yoko’s mother dies, totally consumed leaving her daughters to survive on their own. The following spring they finally reunite with their missing brother who also escaped northern Korea and made a dangerous trip to Japan by himself.
  Because of the nature of survival stories, this type of autobiographical novel tends to attract the young reader’s attention and arouse his/her sympathy comparatively easily. The reader is quickly exposed to the dire and violent situations the protagonists/authors are placed in and feels as though s/he has gained firsthand traumatic information. However, in an attempt to portray young protagonists as war victims, this type of novel tends to provide the reader with a limited perspective based on the protagonists’ parents’ ethnicity or political standpoint.

 Ⅱ. A Controversy

  The award winning survival story, Bamboo Grove, had been used in the middle school curriculum by many schools in the U.S., until a controversy developed in November 2006. It started in the Dover-Sherborn schools, in Boston and continued for a few months involving American, Korean, and Japanese netizens. According to an article in The Boston Globe for January 7, 2007, “Thirteen parents complained that [the book] was biased against Koreans and too graphic, particularly with its references to rape, for children who are 11 or 12 years old.” The parents’ complaints were targeted at the novel’s scenes of screaming Japanese girls being dragged off and raped by some Korean men who are drunk after celebrating their independence from the Japanese occupation (Watkins 82, 87-88). As one of the parents pointed out, the novel may be “all the more troubling because it will be the students’ first exposure to Asian history . . . The first impression you imprint in a child’s mind is typically very hard to erase” (Boston Globe Nov. 12, 2006).
  In his article, “A Matter of Context,” historian Carter Eckert comments on the issue and proposes a contextualized and well-balanced reading of the novel. He makes a reasonable suggestion that if the novel is used in a middle school curriculum, it should be read in its historical context, “a 40-year record of harsh [Japanese] colonial rule in Korea, which reached its apogee during the war years of 1937-45” (Boston Globe Jan. 7, 2007), and it also needs to be read comparatively with other autobiographical novels, such as Richard Kim’s Lost Names, which depicts Korean protagonists’ experiences during the same period.
  The controversy over the novel was not settled by Eckert’s article, but continued producing nationalistic disputes between pro-Korea vs. pro-Japan global netizens. This is what Lee Chong-Sig anticipated in his 1985 book, Japan and Korea. He maintains that memories of Japanese rule in Korea between 1910 and 1945 will powerfully continue to affect Japanese-Korean relations and that “anyone interested in Japanese-Korean relations . . . must have an understanding of the contrasting Japanese and Korean perspectives on the colonial era” (2). It is indeed ironical for Watkins, who conceived of her work as an anti-war novel, that the novel became a “battlefield” where nationalists fought for their causes.
  In this paper, I examine how Yoko’s narrative of war experiences is not persuasive enough to be shared with others outside the text, especially Koreans and those of Korean descent. I focus on the representation of Yoko’s war experience in comparison with another autobiographical novel, Choi’s award winning Year of Impossible Goodbyes (1991), which covers roughly the same period. In Choi’s novel, a ten-year-old Korean girl, Sookan, narrates her family’s hardships in Pyongyang during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and then, after WWII, her harrowing escape from Pyongyang with her little brother across the 38th parallel. The novel provides a firsthand account of Koreans’ lives during the turbulent years before and after their independence from Japan.

