So Far from the Bamboo Grove
So Far from the Bamboo Grove
YOKO KAWASHIMA WATKINS
The events in the autobiographical novel So Far from the Bamboo Grove, published in 1986 and still in print, were taken from Yoko Kawashima Watkins's childhood. It took Watkins ten years to write the novel.
When Watkins was young, her father, a Japanese government official, was sent to northern Korea (which was occupied by Japan), where he settled his family. Watkins grew up learning the Korean language and culture while maintaining a grasp of her own Japanese heritage. Later, Russian and Korean armies united against Japan, and along with support from U.S. bombers, forced the Japanese off the Korean peninsula. Watkins's story focuses mainly on her family's journey out of Korea, and on their attempts to reestablish their lives in their war-torn homeland.
So Far from the Bamboo Grove has been both praised and negatively criticized over the years. In 1986, the novel was listed as a Notable Book by the American Library Association. In addition, it received a Best Books for Children designation from the School Library Journal. However, more recently there has been some controversy surrounding Watkins's novel. It has been charged that the novel contains an inaccurate or biased account of history, and the suggested rape scene in the story has also been viewed as offensive. Some parents have even tried to have the book removed from school libraries and curriculums. Most readers, however, defend the novel, stating that it is predominantly a work of fiction, told through the eyes of a traumatized eleven-year-old. For them, this story is a coming-of-age journey.
Yoko Kawashima Watkins, who is of Japanese descent, was born in Manchuria. Although Manchuria is part of China, and sits on China's eastern seaboard, Japan had invaded Manchuria and controlled the area by 1931. Watkins's family was living there in 1933, in Harbin, when she was born. Later, the family moved to Nanam in northern Korea, possibly thinking they might avoid the conflicts that were threatening between the Japanese and Russian armies. Although the family moved, Watkins's father continued to commute the fifty miles to his station in Manchuria and thus was often away from home. The setting of So Far from the Bamboo Grove at the beginning of the story is in Nanam.
As Watkins relates in her novel, when she was eleven, in 1945, it became apparent that Japan was fighting a losing battle in World War II. Her family was warned to leave with just enough supplies and belongings to get them to the port of Pusan on the southern point of the Korean peninsula. After making it to Japan, they discovered that much of their homeland had been destroyed, and they had to survive by eating out of trash cans and earning small amounts of money by selling trinkets door-to-door.
Watkins credits her older sister Ko for encouraging her studies despite the challenges of poverty they faced after their mother died. Watkins would later attend Kyoto University, where she specialized in English. Upon graduation, Watkins worked as a translator for the U.S. Air Force at Aomori, Japan. It was here that she met the man who would become her husband, Donald Watkins. In 1955, Donald was transferred back to the States, where the couple lived in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and then Oregon before settling in Brewster, Massachusetts. Watkins and her husband raised four children, who are now adults.
Watkins has said that she always thought of herself as a writer, but opening herself up to the memories of her escape was very difficult. After publishing So Far from the Bamboo Grove in 1986, however, she continued her story in another autobiographical novel, a sequel to the first, called My Brother, My Sister, and I. It was published in 1994 and won several awards. In this second story, among other things, Watkins tells of her father's return from a Russian prison camp. Watkins has put together a third book, Tales from the Bamboo Grove, a collection of Japanese folktales that was published in 1992. As of 2007, Watkins lived with her husband in Massachusetts and frequently visited schools to talk about her experiences.
Watkins's novel So Far from the Bamboo Grove begins on July 29, 1945. The Japanese, at this point, still have control of Manchuria. However, Russian troops have gathered along the border and are threatening to advance. Allied troops, especially British and American, have already started bombing industrial sites in northern Korea in their attempts to destroy the economy that Japan has established in that country. Yoko's father has told her mother to have supplies ready should they have to conceal themselves in the bomb shelter they have built. Yoko is the youngest child in the family, and lives with her sixteen-year-old sister, Ko, and the oldest sibling, which is her brother, Hideyo. The children live with their mother in Nanam in northern Korea. Yoko's father takes a fifty-mile train ride to his work in Manchuria and is gone for long periods of time. Although they have supplied the bomb shelter and can hear bombs falling in the distance, Yoko does not have a real sense of the war until Japanese soldiers arrive one day at the family's door, demanding any piece of metal they possess, including her mother's eyeglasses (with their metal frame) and her wedding ring. This angers Yoko so much, she bites one of the soldier's hands. The soldier retaliates by pushing Yoko down and kicking her in the ribs. Yoko's actions showcase both her immaturity and her lack of fear.
Yoko's mother takes her to Dr. Yamada, who announces that Yoko might have one or more cracked ribs. He says it would be best to keep her out of school. This thrills Yoko, because half of the school day is spent collecting old metal cans in the fields or at the ammunition factory, where the students separated good bullets from bad ones. Yoko hated helping the army because she felt she was helping them to kill. One day at school, her teacher, Mr. Enomoto, made the announcement that U.S. planes had dropped two bombs—one on Hiroshima; the other at Nagasaki (August 9, 1945).
To keep Yoko's mind busy, as well as to keep alive the family's Japanese culture, Yoko's mother insists that Yoko study the Japanese arts of calligraphy (artful, brush-stroke writing of Japanese and Chinese characters), the Way of Tea Ceremony (a specialized, formal serving of tea), ikebana (Japanese flower arranging), and Japanese dance. All of these arts are very meditative, clearing and then focusing the mind only on the present moment.
One day when Yoko comes home from school, her mother tells her that she has heard that the Koreans have created what she calls the Anti-Japanese Communist Army. Yoko relates to the reader that, although the Koreans were part of the Japanese Empire, she knew they hated the Japanese. (This part of the story has aroused the negative sentiment in some readers who believe that the author does not tell the reader of the atrocities that the Japanese inflicted on the Koreans. Japan took Korea by force and demanded that they adopt Japanese names, did not allow the Korean language to be spoken, and did what they could to destroy the Korean culture. So the Koreans were part of the Japanese Empire, but it was against their will.)
The subject is quickly changed, as Yoko's mother reminds Yoko of a performance of Japanese dance that is scheduled for the next day. Yoko is a part of this dance group. Yoko does not like to dance, as she feels awkward rather than graceful. However, when she goes to the hospital the next day the patients, who are mostly wounded soldiers, are impressed with her. Major Ryu, who is in charge of the entertainment, asks Yoko if she will go visit some of the soldiers who could not get out of bed to come to see her. One soldier, in particular, is very needy. He is badly wounded and refuses to eat. His name is Corporal Matsumura. When Yoko sees him, Matsumura's head is heavily bandaged, and he cannot see. But he is touched by Yoko's presence. He asks to hold her hand, and then he asks to touch the kimono (traditional Japanese dress) she wears. A month passes, then Corporal Matsumura comes for a surprise visit to Yoko's house. His face is disfigured with raw scars. He thanks Yoko for helping him heal. Yoko dances for him. He comes to visit often after this.
Air raids become more frequent as U.S. planes fly overhead and bomb facilities nearby. Yoko's brother tells his mother that he has decided to join the Yokaren, a student army. He is eighteen, Hideyo tells his mother, old enough to make his own decisions. Yoko's mother is very concerned about her son; she is also worried about the fate of the rest of the family. She fears that if the army is recruiting such young boys, it is a sign that the army is desperate. Although it is not explained, Hideyo is turned down by the army for having flunked their written exam. The family knows that Hideyo was smart enough to pass the test, so they wonder if he flunked it on purpose. Instead of fighting, then, Hideyo works at a nearby ammunitions plant with some other boys his age.
Corporal Matsumura shows up late one night and tells Yoko's family to pack up and leave their home as fast as they can. Yoko's mother is reluctant to leave because Hideyo is not home. Matsumura says that the Russian soldiers have crossed the border and will be there soon. They are specifically looking for Yoko's family because they know Yoko's father is a high-ranking government official. Matsumura has arranged for them to take a train to Seoul, in southern Korea. The mother agrees and leaves notes for Hideyo and for Yoko's father to let them know where they have gone. The train they will travel on is meant to carry only wounded soldiers, so Matsumura gives Yoko's mother a note to give to the station master. The family gathers their things and sets off for the train. When they find the station master, he is reluctant to allow the family to board. Major Ryu, the man who had arranged for Yoko to dance at the hospital, sees the family and tells the station master that Yoko and her family must be put on the train.
