Saturday, March 03, 2007

Korean Government wants the US to ban a Book used in U.S. middle schools

Cover for 'So Far From The Bamboo Grove' - art by Leo and Dianne Dillon
A few months ago (in November) I saw a note about a book challenge to local school district, where a fictionalized autobiography was being challenged as "racist."

Since the book in question, "So Far From The Bamboo Grove" by Yoko Kawashawa Watkins is one I had read myself and am planning to have my older boy (who will be age 10 this year) read and discuss.

The book, originally published in 1986, is now raising controversy due to a concerted effort from a small, but vocal, group of protesters who claim that the book "distorts history," "is racist," "brands Koreans as villains" and "refuses to treat the Japanese as criminals."

The book depicts the flight from northern Korea, just before the end of WW II, of an 11-year old Japanese girl, her sister, brother and mother.

The novel describes the flight from Korea from the viewpoint of the 11-year old, including their passage on a medical train where they are sheltered and protected from Japanese and Korean Communist soldiers, and the further efforts they make to leave Korea and be repatriated to Japan, and their troubles there, without a male relative to sponsor/protect them.

The main thrust of the non-local opposition to this book seems to be because the book doesn't paint the wartime Japanese as vicious or brutal enough. There have also been repeated attempts, completely without any evidence, to link Ms Kawashawa Watkins, who is married to a U.S. citizen and now lives on Cape Cod, to the head of the Japanese "disease prevention and water purification" Unit 731,(this was actually a site where experimentation on human subjects, including vivisection, was performed, some in aid of CBW aims, others on the same "spirit of investigation" that led the U.S. health authorities to conduct experiments where men and women with venereal disease were purposely left untreated, without the subjects knowledge and consent.)

From the netizen attacks on the book, and author, I have seen, it appears that most have not read the book at all, and focus their attacks on a very few points in the book -- there are two points where, very briefly and without detail, attacks and rapes by uniformed soldiers is described. There is also, for some attackers, a "significant point" that the "bamboo grove" alluded to in the title could not have survived in Northern Korea. Others complain that the (presumably Korean Communist) soldiers depicted on the paperback version's cover art doesn't show accurate N. Korean uniforms.

Others claim that Kim Il Sung's forces were still in China at the end of 1945( he was actually withe the Soviet Army units in Siberia).

Others claim as Watkins is being a "hypocrite" when, as she sees groups of school children to discuss her book and experiences with them, she apologizes for what her nation had done during and before WW II.

In the Dover-Sherborn district, the book was first announced to be removed from the curriculum in early November.

In what I had thought was a relatively minor bubble, concerning a local Massachusetts school district, is actually turned into an international event, with Asian English-language web portals-sites showing a lot of activity on the subject. Especially see the discussion at Japan Probe and Marmot's Hole, and at occidentalism( "Yoko Watkins defends memoir" "Review of 'So Far From The Bamboo Grove'") and the reports of misquotes of an american expat journalist by the Yonhap News Service. For more articles at Marmot's Hole enter "Bamboo Grove" into their search window.

My post title alludes to the Korean Government activity shown in this quote:
The Korean Consul General in Boston Ji Young-sun said the issue was first raised last September, when Korean American parents near Boston and in New York publicly complained about the book being used as a set text. This prompted an organized campaign against the book. Ji said many Korean students were shocked by the book and experienced discrimination because of it.

Ji said the fact that the book is taught in U.S. schools was “in a way racial discrimination and violation of human rights,” adding Korean parents will file formal complaints with U.S. education authorities and state government. The consulate has already written to federal and state education authorities.

The publisher claims that the book cannot be published in China because it does not vilify the Japanese enough, and that it cannot be published in Japan because the viewpoint character's mother , early in the book, criticizes the Japanese government for starting the war with the U.S.

The Dover-Sherborn school district has decided, with a unanimous vote, to reinstate the book into the school curriculum, and to beef up other curriculum in order to provide more context for discussion.

As I said, I've read this book, and plan on discussing it with my son after he reads it.

It will be interesting to see what all comes out of this.

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