 Ⅲ. Memories of Happy Childhood

  Let us examine how the two girls’ war experiences are represented in the two novels. The title So Far from the Bamboo Grove provides a starting point. As Jean Fritz writes in the foreword to the novel, the bamboo grove represents Yoko’s happy childhood, which sharply contrasts with her later war experiences. One of her early memories of her home in a bamboo grove is related to her father bringing her a pair of canaries, with which she enjoyed having a long conversation. However, in Yoko’s narrative of her daily life in Nanam, there is no depiction of Koreans’ actual daily lives even though she uses the possessive “our” in depicting each of her attachments: “our home in its bamboo grove, our friends, and our town” (1, emphasis is mine). So we presume that Yoko’s happy childhood as a daughter of colonizers is set in a quite limited social environment without association with Koreans.
  Choi’s Impossible Goodbyes provides what Watkins’s novel lacks: a portrayal of Korean children’s actual lives during the same period. In contrast to Yoko, Sookan in Impossible Goodbyes lives in poverty amid the harsh reality of occupied Pyongyang. Her three elder brothers have been taken away to a labor camp by the Japanese army police, as have most of the men in the town, and her mother is forced to run a sock factory for the army and supervise young women racing against the clock to meet their quotas. Despite her difficult life, two of Sookan’s happy memories of her home in Pyongyang are described. One is of Grandfather’s pine tree, called “a magic tree,” under which he often meditates, and the other is of bright crimson azalea in the garden before the ban against gardening by the Japanese. The tree is a happy memory for Sookan because “[it holds] in the shade of its branches the peace and harmony Grandfather so often talked about” (Choi 1). In this sense, the tree represents Grandfather himself who is respected by his family as a scholar, Buddhist, and anti-Japanese activist. As for the crimson azalea, Sookan joyfully remembers that when she was a little girl, her mother made a red paste from the wilted clusters of azalea petals and dyed her fingernails pink with the paste. Sookan was delighted with her dyed fingernails and showed them to everyone.
  Both novels, as hinted in their titles, describe the loss of happy childhoods when the protagonists are forced to leave their homes. Though Yoko and Sookan survive the wars as contemporaries on the Korean Peninsula, each war has a different reality for each of the protagonists. I will discuss this more in detail below.

Ⅳ. Self-Portrayals

  Let us examine the portrayals of themselves. Yoko and her mother are presented as pacifists in several episodes, out of which I give three examples. First, as the Japanese army police burst into her house and confiscate any available metal for supplies to make ammunition, including Yoko’s Mount Fuji paperweight handed down from her father, Yoko cannot contain her anger and jumps at the head policeman’s hand and bites it. Second, when Yoko has to do labor service as part of her school day, sorting out flawed bullets from large boxes in the ammunition squadron, she says, “I hated that work. Mother often said she did not like killing, and I felt I was helping the army kill people, even though they were enemies” (5). Third, when Hideyo, Yoko’s eighteen-year-old brother, has volunteered for the student army because of his guilt at having seen many of his Japanese classmates go off to the front, Mother bursts out angrily: “This Tojo government attacking Pearl Harbor to start the war was bad enough. Your father disagrees with the Japanese government . . . I would rather see our country lose the war than lose my husband and son!” (17). In these episodes Yoko, her mother, and elder sister express an unusually strong reaction to the Japanese military policy. However, the mother’s remark refers only to the Pacific War, not to the “war” waged against Koreans or, in Eckert’s words, “a 40-year record of harsh [Japanese] colonial rule in Korea.”
  In contrast to Yoko’s family, Sookan’s family in Impossible Goodbyes is portrayed as positively anti-Japanese. After the Imperial police cut down Grandfather’s magic tree and his health deteriorates suddenly, her mother, showing her children family photos, tells them about the harsh history of the family, who have been repeatedly subjected to oppression by Japanese imperialists, starting with the Japanese cutting off Grandfather’s topknot, a traditional male hairstyle that marked him as a scholar, and their setting fire to his village forcing him and his family to flee to Manchuria, China. In Manchuria, the family was happy working together for the independence movement and published a newspaper in Hangul, the Korean alphabet, which had been prohibited by the Japanese. But then they were soon found by the Japanese and fled back to Pyongyang in the confusion caused by an organized arson-massacre of the Korean settlements. But Grandfather, who stayed behind to continue the anti-Japanese movement, was captured and tortured by the Japanese soldiers (Choi 39-40). It is very significant that publishing a newspaper in Hangul had been at the core of the family’s independence activities.
  To read the novel in a historical context, we need to know that General Minami announced in 1938 the “abolition of distinction between those who regularly use the national language [that is, the Japanese] and those who do not” (qtd. in Lee 8). This actually meant that the Korean language was banned at school and in homes. Therefore, as Lee Chong-Sig writes, “Nowhere was Japanese policy toward Korea better illustrated than in its language policy” (8). Not surprisingly, the colonial government abolished Korean-language newspapers the following year.