Yoko, Ko, and Mother find a small space in one of the boxcars and squeeze themselves in. Wounded soldiers, pregnant women, and sick patients surround them. In the course of one day, a woman gives birth to a dead baby, which an army official takes and throws off the train. Others who die are also pushed off the boxcar. Yoko's mother shares the family's food with everyone. She also helps the nurses administer aid to the patients. On the second day, the train stops for fuel. While there, a group of Korean soldiers inspect the trains. The nurses smear blood on Yoko, Ko, and Mother to make them look as if they are wounded. The nurses know that the soldiers are looking for Yoko and her family and help them hide because they have been so helpful. When the Korean soldiers become suspicious of Mother, the nurse yells at the soldiers, telling them to leave her alone because she has smallpox (a very contagious disease). The soldiers immediately jump off the train. Shortly after the train starts up again, U.S. bombers attack the train. The engine is demolished. Yoko and her family are forced to walk the rest of the way to Seoul, which is forty-five miles away.
They sleep during the day and walk at night so as not to be detected. They have been following the train tracks for eleven days, knowing it will eventually lead them to the southern city. One day, as the women are hiding in a nearby forest, Korean soldiers surprise them and make comments that suggest that they are thinking of raping Ko. U.S. planes fly by and drop bombs nearby. Yoko loses consciousness. When she wakes up, she cannot hear. She is also slightly wounded in the chest. The soldiers are dead.
Yoko's family takes an extra day to rest. The next day, Yoko still cannot hear. When she wakes that day, the first thing she sees is Ko dressed in a Korean uniform. All her hair has been cut off. Mother is likewise dressed. Her hair is also gone. Then Mother cuts of Yoko's hair too. Mother dresses Yoko in another uniform and they resume their journey to Seoul.
Hideyo, Yoko's brother, is working at the ammunition factory with many youths, which include three of his friends: Makoto, Shoichi, and Shinzo. One day, Korean soldiers come in and start shooting everyone they see. The four of them survive the attack either by hiding or pretending to be dead; and then decide to run away together. They all head home, about a day's walk from the factory. Hideyo finds the house deserted and ransacked. He also finds his mother's note, telling him that they are heading for Seoul. He takes what food he can carry and goes off to meet with the other boys. Shinzo's and Shoichi's parents had fled to the south. Makoto, however, found his parents dead. Hideyo suggests that they go to friends of his family to borrow some Korean style clothes. When they get there, they find these people also dead. But they exchange their Japanese style clothes for the Korean clothes. They too decide to follow the railroad tracks. Later, when they run into some Russian soldiers, the boys are able to convince them that they are Korean. The soldiers tell them they can find food in the next town if they are willing to help the army bury the dead. The boys decide to separate. Hideyo is the only one who wants to continue to Seoul. They promise to meet at the Tokyo Bridge in Japan five years from that day.
The story switches back to the plight of Yoko, her mother and her sister. They have finally arrived at the Seoul station, but they find that conditions have not improved for them. The war is over, but that does not bring them much relief. There are thousands of refugees, not much food, and no place to sleep. There is a medical team that treats Yoko's wounds, which are infected. Yoko spends two weeks in the hospital. Meanwhile, Mother learns that there is a ship that leaves from Pusan, farther south from Seoul, that is taking refugees back to Japan. Mother refuses to leave without Hideyo. She, Ko, and Yoko live at the Seoul station, sleeping on benches and eating food that Ko finds in garbage cans. They watch the trains stop and unload; but Hideyo is never among the passengers. It is not until Ko witnesses the rapes of several young girls that she tells her mother they must leave. It is too dangerous to stay there. So they make signs and place them all over the station, telling Hideyo that they have gone to Pusan and are planning to take the boat back to Japan.
At Pusan, conditions are not much better. Mother wraps Ko's chest to hide the fact that she is a girl. They must wait in line to get on the boat, even long after the boat has left, in hopes that they will make the next boat. They also leave signs in Pusan, telling Hideyo that they will meet him in Japan at the dock.
The story returns to Hideyo's plight. He is starving and freezing in a blizzard. He knows that he dare not fall asleep or he will freeze to death. He sees a red light in the distance and tries to reach it, hoping he will find a family that will take him in.
Mother, Yoko, and Ko finally reach Japan. Japan is suffering from heavy bombardment and the resulting destruction of U.S. attacks. There is a shelter that has been set up for refugees, but there is no food provided. Mother does not feel safe in the shelter as everyone around her family is desperate. People fight for space, and she is afraid what little possessions they do have will be stolen. Despite the challenges and despair, she insists on registering her daughters for school. Then she leaves them to travel north to Aomori to find her parents. While she is gone, Ko takes care of Yoko, making sure she attends classes and bringing food home in the evening. Yoko is constantly humiliated at school by the other young girls there. Yoko's hair is growing out, but it sticks out on top of her head. Her clothes are in tatters and the sole of her shoe is detached. She has no money for supplies and must dig through the trashcans to find pencils and paper that have been discarded. She makes friends with Mr. Naido, the school janitor, who begins to save things like rulers and erasers that he finds. Yoko tells no one about her background. When Yoko complains to Ko about how the other girls make fun of her, Ko tells her that she has to face that same discrimination. She tells Yoko to use these hardships to make her study harder and prove that she is worth something.
Mother returns to tell Yoko that both her maternal and paternal grandparents are dead. They have nowhere else to go. Yoko notices that her mother is extremely tired and does not look well. Ko has not yet returned from school, and since they moved away from the refugee shelter, they have been living in a park in Kyoto. This is where Mother dies.
When Ko finally arrives, after mourning her mother, she makes arrangements for her mother's cremation. A bystander, Mrs. Masuda, steps in when the men who have come with a truck to take Mother's body away tell Ko how much this will cost her. Mrs. Masuda makes other arrangements that cost a lot less and offers the girls a room over her husband's factory.
Ko is learning to sew and makes money selling her wares, which Yoko takes from door-to-door to sell. They also find money sewn in their mother's shawl. It provides them with enough food to get through the winter. Little by little, the girls' lives begin to improve. Yoko writes an essay about her experiences at school and wins a contest that brings in a little more money. The essay is printed in the newspaper and catches the attention of Mr. Matsumura, the soldier whom they met at the hospital in Korea, the one who was refusing to eat. He contacts the girls and promises to help them with whatever they need.
Hideyo is rescued by Mr. and Mrs. Kim, a Korean family. They nurse Hideyo back to health. Hideyo stays with them until the spring, helping them with chores on their farm. Then Hideyo tells them that he must find his family. He makes the journey to Seoul and then Pusan, where he catches the boat to Japan. At the dock in Japan, Ko and Yoko have made sure that messages are posted, so Hideyo will know where they are. When Hideyo lands, he sees their notes to him. The story ends when the three siblings are finally reunited.
Mr. Enomoto is Yoko's grade school teacher in Nanam, North Korea. He teaches his pupils only during half the days. In the afternoons, he has them digging ditches around the school to be used in air raids. He also has them looking for scrap metal in the fields and elsewhere.
See Mr. Yoshio Kawashima
Yoko takes traditional Japanese dance from Mr. Fukui, while she is in Nanam, North Korea. It is Mr. Fukui who directs his dancing students at the hospital when they perform for the wounded soldiers. Mr. Fukui also accompanies the dancers by singing the Japanese songs.
See Hideyo Kawashima
See Ko Kawashima
Hideyo is Yoko's eighteen-year-old brother. He is the eldest of the Kawashima children. Hideyo decides that he wants to join the Japanese army in the student division. He does this without asking his father's permission and against his mother's wishes. However, Hideyo flunks the army exam and is turned down. His mother suggests that Hideyo might have done this on purpose, though it is not explained why she thinks so. Instead, Hideyo offers his help at the ammunitions factory. It is at the factory where Hideyo confronts the war firsthand when Korean soldiers barge in and kill many of the people working there. Hideyo escapes by pretending to be dead. Then he and three of his friends try to make it to Seoul by dressing up as Koreans. Hideyo almost dies along the way but is rescued by the Kim family. He lives with them through the winter, but tells them he must leave when spring comes. He is homesick for his family. Hideyo does not reappear in the story until the end, where he reunites with his sisters. Although Hideyo represents the so-called man of the family in his father's absence, he is separated from his mother and sisters and is unable to help them in their escape. His sister Ko must take on the guise of a male as well as adopting a somewhat aggressive male nature in his absence.
