So Far from the Bamboo Grove

by Yoko Kawashima Watkins

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So Far from the Bamboo Grove is a story about strength, perseverance, and personal victory. At the start of the novel, Yoko, her sister Ko, and her brother Hideyo live with their mother in Nanam, North Korea, during a time of political upheaval when hostilities are raging between the Koreans and the Japanese. It is 1945, and word has just reached Korea that Japan is losing the war. Tokyo has been bombed, Russian communist troops have invaded North Korea, and angry Koreans have vowed revenge against the Japanese for years of political oppression. The Japanese people living in Korea must flee for their lives, and as the family of a Japanese government official, Yoko and her mother and sister are among the first to flee. Devastated and frightened, the three of them embark on a harrowing journey. In describing that journey Watkins tells a poignant tale of endurance and survival.

During this time in history, anger and hatred toward Japan led the Korean communists to commit horrible human rights violations against the Japanese people. Japan had ruled Korea for thirty-five years, and as soon as Japan lost the war, Korean communists forced the Japanese out of the country. They raped them and killed them. They dropped bombs from airplanes and ravaged them in the fields as they tried to escape. Japanese refugees had a long and dangerous journey before they reached Seoul, South Korea and then Japan. Thousands were killed or died of starvation or disease. But thousands more reached the port cities of Japan each day and faced the task of re-establishing their identity and building new lives in a country that had been devastated by Allied bombs. Yoko and her sister are fortunate; they survive. Watkins lived this nightmarish adventure as the young Yoko, and the experience molded her life view forever.

So Far from the Bamboo Grove is classified an autobiographical novel, and Watkins reveals her thoughts as she describes her journey across the war-ravaged land. We understand Yoko's plight and we ache for her. At eleven years of age she has seen more death and destruction than most people see in their lives. Trapped in a hostile country and surrounded by enemies, Yoko has to remain strong and fight to survive. She learns about love and strength and values in the process. Watkins concentrates primarily on her escape with her mother and her sister Ko, but then she flashes to the escape of her brother Hideyo. Hideyo makes his escape after the women, traveling by himself to Seoul in a nightmarish adventure of his own. Hideyo shared his personal horrors with his sister years later, shortly before he died, and Watkins incorporates them into her book to further illustrate the devastating effects of war.

Watkins reveals little about Hideyo's character but she lets us know that he was loyal to both his family and to his people. He planned to join the armed forces, but failed the written exam—Ko says on purpose. But he left shortly thereafter to work in an ammunitions factory where he could serve his people in a less dangerous way. While Hideyo is away at the factory, Yoko, Ko and their mother get word that they must flee Korea immediately. The Russians have landed, and because Yoko's father works for Japanese interests, their family is in imminent danger. With not a minute to spare, Yoko, Ko, and their mother have no alternative but to leave without Mr. Kawashima and Hideyo. They write Hideyo a note telling him to meet them at the train station in Seoul. Then they slip out into the...

(This entire section contains 2177 words.)

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night, the three of them tied together with a rope.

It seems fitting that the three women begin their venture at night because the minute they leave the bamboo grove in Nanam they enter a dark, dangerous world. Once Japan came close to defeat, life became increasingly tough in Nanam, and Yoko lived in constant fear of bombings and air raids. But never once did she imagine what lay beyond the bamboo grove; and she soon witnesses horrors far beyond her wildest dreams. It is not surprising that Watkins could not write about her escape for more than thirty years. We can imagine how she must have been haunted by the sights and sounds that characterized her world as a refugee.

The moans of injured people, dead bodies tossed from trains, the stench of tired and battered soldiers, and the warmth of blood-soaked clothing sticking to her skin—these were the sights and sounds of Yoko's world. Her experience in many ways typified the experience of thousands of other Japanese women forced out of Korea. Leaving the home in the bamboo grove must have been painful, knowing that they had to leave Hideyo, Mr. Kawashima, and their entire life behind them. Yoko had no understanding of how difficult it would be to make it safely out of the country and back to Japan. Watkins conveys the sense of fear she and all the refugees felt embarking on this journey. She makes clear the overwhelming sense of loss the refugees felt facing an unknown future and leaving their life and their loved ones behind them.

Corporal Matsumura, a friend from the Japanese army who warns Yoko and her family to flee Nanam, has ensured that Yoko and her family be allowed to board a medical train for Seoul. As they are crammed in the women's compartment with the injured, they see people sucking urine from toilets to quench their thirst, they see a dead baby tossed from the train, and they see the women and children suffering from pain and near starvation. The next day the Korean Communist Army invades their compartment looking for Yoko and her family and other political fugitives. The medic and the nurse throw Yoko roughly on the floor and they smear Ko and her mother with blood so they look like the other injured passengers. Their persecutors leave, but that night the Koreans attack the train. Yoko, Ko, and their mother generously leave their precious provisions of food and water for an injured woman who just gave birth, and they jump out of their compartment.