Ⅴ. Portrayals of Others

  Since one of the disputed points in the controversy over Bamboo Grove is its portrayal of others, it is worth examining how Koreans are portrayed in the novel. There are two types of Koreans represented in the novel. First, we read about Koreans as a group of menacing male figures like the anti-Japanese communist soldiers 2 who hunt for Yoko and her family in a Red Cross hospital train, or the drunken rapists. Second, and in contrast, there is the kindhearted Kim family, who provide Yoko’s brother, Hideyo, with shelter and food, rescuing him from the threat of the anti-Japanese forces.
  Yoko’s comment on anti-Japanese communists, in the beginning of the novel, reveals her notion of anti-Japanese movements. When Yoko’s mother hears news that the Japanese army has taken farming land from the Koreans by force to expand the army hospital and the Koreans have established a group called the Anti-Japanese Communist Army, Watkins as Yoko comments on it, “The Koreans were part of the Japanese empire but they hated the Japanese and were not happy about the war” (9, emphasis is mine). In this context, young readers may simplistically assume that the anti-Japanese activities are simply caused by the expropriation of land to expand the hospital. Moreover, in Yoko’s colonialistic comment there is no cause-and-effect relationship between the Japanese occupation of Korea and Koreans’ hatred of the Japanese and the war. This is exactly where historically contextualized and comparative reading of the novel is necessary.
This is also the case with the depiction of the rapists. Take one of the references to rapists, as an example:

    Drunken Koreans, celebrating their independence, were all around [the Japanese refugees] . . . The group of
    men left us but they staggered among the people, hunting maidens for their pleasure, and whenever they
    found one they dragged her outside. Women’s shrieks echoed. (87)

  According to an article in The Boston Globe for January 7, 2007, one of the complaining parents, whose “grandfather was beaten to death by the Japanese occupiers for speaking his native tongue,” expressed her worry that “her son would be affected by a book that depicts Koreans, who were reclaiming their country, as villains, with no mention of the war atrocities committed by the Japanese.” “The war atrocities,” I suggest, include massacres and sex slaves working as so-called “comfort women.” In this sense, Watkins’s reference to the independence ceremony is disturbing and incomplete because Yoko mentions only the rapists among many Koreans celebrating their liberation from Japan. Choi’s novel rectifies this one-sided portrayal and depicts how a Korean girl is overjoyed at the independence from Japan: “It was so wonderful to be free! No more Japanese school, no more speaking Japanese, no more [Captain] Naritas, no more fear, no more, no more!” (89).

Ⅵ. Reconciliatory Aspects in the Novels

  Despite all of these unilateral descriptions from the viewpoint of Japanese repatriates, Bamboo Grove presents us with some reconciliatory and trans-boundary aspects. In particular, the episode of Hideyo’s meeting with and parting from the Kim family is notable. Rescued and protected, Hideyo stays with the Kim family for a whole winter, helping the family on the farm and living with the Kim boys like a brother. In this episode the Koreans have human faces expressing compassion and friendship to a Japanese youth in dire need of help. Hideyo, in return, responds with sincerity to the Kim brothers, showing them his friendship and love. He helps Hee Wang with arithmetic and enjoys holding political discussions with Hee Cho.
Then Hideyo finally leaves the Kim family the following spring. The Kim brothers, Hee Cho and Hee Wang, see him off as far as the river Imjǒn that crosses the thirty-eighth parallel. The boys exchange farewells in Korean at the boundary as follows:

    Hee Cho whispered, “Chosim haesǒ kaseyo (Go carefully).”
    Komapsŭmnida” (Thank you),” whispered Hideyo. “Chaphi Jianko kaseyo (Travel so that you do not
    get caught).” “Unhe rŭl ichi an gesŭmnida (I will not forget your kindness).” “Chigŭm kaseyo (Go now)!”