Ko is the elder sister of Yoko. Her character sits somewhat in the background as the story begins, but once the journey to Seoul is under way, Ko takes on a prominent role. Whereas in the beginning, Ko seems insubstantial and sometimes a bit bossy, when the struggle for survival begins, Ko's confidence and her enterprising manner may well be responsible for the family's having made it back to Japan. She is resourceful when having to find food where food does not seem to exist. She does not complain about the hardships they face and is a model for young Yoko to emulate. After her mother dies, Ko takes on an even more impressive role as she does small jobs, such as shining shoes, to make sure Yoko has food and clothing. Ko never bemoans her fate and never allows depression to sap her strength. She is also selfless, ensuring Yoko benefits from her meager earnings. Ko uses her pride in refusing help from others unless she is totally at a loss for what to do. She allows Mrs. Masuda to help with the cremation of her mother and accepts Mrs. Masuda's invitation to use the room above the factory. But Ko refuses help from Corporal Matsumura. Although many of the characters in this story exhibit strength and courage, Ko exhibits outstanding generosity. She becomes the protector, mother, father, and provider for her sister. She is defiant in facing the world and all its tragedies and hazards without boasting. She also never loses her respect for those around her. Of course, Ko is represented through the eyes of her younger sister, who may well have glorified the experiences; but as told in this story, Ko comes very close to being a saint.
Mrs. Kawashima is Yoko's mother and is often referred to in this story as Mother. Though she leads her children to safety during very challenging times, it is not certain that she would have made it if it were not for the courage and strength of her elder daughter, Ko. Mrs. Kawashima understands the world in a way that her children might not. She is more aware of the dangers. She cuts her daughters' hair and makes them dress as young boys, for example. She is a gentle and giving woman who administers to the wounded on the train. But she is not as resourceful as Ko, when it comes to finding food. She carries a knife under her clothes to protect herself and her children. And fortunately, she never comes across a circumstance when she has to use it. Her frailness is hinted at when it is related that her hair turns gray, almost overnight, as she makes the journey from northern to southern Korea. Mrs. Kawashima was smart enough to hide the life savings that she stashed in hidden pockets of her shawl. She is also selfless in wanting to make sure that her son will find them and that her daughters will receive an education, even if she has no food. She knows an education is a key to their survival. But the war and the family's changed circumstances take all her strength. Upon discovering the death of her parents and those of her husband, she is weakened beyond repair. The difference between Mrs. Kawashima and Ko might represent the difference between the generation of Japanese women raised in comfort before the war and the generation that knew little more than war and the challenges of survival.
Yoko is the narrator of this story. She is eleven years old, the youngest child of the Kawashima family. The author represents the young girl fairly objectively, exposing her weaknesses as well as her strengths. Throughout the story, Yoko is often reluctant to do what is asked of her. As the story unfolds, Yoko exhibits her strengths. She first attempts to protect her mother by biting the hand of a Japanese soldier. Then, in the midst of the family's journey to Seoul, Yoko sustains injuries after a nearby bomb blast. She must continue walking for several days while suffering fever and infection from her wounds, which she does with little complaint.
Once they arrive in Japan, Yoko shows her strengths in different ways. She befriends the janitor, whom all the other students make fun of. Although she wants to drop out of school, Yoko not only meets the challenges of students mocking her poverty, but she also excels at her studies. Yoko never explains why she is dressed so shabbily, never wanting to use her experience as an excuse. Yoko helps Ko sew and then sell the items she has sewn. Instead of buying new shoes, she buys special meals to help nourish her older sister. Of all the characters in this story, it is Yoko who matures the most, because she has so much maturing to do. The story begins with Yoko as a typical pre-teen, who is absorbed in her own world. By the end of the story, she learns to find opportunity where, at first, there looks like there is none. She learns to give, even when there is so little to offer. Yoko might represent the hope of the future.
Mr. Yoshio Kawashima
Mr. Kawashima is Yoko's father. It is because of Mr. Kawashima's job as a Japanese government official that the family is living in Korea. Mr. Kawashima travels fifty miles to go to work in Manchuria. He is seldom home. In this story, Mr. Kawashima never makes an appearance. He is alluded to in stories that are told or in conversations. It is related at the end of the story that Mr. Kawashima was taken prisoner by the Russians and was released six years after his family returns to Japan.
Mr. Lee was a Korean friend of the Kawashima family. Hideyo thinks of them as he plans his escape with his three friends. Hideyo knows the boys must change their clothes if they want any chance to escape. So he takes them to Mr. and Mrs. Lee's home, where he finds them dead. He knows they would have given the boys clothes, so they take Korean style clothes they find there.
Mrs. Lee, wife of Mr. Lee, is a Korean woman who befriended the Kawashima family. She is shot and Hideyo finds her dead when he runs to her house to borrow some Korean style clothes.
See Yoko Kawashima
Makoto is a friend of Hideyo's who worked with Hideyo in the munitions factory. Makota hides in the bathroom when the Korean soldiers open fire on the other workers. Later, after the boys escape, Makoto runs home to find that his parents have been killed. Makoto has no other relatives in Korea. He does not follow Hideyo into Seoul. Instead, he goes with Shinzo and Shoichi to another location in southern Korea. He promises to meet up with Hideyo in Japan five years later.
Mrs. Masuda sees Yoko and Ko in the park in Kyoto after they have arrived from Korea. She witnesses the death of the girls' mother and the struggles that Ko faces in taking her mother's body to be cremated. Mrs. Masuda steps in and keeps the girls from being taken advantage of, she helps them transport their mother's body, and then offers them a room over her husband's factory. Later Mrs. Masuda keeps an eye on the girls, though she is not very forthcoming in offering them food or heat or any other luxuries. Mrs. Masuda might represent the typical relationships among strangers in a war-torn environment in which everyone is fighting to survive.
Corporal Matsumura is the badly wounded soldier at the hospital in Nanam, North Korea, who has been refusing to eat. His face is heavily bandaged and he cannot see. Matsumura reappears later, when he is mostly healed. He visits the Kawashima house many times. It is Matsumura who comes to tell them that they must leave immediately. He gives them a note that will allow them to ride the train that is evacuating wounded soldiers. Toward the end of the story, Matsumura reunites with Yoko and Ko in Japan. He promises he will do whatever they ask of him.
See Mrs. Kawashima
Major Ryu is an army doctor stationed at the hospital in Nanam, North Korea. Major Ryu is the person who asked Yoko and the other dancers at the hospital if they would take the time to visit the soldiers who were too weak to make it to the performance. Later, when Mother is looking for the station master to give him the note that Corporal Matsumura has told her will allow her family to board the train, it is Major Ryu who steps in to assure their safe passage.
Shinzo is one of the friends of Hideyo, who survives by hiding in the bathroom of the munitions factory. His parents are not at home but have left word that they have fled south to relatives. Shinzo parts paths with Hideyo before arriving in Seoul, but promises to meet up with him in Japan one day.
Shoichi is one of the boys who works at the munitions factory and escapes the attack of the Korean soldiers. He has relatives in southern Korea and heads for their homes with Shinzo and Makoto after parting with Hideyo, who heads for Seoul.
Dr. Takeda takes care of Yoko's wounds and infection when the family reaches Seoul. When Dr. Takeda learns of their names, he asks if they are related to Yoshio Kawashima. Mrs. Kawashima says that is her husband. It turns out that Dr. Takeda's father went to school with Yoko's father. He takes good care of Yoko and makes sure the family gets a supply of milk and extra bandages when they leave the hospital.
Dr. Yamada takes care of Yoko in Nanam, North Korea, after a Japanese soldier, who has come to the Kawashima house, kicks Yoko in the ribs, cracking some of them. It is Dr. Yamada who helps Mother to replace her eyeglasses after the soldiers take them from her to use the metal frames.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Study maps of Korea and Japan, paying attention to where the cities in this story are located. Learn the geography of the land and the typical weather. Then create a class presentation, using maps, images, statistics, and narrative, discussing what the physical journey from northern Korea to Japan must have been like for Yoko and her family.
