Boston and the Bamboo Grove

I must admit that I’ve not felt at all keen on bringing up here the most recent Korea-related history controversy to hit the news. As many readers are probably already aware, many Korean-Americans and the majority of the South Korean media have been upset over the book So Far from the Bamboo Grove. I suppose my reluctance is due to the fact that I find something particularly depressing about the whole business. Perhaps it’s the sense that this seems to pit different immigrant groups in the US rather pointlessly against one another. In any case, I’ve been sent some links to articles on this matter by an editor at the Boston Globe, which I will post here in the interests of sharing information.

The first one covers the South Korean angle, noting that the South Korean consulate has asked the (Massachusetts) Department of Education to ‘rethink its use of the book’. The second concerns the author’s (Yoko Kawashima Watkins) response to the controversy at a recent press conference, where she seemed to admit to certain problems with her book by offering to see if a more extensive historical introduction could be included in future editions.

Personally, I think Professor Carter Eckert of Harvard already pinpointed rather well (in the same newspaper back in December – reg. required) the core of this controversy and why the use of the book as school text has upset Korean-Americans so much:

While Yoko’s story is compelling as a narrative of survival, it achieves its powerful effect in part by eliding the historical context in which Yoko and her family had been living Korea. That context, simply put, was a 40-year record of harsh colonial rule in Korea, which reached its apogee during the war years of 1937-45, when Yoko was growing up.

This is not an argument for censorship or banning books. There is no reason why Watkins’s book cannot be used in the schools. Introduced carefully and wisely, in conjunction, for example, with Richard Kim’s classic “Lost Names,” an autobiographical novel about a young Korean boy living at the end of Japanese colonial rule in the 1940s, it can help students understand how perspectives vary according to personal and historical circumstances.


  1. Thank you for taking up this issue. I read professor Eckert’s article
    and I agree with most of the things he is saying but I personally think
    that this book should not be used as text for young American students.
    The reason is quite simple, I don’t think that teachers are able to
    tell the students the complexity of colonial period history and when
    I think about the influence this book will give to the young students
    (who probably learn about colonial Korea for the first time through
    this book), I just don’t think it is suitable.

    Recently Peter Paul and Mary (PPM) made a song for Megumi Yokota, a girl
    who was kidnapped by North Korea in the 70s (There is a movie called
    “Abudction the Yokota Megumi story”.
    I understand that the song was made out of “sympathy”, but do
    Americans know that Korean residents in Japan are suffering from
    the whole anti-North Korea campaign that the Japanese government
    is holding? Will Americans ever show “sympathy” to these people?
    Probably not.

  2. >I understand that the song was made out of “sympathy”, but do
    >Americans know that Korean residents in Japan are suffering from
    >the whole anti-North Korea campaign that the Japanese government
    >is holding? Will Americans ever show “sympathy” to these people?
    >Probably not.

    Do you know how North Koreans are treated by their “brothers” in the South?

    The Cold Reality in the Warm South

    “This month, the number of North Korean escapees arriving in South Korea will surpass the 10,000 mark. As one North Korea expert said, South Korea is having a difficult time handling even this small amount of North Koreans. They fall victim to crime and lose hope after facing the indifference of the South Korean public. Human rights groups say only 24 percent of North Korean escapees find regular jobs in the South. Another survey shows 42 percent of North Korean escapees felt belittled and discriminated against in the South, while 40 percent said they hid the fact that they were North Korean. More than half of North Korean teens who came to the South drop out of school. Only 10 percent of them enter high school in the South. One North Korean child who escaped to the South wrote a letter to the president saying he wished his peers would not ostracize him due to his poor grades.

    Twenty years ago, Kim Man-chul said he had finally come to the warm South. But in one survey last November, 33 percent of North Korean escapees said they would go back to North Korea if they could escape punishment. That is the cold reality in the “warm” South. “

  3. Genie

    Thank you for the article. When I was in South Korea I heard
    that alot of the North Korean refugees are having a very tough
    time in the “warm” south. It is an issue that we all must know
    isn’t it?
    There are about 50 North Korean refugees in Japan and they are also
    having a very difficult time to adjust to their new “homes”.

  4. I find it difficult to fault a book that is historical fiction, particularly since it is not being used in a history class. Next, film classes won’t be able to screen Kevin Costner’s film on the JFK Assassination, another notable work of historical fiction, because it can be shown that some scenes are historically incorrect. Ditto for Las of the Mohicans, ad infinitum.

  5. Sorry, should have said Oliver Stone. Costner’s was “Dances with Wolves”, which was as visually stunning as Tom Cruise’s “The Last Samurai”, and about as historically accurate.

  6. Naturally Dice wants to equate Korea treating her own “blood” like garbage and Japan who accepts refugees from the north and they have a hard time adapting.

    Person A : Koreans hollar about brotherhood and one blood, and then treat their northern borthers like crap.

    Korean: But Japan is worse!! Japan is the cause.

    Person A : ???

  7. Dear Japan

    I would like to leave a short comment.
    I know that there are many South Koreans who are helping the
    people from the North and they do not treat the North Koreans
    like “crap” or “garbage”.
    And I have never heard Koreans say “But Japan is worse!! Japan is the cause”
    about the North Korean refugee issue. Japanese right wingers seem to “make”
    the Koreans use this phrase on anything related to Korean history.

  8. But of course, Japan IS the cause, in a very real way. Without Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea, the peninsula would not be divided into two nations today.

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