Hideyo is presented as one who expresses his friendship and gratitude in the Korean language, not in the Japanese of an imperialist.
  After crossing the dangerous boundary, he joyfully heads for Seoul still carrying the burlap bag given to him by Mrs. Kim around his hips like a Korean. Watkins writes, “For some reason he did not want to carry a rucksack, as a Japanese boy should. Perhaps he wanted to follow the Korean custom as a sign of love for Mrs. Kim” (167).
  Significantly, Sookan in Impossible Goodbyes also shows a sort of reconciliatory aspect in her attitude to the Japanese, which is especially evident in the episode of her seeing a “little chuckling Buddha.” After hearing all the hardships inflicted upon the family by the Japanese, she visits Grandfather on his deathbed. Then as he envelops her hands in his, she feels as though a peaceful little Buddha had slowly crept inside her (41).
  Remembering his last peaceful smile and his words, “Do not feel bitter about what happened. I am not angry anymore” (35). Sookan later understands the vision of the little laughing Buddha as his teaching about Yin and Yang, darkness and light, pain and joy, evil and good, as he has said, “all these tensions and conflicts were necessary in the struggle for perfect harmony” (46). Thereafter, she feels guilty about her resentment and the bitterness she felt toward Captain Narita and his soldiers, although she remembers their ruthless deeds vividly.
  Sookan’s Buddha epiphany coincides with Korean critic Park Yu-Ha’s suggestion for resolving the dispute about Japanese middle-school history textbooks between Japan and its neighbors over the teaching of Asian history. She writes, “What is necessary for the next generation of Korea and Japan is not education that breeds hatred and hostility but one that intends to consider mutually desirable values through historical facts” (53, my translation).
  Park further maintains that through complex thinking, not nationalistic and self-interested views, we can educate the next generation to be sensitive to the pains of other people, not just their own (54-55). Similarly, Morris-Suzuki writes, “Our relationship with the past is not simply forged through factual knowledge or an intellectual understanding of cause and effect. It also involves imagination and empathy” (22). Thus, as indicated by Morris-Suzuki and Park, we need to read the novel on multiple levels: both in historical context and with empathy for others in pain.

Ⅶ. Conclusion

  A war narrative like Watkins’s Bamboo Grove may be useful for stimulating discussion in a middle school classroom, but we need a cautious treatment of this type of story. As indicated in the above discussion, the protagonist narrates how she and her family have been deprived of their home, their human rights, had their safety threatened. However, the narrator/protagonist is not very conscious of others’ homes, others’ human rights, or others’ safety. In the construction of Yoko’s subjectivity, the elements of imagination and empathy for ethnic others are lacking, and the author intentionally depicts a girl who is totally ignorant of the world in its political context. In other words, Watkins constructs Yoko’s subjectivity as a victim, as Lee Sung-Ae demonstrates in her study of the novel. 3
  In her discussion of Japanese children’s war literature, Japanese critic Kido Noriko similarly points out that the war novels often lacks protagonists’ self-recognition as victimizers. “When an author depicts a war from the viewpoint of a child, s/he stands in the position of an onlooker more often than not . . . The author gains the standpoint of the child nobody can hurt. The author exploits the child’s viewpoint for him/herself. It is considered that the child cannot be a victimizer . . . .” (208, my translation).
  It is not a coincidence that Japanese critic Oka Mari argues that many Japanese narratives of war memories tend to exclude voices that narrate “indescribable memories of traumatic events,” including those of Koreans who were drafted and killed in World War II as “Japanese citizens.” Oka calls this tacit exclusion a kind of “passport control” that screens out “indescribable memories” based on nationality, ethnicity, and language (69-70). Unfortunately, the novel Bamboo Grove seems to adopt this “passport control” in its war narrative, because of which the editor has to supplement it with a foreword and “Notes from the Publisher” to offer readers more historical information about Japanese rule on the Korean Peninsula.
  It would be easy to criticize the novel in this way and end our discussion here. However, the goal of this paper is not to condemn it and expel it from the bookshelves of children’s literature, but rather to explore how such a novel can contribute to the construction of “cultural memory.”
  As were recently reported in some media, including Asahi Shinbun and Asahi. Com, we can perhaps find a model in the recent movements for publishing jointly compiled history books both in Japan and South Korea, one of which is Nikkan Koryu no Rekishi (History of Japan-South Korea Exchanges) published in 2007. Japanese and Korean readers of this book can comparatively read the history of exchanges between the two countries from different perspectives. Likewise, if we read Bamboo Grove and Impossible Goodbyes contextually and empathetically, both novels contribute to the construction of cultural memory.
 [This article is based on the presentation given at Children’s Literature Association 35th Annual Conference on June 13, 2008.]