- There is a lot of controversy about this novel because it is a one-sided version of the Japanese occupation in Korea. Study the history of the Japanese control of Korea and provide a more objective view. What were the motives and needs behind the Japanese attempt to take over Korea? What were their tactics? What hardships did this cause the Korean people? What were the benefits the Korean people experienced, if any? What was the Korean retaliation like? Write your summation in a report and present it to your class. Be prepared to answer questions on the topic.
- This story mentions several items and arts that are enjoyed in the Japanese culture, including the koto, shamisen, kimono, obi, tabi, calligraphy, Japanese dance, flower arranging, and the tea ceremony. Research these items and arts to discover what they are and what they mean to the Japanese people. Write a report on your findings.
- Choose one of the three children in the novel, Yoko, Ko, or Hideyo, and write a short story about the character you've chosen. Consider changing different details from So Far from the Bamboo Grove. For example, what would have happened to Yoko if Ko had died? How would the story have differed if Hideyo had been with them during the journey to southern Korea? Be prepared to read your story to your class.
The Effects of War
The author of this novel has become a lecturer on the topic of war. Watkins has stated that one of her main purposes for telling her story was so others would learn of the hardships and cruelties that war can cause not only on the battlefields but also in the daily lives of innocent people. In her novel, Watkins demonstrates that war pits one group against another, which may seem an obvious statement, but the point is that when people are considered in groups, stereotypes evolve. The enemy becomes anyone who looks or dresses or speaks in a certain defined manner. Watkins shows the hatred that develops through these concepts of war as one person can harm or even kill another even though that person never did anything wrong except to be different, even when these lines of difference are hard to depict. For example, is Yoko Japanese or is she Korean? She has lived most of her life in Korea. She knows the language and the culture. And yet, because she was born in Japan, she is considered the enemy, despite the fact that she carries no weapon and has little or no information about the politics and ambitions of the military generals. She is an innocent caught in the crossfire, as are her mother and siblings along with the Korean farmers and all other non-military populations.
Another message from this story is that war turns people into savages, as all social order is either completely destroyed or greatly impaired and everyone must consider his or her own survival. Chaos reigns in these circumstances. Each person must fend for him- or herself. All sense of humanity and compassion are forgotten. People do nothing, for example, when young girls are raped. No one is willing to help because individuals are too concerned for their own welfare. Bodies of dead people are thrown off the train, because they might infect those who remain. There is no time to mourn the dead or even bury them.
Even the soldiers, who are trained to fight for a cause, become confused as to the definition of that cause. Why, for example, were the Korean soldiers specifically searching for the wife and children of Mr. Kawashima? Had they done something wrong? Were they a threat to the Korean government or military? The soldiers' actions were either purely an act of revenge or a false sign of victory over the men who once ruled them. Killing unarmed women and children is not a symbol of power. Watkins's story shows how war changes people, leading many to rely on their most basic animalistic instincts: to kill or to be killed.
The Fight for Survival
The character of Ko represents the most resilient of survivors in this story. Since Watkins dedicates this novel to her sister, Ko, next to the theme of war, the theme of survival is one of the strongest. Through the character of Ko, Watkins demonstrates how some of the most delicate and unprepared people can become the most capable when forced to fight for their survival. Although raised in a comfortable home with all conveniences provided for her, Ko's instincts for survival kick in when she and her family face danger. Ko is especially aware of what she must do to keep her family from starving. Whether she has to forage for food in garbage bins or polish shoes at the train station to make small change to buy food, Kois willing to rid herself of false pride in order to help herself and her family to survive. The most interesting aspect of Ko's sense of survival, though, is that she does not forgo her compassion. Despite her need to survive, she realizes that those around her are fighting to stay alive too. So she shares her food with strangers on the train. She finds food and, although her stomach is empty, she brings back the scrubby morsels and distributes them to her sister and mother. The theme of survival is also demonstrated as being reciprocal, as in another scene on the train, when the nurses and other patients conceal the identity of Yoko's family by covering their clothing in blood and lying about their condition. They provide this shelter, it is suggested, because the mother and her daughters helped the patients survive by sharing their water and food with them. There is also the survival of Corporal Matsumura, who was despondent from all his wounds. He had refused to eat, which suggests that he was depressed and might not heal. Yoko and Ko took the time to go see him in the hospital. The family later welcomed him into their home as a friend. Matsumura, consequently, helped the family to escape on the train. Later, in Japan, he continued to offer his help should the girls need it. Hideyo also traded help with the Kim family. He assisted the Kim family on their farm during the winter as war was raging all around them. In return, the Kim family protected him from Korean soldiers, passing Hideyo off as a member of the family. These instances of survival stand in contrast to the theme of war. Although there are moments when one must consider one's own survival, there is often room for compassion, the author shows, even in the most dire of conditions. The fight for survival, in some instances, seems to bring out the best of human instincts.
Loss and Death
With war comes loss, and there is plenty of loss in this story. First the losses appear to be only material. Mother loses her glasses and her wedding ring when the soldiers demand that she give up all metals in her possession. Then when the children visit the hospital to dance, there is the loss of limbs and blood. There is also the loss in separation, as when the family is separated from Hideyo and Mr. Kawashima. And then the loss of the family home. But on the train, when the baby is born dead and then the body is thrown off the train, the seriousness of loss deepens. Not only does death confront the characters, but also the time to even ponder what death means is lost. Hideyo also learns this lesson as he takes a job with the Korean officials, who pack dead bodies in bags and toss them into the river. The greatest loss for Yoko and Ko is the death of their mother. They had relied on their mother for strength, love, and guidance. But here again, circumstances are so stressed that Yoko and Ko have little time to mourn their mother. They must keep moving so they too do not die. There are undercurrents of loss throughout the story also. These are more abstract, thus less obvious. There is the loss of fear, as the refugees face far greater dangers than they ever did before, and they instinctively know that they cannot allow their fear to deter them. The loss of pride is another one, as seen when people must eat food that others have thrown away. There is also the loss of the children's innocence and childhood. This is expressed most clearly by comparing the students in Yoko's and Ko's classes. These students mock the sisters, making fun of their outward appearances because they themselves have no experience nor understanding of what Yoko and Ko have been through. These students have not experienced any such losses and cannot relate to the other girls who do not have the resources they have.
Watkins's novel So Far from the Bamboo Grove is written from the point of view of the protagonist, Yoko, who is eleven years old. Seeing this story through the eyes of a child has both its strengths and its limitations. The strength of this point of view makes portions of the story more powerful. Yoko suffers many hardships that most adults will never have to endure, such as wounds from bomb blasts. Yoko's ability to learn to endure her wounds makes the experience more painful, as children do not normally suffer so much. She not only endures, she becomes stronger by facing her challenges and in the end acquires the outlook of a much more mature person. She understands the world much better than her classmates, for instance. However, because of Yoko's young and limited vision, the story can sometimes feel flat. For example, more complex issues, such as the reasons for war, the morality of war, or the effects of the long colonization period of the Japanese on the Korean people, are not explored. Instead, the world is very immediate, as a child might witness it. Much of what is considered important is what is happening right now rather than how this might affect the future or how this compares with the past. For instance, take Yoko's attack on the Japanese soldier, when she bites him as he takes her mother's metal-rimmed eyeglasses. This is an act of innocent aggression. Yoko does not consider the fact that the soldier has a gun and might kill her and her mother. Yoko does not even consider her actions wrong. She is attempting to defend her mother. Although the actions of the soldier are terrible in kicking her, in many ways Yoko was lucky that was all the soldier did in retaliation.
This novel has been criticized by Korean readers for not presenting a more balanced presentation. If read with the understanding that this story represents a child's version of the events, the lack of complex understanding of the historical background that led up to the confrontations and hardships that the characters undergo might be more easily forgiven. If the author had written this book through the eyes of the mother or an adult narrator, the story would have been completely different.