The medical train is disabled forty-five miles from Seoul, and Yoko, Ko, and their mother have no choice but to continue their journey on foot. To remain safe, they travel by night, in darkness, and they sleep by day, hidden in wild rushes. In vivid detail Watkins describes the treacherous journey that lies ahead of them, and she makes us painfully aware of the horrifying plight of all Japanese refugees trying to escape. She outlines the dangers for girls, particularly, relating an especially frightening experience for sixteen-year-old Ko. When Korean soldiers appear out of nowhere and find the women en route to Seoul, they threaten to rape Ko, and the only thing that saves her is a bomb that drops from an airplane killing the soldiers. The incident leaves them shaken and terrified. Yoko sustains a piece of metal in her chest and another one in her ear. After Ko's narrow escape with the soldiers, Yoko's mother shaves the girls' heads and orders them to don the smelly uniforms of the dead soldiers to protect themselves.

Life changes drastically for Yoko during her journey. At the age of eleven she must learn to live with constant pain and fear, and she learns lessons about survival that most of us never learn. Yoko is a strong child, but her sister Ko appears to be stronger, perhaps because at the time of their flight, Ko is sixteen years old and Yoko is still a young child. She is used to being pampered. Before the communists invaded North Korea, Yoko lived a comfortable life in the bamboo grove, and for a while, she whines and complains at her unfortunate change of circumstances. She soon learns that she must remain strong. Ko is the model of strength, and she often speaks harshly to Yoko and Yoko resents it. But she also protects Yoko, carrying her on her back when she gets tired and sharing food with her when she is hungry. Watkins briefly describes the tensions that rage between Yoko and Ko, but she also describes the deep love they share.

When the three finally reach the station at Seoul, Yoko and her family join the other escapees waiting for trains to Pusan, the port city where they will board a ship for Japan. The war is over, and thousands of other Japanese refugees are feeling the same pain Yoko is feeling, and they are facing the same challenges. Yoko discovers that her chest wound is infected and she is deaf in one ear where the piece of metal punctured her eardrum. She is treated by the doctors, and must remain there two weeks in a hospital tent. They live at the station for over a month. Hideyo never arrives, and they must finally board a freight train to Pusan without him. Watkins goes on to describe their fears and concerns on the train and at the station in Pusan. Rape is a constant worry; many of the Koreans are drunk—celebrating their independence from Japan—and they are after the women. So the women have to do whatever they can to protect themselves. They have to bind their breasts and stand to urinate like boys. Male refugees had equally horrendous experiences, and these are recounted via Hideyo, who has a harrowing escape. Men and women both must dig through garbage for food. The nearly die from hunger and thirst and exhaustion, and they are sick with fear. Watkins recounts the suffering she endured and the pain she felt at leaving her old life behind and not knowing if she would ever again see Hideyo or her father. But at the same time she lets us know that she was never without hope. Battered and broken, she boards the ship for Japan with Ko and her mother and they feel an incredible sense of relief. After months of suffering, they will finally reach their beloved homeland and be reunited with their loved ones.

Yoko had imagined that Japan as a beautiful country full of cheerful people who would welcome them and make them feel safe. But when she arrives she finds her homeland devastated by bombs and reduced to rubble. Watkins's vivid descriptions of the wreckage conveys the message that war devastates both the land and the people. Not only do Yoko and her family find the Japanese cities demolished, but they discover that their grandparents have been killed. Mrs. Kawashima had left her children in Kyoto to attend school while she went to find her parents and discovered the loss. Battered and grief-stricken, she returns to Kyoto but dies shortly thereafter. Yoko and Ko are then left alone in a strange city to fend for themselves.

They say that tragedy brings people together, and Watkins stresses the bond that develops between Yoko and Ko. With no money, no assets, and no place to live, they face new trials every day, and they face a desperate struggle simply to survive. But they do manage to survive and to pull their lives together. They find shelter above a clog warehouse, curl together to keep warm, and they manage to continue with their schooling and find food to eat, often by digging through garbage cans like they did on their journey. Ko takes on the role of protector, but during their time in Kyoto, Yoko matures and learns to become self-reliant. Watkins describes several instances when she becomes aware of her sister's selflessness. A particularly touching incident occurs near the end of the book when Yoko discovers her sister shining shoes to make money to pay for Yoko's food. At this point she wants nothing more than to show her sister her appreciation. She scrapes together what money she has and she buys food for a New Year's feast. As a special treat, she buys tea and a "cheaply made" teapot. Then for the first time, she prepares a meal herself. When Ko returns home to the warehouse, Yoko welcomes her warmly and serves her the feast. When at the end of the meal Yoko bows to Ko and pours her a cup of green tea, Ko is overwhelmed. We understand that the simple act of pouring tea, in Japanese culture, is a sincere gesture of respect.

Watkins succeeds in writing a gripping novel of tragedy and survival, and she chronicles both the horrors of war and Yoko's growth into a loving and respectful young woman. "I competed with life and death when young, and I won," Watkins says later in life. She won in many more ways. Not only did she survive her experience as a refugee but she also learned the true value of love and respect. She learned not to take life or life's comforts for granted, and she emerged from her experience with a profound sense of pride and a true understanding of the significance of sisterly and familial bonds.




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