1.       Lee Sung-Ae points out that bamboo does not grow in these latitudes. She maintains that this fictitious landscape “signifies rather a re-imagining of the Korean landscape as Japanese. Attachment to place is further indicative of the absence of any sense of a split cultural identity in the children of colonizers” (89).

2.       In his comment on So Far from the Bamboo Glove the historian Eckert points out one of its factual errors, “There was no organized ‘Anti-Japanese Communist Army’ of Korean soldiers, except for Kim Il Sung (later the leader of North Korea) and his guerrilla partisans in Manchuria, but they did not arrive in Korea until early September 1945, long after the events described in the book. It is possible, of course, that she is referring to some scattered local Korean communist groups, who sought a violent redress of colonial grievances in the Nanam area where the story takes place . . . But simply to portray Korean communists in 1945 as endemically evil is not only empirically incorrect” (“A Matter of Context”).

3.       Lee Sung-Ae writes, “Throughout the novel and its sequel, My Brother, My Sister, and I (1994), Yoko’s subjectivity is constantly constructed in terms of victimhood . . . her situation severs historical consciousness of and responsibility for the causes and conditions of the Japanese occupation of Korea, Manchuria, and beyond” (87).


Works Cited

Choi, Sook Nyul. Year of Impossible Goodbyes. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Yoshizawa, Tatsuhiko, and Sakurai Izumi. “Changing History Education.” Asahi. Com. Jun. 15, 2006. Jun. 7, 2008
  <http://www.asahi. com/english/Herald-asahi/History/TKY200706150138.html>.
Eckert, Carter. “A Matter of Context.” Boston Globe Dec. 16, 2006. Dec. 8, 2007
Kawamura, Wataru. “ ‘Tairitsu’ koe wakai susumu.” (Reconciliation Advances beyond Hostility) Asahi Shinbun. Jun.
  6, 2008.
Kido, Noriko. “‘Kagai’no ninshikiga fusokushiteiru.” (Lacking in Recognition as ‘Victimizer’) Ed. Hasegawa, Ushio,
   and Kido Noriko. Kodomono honkara ‘sensoto ajia’ga mieru (War and Asia as Seen in Japanese Children’s Books).
   Tokyo: Nashinokisha, 1994.
Kocian, Lisa. “ ‘Bamboo’ Lesson Plan to be Revised Officials Seek Wider Discussion.” Boston Globe Jan. 7, 2007.
   Dec. 28, 2007 < bamboo _lesson_plan_to_be_revised>.
- - -. “6th Grade Book Stirs Rethinking.” Boston Globe Nov. 12, 2006. Dec.28, 2007
Lee, Chong-Sig. Japan and Korea: the Political Dimension. Stanford: Hover Institution P, 1985.
Lee, Sung-Ae. “Remembering or Misremembering? Historicity and the Case of So Far from the Bamboo Grove.
   Children’s Literature in Education 39 (2008): 85-93.
Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. The Past within Us. New York: Verso, 2005.
Oka, Mari. Kioku / Monogatari (Memory / Narrative). Tokyo: Iwanami, 2000.
Society for the Study of History Education (JPN) / Society for the Study of History Textbook (ROK), ed. Nikkan Koryu
   no Rekishi (History of Japan-South Korea Exchange). Tokyo: Akashi Shoten, 2007.
Sturken, Marita. Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the Aids Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering. Berkley:
   U of California P, 1997.
Park, Yu-Ha. Wakaino tameni (For Reconciliation). Trans. Sato Hisashi. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2006.
Watkins, Yoko Kawashima. So Far from the Bamboo Grove. 1986. New York: A Beech Tree Books, 1994.