Adult Subject Matter at a Young Adult Reading Level
Not only are the concepts kept on a less complicated level, the language is also written in a very simplistic style. The vocabulary is very basic and the sentences are mostly short, making this novel ideal for the young adult reader—aimed at middle school and early high school readers. The story is told in a very matter-of-fact manner with little reflection on the deeper meaning of the actions of the characters. The story reads almost like a journal, as one fact follows another while the story unfolds. Few if any literary devices such as metaphors and similes are used. This may have been
done on purpose, to reflect the vocabulary and thoughts of a child. It might also have been done because the author wanted to aim her story at a younger audience, wanting children to know the atrocities of war in hopes that they would grow up unwilling to partake in such activities. The simplicity of style is also reflected in the emotional displays of the characters. Emotions are expressed but just barely, as if in passing. Yoko, for example, mourns her mother, but she does not dwell on her feelings. This in turn, keeps the reader from fully sharing Yoko's loss. Even physical sensations, such as the cold of winter or the hunger that the characters experience are stated in such simplistic terms that readers are not drawn into them, or if they are, the feelings do not last very long or are not deeply felt.
The basic details of Watkins's story are taken directly from her life. For this reason, the novel is referred to as being autobiographical. However, since the author could not know all the dialogue that took place at times when she was not present (such as during Hideyo's experience), this work is called fiction. The basic details are based on reality, but the specific details come out of the author's memory mixed with her imagination. The author might also have not remembered all the real details and needed to provide incidents that would tie together all the details in a storylike form. Because the author experienced many of the incidents presented in the story, the novel gains authenticity. It feels very real. Because the author manufactured dialogue that might not have actually occurred and maybe tied loose ends together with incidents that happened only in her imagination, the storyline flows and is possibly more digestible for her readers. The other choice would have been for the author to have written this as a memoir, which would have had to have been totally based on real events. Since she wrote this novel many decades after the actual events, memory and the emotions associated with those memories, might have blurred reality. Writing this story as an autobiographical fiction allows the author a little more poetic license to stretch the truth. This does not mean that the author has told an untruthful story, but rather that she gave herself more room to be creative with it.
Brief History of Japanese and Korean Relations
Over the course of its long history, Korea suffered invasions from other countries, including a Japanese invasion that lasted from 1592 to 1598. In more modern times, up to the 1800s, Korea discouraged influence from outside sources except from China, and refused to trade with European countries. But in the 1800s, things began to change. France and the United States grew more aggressive in their attempts to set up trade. These countries needed markets for their goods and eyed the burgeoning population on the Korean peninsula. They threatened Korea militarily, but Korea was able to thwart their plans.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1940s: After heavy bombing of over sixty Japanese cities, the United States drops two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945. One is dropped on Hiroshima. The other is dropped on Nagasaki. The bombs destroy the cities and cause over 200,000 deaths. Deaths and poor health from the radioactive fallout continue for many decades.
Today: Dirty bombs, a combination of explosives and radioactive materials, are reportedly used by terrorists.
- 1940s: Japan is defeated in World War II and loses its hold on Korea. A decade later, Korea is divided into North and South Korea, with little communication permitted between those who live in either section.
Today: Leaders of both South and North Korea make historic strides in attempts to ease the strict rules that divide the Korean peninsula. Limited visitation rights are given to families with members on each side of the border. The leaders of both countries meet and try to create better relationships.
- 1940s: After its defeat, Japan is essentially a broken country. Major cities, including Tokyo, are demolished. The economy is in ruins. The United States offers financial aid to help Japan rebuild.
Today: Japan, now a leader in automobile manufacturing and electronics, has one of the strongest economies and is considered one of the most successful countries in the world.
However, in 1873, the Korean Taewon'gun ("grand prince"), leader of Korea and a great reformer who had worked to strengthen Korean independence, was overthrown. Three years later, Japan, which was then moving fast toward becoming an industrial country far ahead of Korean progress in that direction, forced Korea to trade. China, whose government had worked as a sort of mentor to Korea's modernization efforts, recommended that Korea begin trade with the United States in order to neutralize Japan's effect on Korea. To counterattack this tactic, the Japanese attacked and defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War from 1894 to 1895. To clinch its control on Korea, in 1904 and 1905, Japan also engaged and defeated the Russians, another ally of Korea, in the Russo-Japanese War. With this victory, Japan forced Korea to sign the Protectorate Treaty that same year. Japan thus ruled over Korea's national and international affairs, policing domestic issues as well as relationships with other countries. Complete control ensued with the official annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910.
Limited by space and resources, Japan sought Korean land to use for its agricultural needs. Korean farmers produced crops that were sold to Japan. There have been accounts of Japan using Koreans as slave laborers. Japan also needed Korea's rich natural resources to fuel its manufacturing needs. So minerals were also taken from the Korean land.
The Korean people staged a peaceful rebellion in 1919, called the March First Movement. However, the protestors were no match for the Japanese military and police. Japan clamped down harder on any further protests and as Japan's desires for further military conquests led it into conflicts with China, attacks on Pearl Harbor and other locations in the Pacific, as well as in southeast Asia, stricter impositions on the Koreans were made. Japan wanted the Koreans to assimilate into the Japanese culture, helping to cement its takeover of Korea. Koreans were forced to relinquish their Korean names and adopt Japanese names. The Korean language was also outlawed. These conditions continued until the Japanese were defeated at the end of World War II.
When World War II ended, Russia and the United States, who were allies in that war, divided the Korean peninsula into two parcels: North Korea, which remains under the influence of Communism (as reflected by both the Chinese and Russian governments) and South Korea, which has allied itself with the United States. Today, relationships between Japan and Korea remain strained. Koreans complain that Japan has never apologized for the atrocities that the Koreans suffered during those years of annexation. Some scholars in Japan have sued their own government for tampering with history books, which the scholars claim do not honestly deal with the issues of Japanese control of Korea. There have also been diplomatic problems between the two countries due to Japan's occupation of Korea and Japan's denial of the hardships that were directly caused by that occupation.
Manchuria is a Chinese province located in the northeastern corner of China. Because Manchuria shares a border with Russia, Russia had eyed this land because of the area's resources and the fact that, in controlling this area, Russia would have easier access to Korea. But with Japan's annexation of Korea, Japan, too, eyed Manchuria. Manchuria offered nearly 200,000 square kilometers (about 124,300 square miles) of land, which meant not only more resources but also more acreage on which Japan's growing population could live. So Japan began investing in Manchuria, building manufacturing centers there. Cities were modernized and banking systems were established. To protect those investments, Japan sent regiments of its army to protect its interests in the territory. This all happened around 1929, the same time as the Great Depression in the United States, and the economic nightmare affected Japan as well. Japan's government was weakened by this worldwide depression and was unable to offer its unemployed much help. Japan's army was charged, however, by its conquests of new lands and pushed its agenda of extending its powers into Manchuria as a possible solution to the country's economic problems. In 1931, disregarding its own government edict, the Japanese army invaded and secured the whole province. It set up a puppet government (controlled in all aspects by the Japanese) and renamed the area Manchukuo. When Japan lost World War II, it also lost control over Manchuria. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese were captured by Russia's army and taken to labor camps.
Destruction and Rebuilding of Japan
After Japan's bombing of U.S. ships at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, in 1941, the U.S. government, along with the Allied forces (except for Russia) declared war on Japan. Japan had also attacked several countries in southeastern Asia, including the Philippines, Thailand, and Hong Kong. The leaders of Japan assumed that Nazi Germany would win control of Europe and that the United States would be forced to negotiate a peace treaty. Instead, the United States decided to wage a fierce war against Japan to ensure an unconditional surrender. Although U.S. ships had taken a beating at Pearl Harbor, there were enough forces and equipment remaining to systematically gain control of the outer limits of Japan's bases and then slowly move in on Japan's major cities. The U.S. airplanes heavily bombed Tokyo, Osaka, and other large metropolitan areas on the main islands in 1945. Despite food and supply shortages, the Japanese were determined not to give up. In July 1945, the
Japanese government refused an opportunity to sign a declaration of surrender. Shortly thereafter, the United States made the decision to drop the atomic bomb. The first city that was hit was Hiroshima, which was bombed on August 6, 1945. The bomb completely destroyed at least 60 percent of the buildings and damaged most of the rest. An estimated 60,000 people were killed or went missing. Three days later, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. On September 2, 1945, aboard the battleship U.S.S. Missouri, Japanese government officials surrendered.
