by Yoko Kawashawa Watkins. Yoko is 11 and living in northern Korea at the end of World War II. She is Japanese and her father works in Manchuria, just over the border in China. Yoko and her mother and sister are forced to flee their home when Korean forces begin to take control from the Japanese. They have many harrowing adventures and escape murder, rape and starvation on a daily basis for over a year. Finally Yoko and her sister make a new life for themselves at home in Japan and are joined by their older brother.
This story was exciting to read but full of pain and anguish. It wore on me because I read it all in one sitting during my son's nap time on Saturday afternoon. It is almost too horrible a story to believe, but it is true and Yoko is a real person.
I lived in the northern Chinese province of Heilongjiang for two years teaching English. There were quite a few Koreans living in China at the time and there was a visible legacy of Russian influence as well. We saw Russian architecture and bought Russian bread when we visited the big city of Harbin. Our school liaison was a Chinese-Korean man whose family had been living there since WW II. He enjoyed taking us to Korean restaurants. He was embarrassed to admit that many Chinese people thought Koreans were dirty and disgusting enough to eat dogs. One of the Americans I was teaching with could speak fluent Korean and he delighted in talking with her in his native language. I think he felt mistreated and disrespected many times. I witnessed the racism and animosity felt between ethnic Han Chinese, other Chinese minorities, Koreans and Japanese. The feelings toward the Japanese, who had occupied the area just forty years previously, were thinly veiled animosity and disdain. I knew people whose family members had been imprisoned, beaten, tortured, raped and murdered by the Japanese army. Many white Americans may not not aware of it, but these groups have a long and painful history of racism and abuse.
It is really interesting to me to read this story from the perspective of a Japanese girl who was living in Korea. Just before the story starts she is in a position of wealth and privilege, being a member of the occupying elite. The story tells what happens to the women in the families of the powerful men on the losing side of the war as they are fleeing refugees. I can't help but try to imagine what it would be like if America comes to that position and I am one of the women fleeing with my children, trying to stay alive after being so comfortable and privileged for so long.
Anyone else read this book? If you have connections to Korea, China or Japan it makes it really fascinating and I would love to chat with you about it. If you are reading it with your children or students I'd love to hear what they think.
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