An Allied Council, made up of international members, took up the task of restructuring Japan's government. With U.S. General Douglas MacArthur in charge, the Japanese government was remodeled with a new constitution, the Japanese emperor was stripped of powers, and the National Diet was created (a governing body similar to a parliament). The new constitution contained an article that prohibited the Japanese government from ever declaring war again.
Although classified as a Notable Book by the American Library Association and placed on the Best Books for Children list by the School Library Journal, Watkins's So Far from the Bamboo Grove has not received much literary review, except for a discussion about whether the book should be banned from school libraries and curriculums.
In an article on book banning, published by the American Library Association in the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, an anonymous journalist points out that some parents have objected to the content of Watkins's novel over the years. However, because of this, many educators have come to the book's defense, citing the positive lessons most students learn from the story.
A teacher, Glenda Speyer, writing in the Boston Globe, states that she has taught the book to her class and has found the novel to contain powerful themes of love and survival that provide moving lessons for her students. Speyer likens the novel to a "remarkable tool" to teach children how war affects people.
From another article for the Boston Globe, Carter Eckert also recommends Watkins's book as a valuable tool, but he points out that what So Far from the Bamboo Grove lacks is a historical reference point that Watkins does not delve into. Eckert is making reference to Japan's takeover of the Korean peninsula, which included its attempt to annihilate Korean culture. Eckert does not suggest banning Watkins's book, which he states provides a "heroic personal narrative of survival," but he does suggest that students should read the novel with knowledge of an objective historical context of the times and conditions in which the story takes place. When read in connection with books that offer competing perspectives, Watkins's book can provide students with an understanding, according to Eckert, of "how perspectives vary according to personal and historical circumstances."
Hart is a published author of more than twenty books. In this essay on So Far from the Bamboo Grove, Hart examines the character development of Watkins's protagonist, Yoko.
Watkins's So Far from the Bamboo Grove has one of the often defined elements of what makes a good story: a character who demonstrates personal growth. As protagonist and narrator of this autobiographical novel, the young eleven-year-old Yoko begins the story as a somewhat typical pre-teen. By the end, although she is not yet twelve, Yoko has matured into a young adult who is emotionally much older than her years. Along the way, Yoko fights and moans, as any child would in her position. But in the end, Yoko's character has been very much changed.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- My Brother, My Sister, and I (1994) is Watkins's sequel to So Far from the Bamboo Grove. In it, the saga of Yoko, Ko, and Hideyo continues.
- Linda Sue Park, a Korean author, has written about her experiences during the Japanese occupation of South Korea. When My Name Was Keoko (2004) provides perspective on the Korean experience of the war and is thus a great complement to So Far from the Bamboo Grove.
- Banana Yoshimoto's novel Kitchen (2002) contains two novellas with two separate narrators. Both are young girls who must face tragedy and the challenge of finding their own identity. Yoshimoto provides readers with a contemporary view of life in Japan.
- Hiroshima (1948), compiled by John Hersey, is a collection of stories told by victims and survivors of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. An extra chapter was inserted in the 1989 edition; in it, Hersey recounts what has since happened to the survivors.
In the beginning of this novel, the author stresses Yoko's youth by first telling readers of the girl's exact age and then by referring to the girl's nicknames, which are Little One, as her mother and older sister call her, and Noisy One, as she is called by her older brother. These terms are both endearing and representative. Yoko also has a propensity for tears whenever she is bothered by something out of the ordinary. But she cries not so much out of fear as out of displeasure, as when her older siblings tease her. These are not major emotional outbreaks but rather signs of her youth. One positive quality Yoko has, even in the beginning of the story, is her courage. However, readers will note that much of Yoko's courage, though unmistakably bold, comes with a lack of mature understanding of the world around her as well as a lack of comprehension of how adults can easily affect her life. For example, when Japanese soldiers appear at her house, Yoko attacks them when they insist that Yoko's mother relinquish her wedding ring and her metal-framed eyeglasses. Yoko challenges one of the soldiers by biting him. She has no sense of the soldier's greater strength or of the weapon he holds in his hands. Yoko reacts out of anger and fights with the only weapon she owns—her teeth. This may be considered an act of courage, but it is also very immature and foolish. Her attack results in Yoko's receiving a cracked rib; but it could have had much more dire consequences, such as the death of her sister, her mother, and herself.
Later in the story, Yoko complains of trivial affairs. These events are especially meaningless when compared to the events that will soon rule her life. Some examples include her not wanting to collect metal cans for the Japanese army because she does not like the abstract idea of killing that she senses is what war is all about. But she also does not like to practice the more genteel cultural arts of her country, such as calligraphy, the tea ceremony, flower arranging, and dance. In these ways, Yoko is typical of a girl her age, who does not see the bigger picture of the world. The collecting of the metals could save a soldier's life as the metal is turned into weaponry. Wars are hard to support on one hand, but once your country is involved in one, collecting metal could potentially help the war to end. The practicing of cultural arts is a way of understanding where she and her ancestors come from, what her culture is based on and made of. But Yoko comprehends none of this. She wants to do what she wants to do and does not appreciate doing what she is told to do. This rebellion is all a part of growing up, as are the practices that are forced upon her. Through her rebellion, Yoko will learn of the boundaries within which she must define her world. Through learning of her culture, she will gain discipline and the essence of obedience, and she will begin to take part in the world of adults.
In the scenes that follow the opening pages of this story, life is changing all around her, and Yoko has to quickly bear a lot of frightening details that many children never have to even think about. She hears bombs being dropped on buildings not too far from where she lives. She practices air raid drills and must run to specially dug ditches around the school or to the backyard bomb shelter near her home when a siren is sounded. She also must perform the traditional dances for soldiers, who have lost arms, legs, and parts of their faces when she is forced to visit the army hospital. Yoko is well aware of the war going on around her even before she is pushed out of the safety of her home.
Without much notice, Yoko's mother is told that Russian soldiers are out to kill them because of Yoko's father's role in the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Yoko's family must leave their home immediately, taking only the bare necessities. Yoko does not fully comprehend the dangers that are rapidly encircling her life. She is sluggish, unwilling to move and considers pencils and pens as items worthy of packing. Although the pressure to leave quickly is apparent in her mother's and her sister's actions, Yoko misinterprets them, stating that both women are acting too harshly toward her. Her mother is impatient with her, Yoko believes, and her sister is too mean.
As the three females begin the first steps of their escape, Yoko is suddenly filled with fear when she first sees Russian and Korean soldiers. This is to be expected. Unable to control her terror, Yoko reacts by vomiting when the soldiers draw near. This reaction makes her feel weak, and she whines when the soldiers leave and her sister makes Yoko run. When they reach the train station and she sees wounded soldiers being loaded onto the train, Yoko comments that she was suddenly awakened. This is the first hint that Yoko is beginning to understand her situation. She begins to understand that this journey is no ordinary trip through the countryside. People are bleeding and dying around her. It is not just other people in danger, she realizes, but she, her sister, and her mother are likewise threatened. Yoko is starting to evolve from young child to a more experienced youth. But she is not quite there. She asks her mother if they will be coming back to their home soon. Her mother, sensing that Yoko needs a child's reassurance and sense of stability, tells Yoko that their departure is only temporary. Readers, however, have a clearer idea that this journey will not include a return. From knowing the details of history, readers know better.
So Yoko relaxes into the safety of false security. She helps the women onboard the train, sharing what little food and water she has, not fully recognizing the shortages of both that are waiting for her. She finds courage, at this stage, because she believes her discomforts are temporary. Her pleasant, leisurely life will return shortly, when she will be allowed to be a child again.
However, as the journey continues, her circumstances only deteriorate further. She is wounded and loses hearing in one ear. She is often close to starving. She sees soldiers blown up by bombs. To stay alive, she must sort through garbage for leftover crusts and rotting fruit. She must dress as a boy, so she will not be raped. These are not the fears or nightmares of an average child in ordinary circumstances. Yoko has been thrown into a world of hostilities so brutal that she could not have imagined them before. On the positive side, though, she learns to appreciate the sacrifices that her sister and mother make to protect her, and she develops a deep respect for them.
Halfway through their journey, after Yoko mourns her mother's death, she develops more fully. She stops waiting for Ko to provide for her and starts to seek ways of taking care of herself. She does her best to shut out the sounds of the jeering voices of her peers, turning her sense of humiliation into inspiration for her own success. She evolves, finally, beyond her sense of self and begins considering the needs of others, especially her sister's needs. This is the final stage of Yoko's rapid development. She sacrifices herself in order to help her sister. She forgoes the luxury of a new pair of shoes and instead buys a nourishing meal for Ko. She finds ways to earn money, sewing dolls and writing an award-winning essay. She learns to make a fire and to cook. She even solves the riddle her mother left in her last words, discovering money sewn in her mother's shawl.
These actions are a sign of maturity. Yoko has broken through the veil of childhood, which usually allows the child to think of no one but herself. It is easy under normal conditions for an eleven-year-old girl to expect to be taken care of. Under such circumstances, there also is no need to think of anything but one's own comfort and to whine when that ease of living is disturbed. But Yoko is forced to grow up quickly, and she responds to those changes in a positive, courageous manner. In the course of this novel, she is transformed from an average child to someone quite extraordinary. Her peers have no understanding of Yoko because their minds are still coddled by normal childhood experiences, their thoughts are consumed with pretty clothes and well-cooked meals that they assume will always be there for them. To them, Yoko is a tramp—someone too lazy to take care of her appearance. Yoko's poverty is looked upon as a disease, and they shun her, fearful, at least subconsciously, that they might catch her affliction.
Because Yoko once lived in a privileged world, she partially understands the unaffected children around her. But Yoko also understands another, more complicated world—a world of horrific extremes, of blood, pain, and suffering. And she is a survivor of that world. This imbues her with a confidence that no one can take from her.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on So Far from the Bamboo Grove, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Anna L. Griffin
In the following article, Griffin describes a 2003 visit made by the author to speak to students about her book. The article also details Watkins's inspiration to begin writing So Far from the Bamboo Grove.
When Yoko Kawashima Watkins was their age, she was fighting for her life. Perhaps that is the reason why the classroom, filled with 75 pupils at Southeast Middle School, was so quiet during a recent presentation by Mrs. Watkins.
"I wrote this story because I want you to please appreciate what you have," Mrs. Watkins, a Brewster resident, said. "If you can appreciate what you have, then you will look at the world with a different pair of eyes."
Mrs. Watkins is the author of So Far from the Bamboo Grove, and My Brother, My Sister and I. Children at the school are reading So Far from the Bamboo Grove, and because many of the children found that book to be so inspiring the children have chosen the second book. She was recently at the school for a whole day to meet with children, parents and teachers. During that time, she gave several presentations.
So Far from the Bamboo Grove is the story of Mrs. Watkins and her family's flight from the Korean peninsula at the end of World War II.
At that time, Mrs. Watkins was 11 and living in northern Korea with her mother, father, sister and brother. They were from Japan. At the end of the war, the Korean people wanted to regain control of their homeland and to punish the Japanese, who occupied the country for many years.
As a result, Japanese living in the country were forced to become refugees—to leave or face certain death. Some of the Japanese men, including Mrs. Watkins' father, were taken into custody and sent to internment camps. Mrs. Watkins' brother, separated from the family at that time, was able to escape and return to Japan. Mrs. Watkins, her mother and her sister had to make the journey themselves. It was a journey filled with despair, deprivation and danger.
Pupils had prepared many questions for Mrs. Watkins, some dealing with details of her life story and other questions about the writing process.
Mrs. Watkins said she wrote So Far from the Bamboo Grove after a visit to the United States. She was staying with a fairly well-to-do family in the Washington, D.C., area and was looking forward to taking a tour of the White House.
"The morning of the tour, I was having breakfast with the woman of the house," Mrs. Watkins said. "Her teenaged daughter comes into the kitchen and does not even say ‘good morning.’"
"She proceeds to go to the refrigerator and opens the doors," Mrs. Watkins related. She then told of all of the food located in the refrigerator and the pantry next to the refrigerator.
"After she looked in all of the cabinets, she slammed one of the doors and said, ‘There's no food in this house.’ She then stomped up the stairs and went into her room and threw open her closet door," Mrs. Watkins said.
She then described all the clothes the young woman had in her closet. "One outfit after the other she took out, tried on, and then threw on the floor," Mrs. Watkins said. "I have nothing to wear," Mrs. Watkins said the young woman exclaimed.
It was this young woman's attitude that prompted Mrs. Watkins to write a 10-page letter to the young woman upon returning to her home. "I outlined what I had been through in Korea and Japan and at the end of the letter I wrote, ‘Please appreciate what it is you have, because you don't know what will happen. It may be taken away from you.’"
Following that 10-page outline, Mrs. Watkins was able to write the book, which she said has been well-received The book will soon be translated into the German and Korean languages. "So from this humble beginning, my story has grown," she said.
Mrs. Watkins urged the pupils to be kind to each other and to work with each other. "Imagine what the world would be if we would each be kind to each other and help each other out," she said. "I know this is something that you can do for me and I will do it for you as well. Don't wait to do this. Please for Yoko, do it today. Do it when you leave this classroom and you will see what a better place the world will be."
Source: Anna L. Griffin, "Pupils Get Peek at Past: Japanese Author Speaks at Southeast Middle School," in Telegram & Gazette, January 29, 2003, p. 1.
Bradford L. Miner
In the following article, Miner reports on the effect that So Far from the Bamboo Grove has had on students. He also relates several comments made by the author regarding her childhood, which the book is based on.
It's not just a feeling reserved for Thanksgiving Day.
And, as 300 seventh-graders at Quabbin Regional Middle School discovered recently, it's not something one finds in the pages of a textbook.
On a recent morning, spellbound pupils sat on the carpeted floor of Erin Stevens' classroom and listened intently to the soft-spoken Japanese woman who stood before them in traditional dress of kimono and wooden clogs.
It was their first encounter with Yoko Kawashima Watkins, but the 69-year-old author from Brewster was no stranger to any of them.
Mrs. Watkins was thankful just to be there, she told the admiring pupils, grateful for the few minutes she had to share her wisdom and life experiences.
Pupils and teachers were equally thankful for the chance to meet someone they had come to consider a living legend.
A few weeks before her scheduled visit, Mrs. Stevens had read Mrs. Watkins' first book, So Far From the Bamboo Grove, published in 1986, to all of the seventh-graders.
The compelling, partly fictionalized autobiography describes the flight of then 11-year-old Yoko Kawashima, her older sister, Ko, and her mother, Saki, from their home in Nanam, in northern Korea near the Chinese border.
Safe during World War II in Japanese-occupied Korea, the surrender of Japan after the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima put the family in imminent danger and set them on the road to the port of Pusan, one step ahead of the Korean Communist Army, in their effort to return to their homeland.
A sequel, which many seventh-graders stayed after school to hear read by Mrs. Stevens, chronicled her brother Hideyo's escape from Korea, and her father's experience in a prisoner-of-war camp in Siberia.
For months now the country has been reminded frequently, in headlines and news broadcasts, of the potential of war with Iraq.
"Right now, this is something we can look at at arm's length, with little if any impact on any of our daily lives, but with Mrs. Watkins, we had in our presence a real survivor, someone who had not only experienced the terror of war, the separation of family, but someone who had overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, sharing those experiences with those who read her books," she said.
Mrs. Stevens said a fellow teacher had recommended that she read So Far From the Bamboo Grove and when the book showed up among those included in the state's curriculum frameworks for world geography, she decided it would be a bonus to have Mrs. Watkins talk to pupils in her classes.
It wasn't geography, however, that Mrs. Watkins wanted to share. While more than willing to answer questions pupils asked about the events and relationships in the two books, she was equally eager to impress upon pupils the importance of being kind, demonstrating love and respect for one's parents.
Mrs. Watkins brought with her a variety of photographs, Japanese calligraphy and cultural artifacts, to help tell her story and illustrate her lesson in family values.
"I was a spoiled brat of a child and when my mother died, I cried and I cried, and I asked ‘What's going to happen to me now?’" she said.
"I was selfish, and the only one I could think of was myself. To this day, the greatest regret in life was that I never thanked my mother for all she had given me."
She told each class in succession that her mother's gifts to her were not measurable by material standards, but in life's most important lessons.
Mrs. Stevens said when the curriculum framework books arrived during the summer, she brought home So Far From the Bamboo Grove, read it, and knew immediately that she had to read it to her class.
"We read the book from start to finish over the course of six days, and because the book reads like a good novel, many of the kids wanted to know what happened next. That prompted the after-school reading of Mrs. Watkins' second book," she said.
The teacher said she had her pupils write an essay on "what they gained from the reading of the book that gave them a better understanding of the horrors of war."
"The essays were particularly moving, and we selected the best of them, printed them and gave them to Yoko as a gift for spending the day with us," Mrs. Stevens said.
Many felt personal connections to Mrs. Watkins' story.
One foster child wrote in an essay, "I know how you felt. One time I had to leave in five minutes, I had to leave all my precious belongings behind."
Another pupil wrote, "Now I know I can make it. If Yoko can make it, I can make it," Mrs. Stevens said, noting that in one way or another each of her pupils had been empowered by the book to view their own lives differently.
During her visit with pupils, Mrs. Watkins carefully unwrapped what appeared to be a colorful silk binder.
Removing the contents, she showed the class the original manuscript for So Far From the Bamboo Grove. It was written in pencil in Japanese on the back of discarded business forms she had retrieved from a dump container.
"Make the most of what you have. Be kind to others. Love and respect your parents and your teachers. Your life is what you make it," she told pupils.
Mrs. Stevens said she is hopeful that Mrs. Watkins will be a guest at Quabbin Middle School next year and for years to come.
"I cried during each of the class periods. The bell rang and pupils didn't want to leave, but stayed to talk with her. I think I used a whole box of tissues that day," Mrs. Stevens said.
Source: Bradford L. Miner, "War—Upclose, Personal: Pupils at Quabbin Are Left Spellbound," in Telegram & Gazette, November 29, 2002, p. A1.
Anne S. Watt
In the following article, Watt discusses the effect that So Far from the Bamboo Grove had on her niece, Yali, who ultimately began a correspondence and friendship with Watkins. This article is a testament to the transformative power of literature.
Who would think that a story of desperate escape from northern Korea at the end of World War II would later lead to an intimate friendship between a Japanese woman in her 50s and an adopted Mexican child living in Vermont?
Thanks to Vermont's Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award, Yoko Kawashima Watkins's autobiography came to the attention of my 9 year old niece in Marlboro, Vermont. While looking through the award winning books on the school library shelf, Yali Maria spotted a copy of Watkins's So Far from the Bamboo Grove (Lothrop, 1986; Puffin, 1987). She was curious about the picture on the cover of three Asian women huddled fearfully with hands raised against soldiers pointing machine guns, and planes dropping bombs in the distance. Yali brought the book home.
What a surprise! Yali, a competent but not avid reader, could not put this book down. The true story of this Japanese family's grim flight from Korea and from Korean Anti-Japanese Communist Army partisans was unbelievable to Yali. Each night at dinner she would share episodes in the saga with her parents, asking "Is this really a true story?"
For several weeks the book became Yali's close companion. She reread it seven times. It went to bed with her, she read it over her breakfast cereal, on the school bus, and curled up on the sofa by the wood stove at night. Never before had Yali (often passionate about people) displayed this kind of a passion for a book!
After several months of Yali's powerful identification with the 11 year old child in this autobiography, Yali's mother finally suggested that she write to the author. My sister got Mrs. Watkins's address from the dust jacket, and Yali wrote Yoko her first letter.
In her letter, Yali told of her love for the book and went on to tell about her own life—adopted from an orphanage in Mexico and raised with an older brother born in France, by French American parents in Vermont.
Imagine Yali's joy when a nicely typed full page answer arrived! Yoko wrote that although she had received many letters from readers of all ages, never had she opened a letter with 67 hand drawn hearts around it!
Thus began a passionate correspondence between the 54 year old Japanese author and the 9 year old American child. Finally, after an exchange of more than a half dozen letters, Yali invited Yoko to come visit her family and her school.
And come she did, with her American ex-serviceman husband, for a well planned 2 day visit to the warm hearth of Yali's farmhouse and family. From the minute Yoko and Yali laid eyes on each other the chemistry was obvious.
"We're sisters," beamed Yoko, spreading her arms to Yali, Despite their age difference, Yoko and Yali, both tan skinned with jet black hair, seemed physically well matched.
My sister marveled at the immediacy and strength of the bond between the two of them, as they sat down in front of the doll house and began to talk. Later, as they lay together on the "friend's room" bed, Yoko held Yali spellbound with stories about her life.
The next day Yali took Yoko to her 5 room elementary school to talk with each of the class groups. Yoko mesmerized her kindergarten through 8th grade audiences by telling and acting out parts of her amazing childhood adventures. The children were enthralled with how Yoko's heroic teenage sister Ko led her mother and her in their escape from Korea, and how at the end of the war they struggled for survival in war ravaged Japan.
When it finally was time to say goodbye to Yali's family, Yali asked Yoko what her next story would be about. Yoko responded that it is about her life in America with her brave sister, Ko, who is now in a wheelchair, but that Yali's story is also one that should someday be told.
When I think about this intense relationship between a 9 year old reader in Vermont and a 54 year old writer from Japan, I ponder what Donald Graves and Lucy Calkins have called "the reading-writing connection." I find myself wondering about some rather significant—if unanswerable—questions: What will the effect of this book and this relationship be on Yali as a reader? As a writer? As a human being?
For example, how did it happen that Yali was invited by the Brattleboro children's librarian to spend 3 summer days helping her to sort and file books? What motivation caused Yali to be found last week at 11:30 p.m. in bed with her light still on, writing "privately" in her notebook? What makes Yali the kind of reader who, when she finds a book she likes, reads with such intensity that she cannot be torn away? Finally, what feelings about people from very different cultures will Yali carry with her through the years from her Mexican beginnings and rural Vermont childhood?
Naturally, when Yali told me about Yoko Kawashima Watkins's visit to Vermont and about her passion for Yoko's book, I ordered So Far from the Bamboo Grove from my bookstore. Though it is listed as a story, for 10-14 year olds, I, like Yali, couldn't put it down and have enjoyed sharing it with my own adult children, my octogenarian parents, and my friends. And so the gift of a good book spreads like a pebble making ripples in a pond. Who can tell how deep the pebble will sink or how wide the circles will spread?
Source: Anne S. Watt, "A Book and a Friendship to Cherish," in Reading Teacher, Vol. 42, No. 9, May 1989, pp. 712-13.
Eckert, Carter, "A Matter of Context," in Boston Globe, December 18, 2006, p. A15.
"Censorship Dateline: Schools," in Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, January 1, 1007,Vol. 56, No. 1, p. 12.
Speyer, Glenda, "Book Banning Would Deprive Pupils," in Boston Globe, November 19, 2006, p. 7.
Watkins, Yoko Kawashima, So Far from the Bamboo Grove, Beech Tree, 1994.
Watt, Anne S., "A Book and a Friendship to Cherish," in Reading Teacher, May 1989, Vol. 42, No. 9, pp. 712-13.
Addiss, Stephen, Gerald Groemer, and J. Thomas Rimer, eds., Traditional Japanese Arts and Culture: An Illustrated Sourcebook, University of Hawaii Press, 2006.
Many of the traditional arts, including the tea ceremony and ikibana (flower arranging) that are mentioned in Watkins's novel, are discussed and illustrated in this comprehensive collection.
Nahm, Andrew C., A Panorama of 5000 Years: Korean History, 2nd revised edition, Hollym International, 1990.
This book covers the history of Korea from ancient times to the present.
O'Neill, William L., World War II: A Student Companion, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Reviewers found this text to be a very concise, informative, and readable history of World War II. This book contains anything from one paragraph to several pages of information on some of the most important incidents in this war.
Schirokauer, Conrad, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Publishing, 2nd student edition, 2005.
This volume covers the religion, arts, and culture of Japan, as well as its social, political, and economic history.