So Far from the Bamboo Grove

by Yoko Kawashima Watkins

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So Far from the Bamboo Grove is an autobiography that traces the Japanese author’s narrow escape from Korea during World War II. In addition to the eleven chapters that tell Yoko Kawashima Watkins’ story, this riveting account offers a map showing all the geographical locations mentioned in the story, a foreword by acclaimed author Jean Fritz, and historical notes from the publisher.

So Far from the Bamboo Grove tells two parallel escape stories from Korea: the escape of eleven-year-old Yoko with her sister and mother, and the separate escape of her brother, Hideyo, with his friends. Although most of the story is about the Kawashima women, several chapters are devoted to Hideyo’s escape.

The setting is World War II. Yoko and her family are Japanese and living in Nanam, Korea. Korean Communists are killing the Japanese people, and many are fleeing the country. Yoko’s father is away from home, serving in the Japanese military, and Yoko and her family must escape from the Korean communists without his help.

Korean Communist soldiers come through Yoko’s village, ransacking her home and those of other Japanese families. When it occurs to Yoko’s mother, Mrs. Kawashima, that they must escape immediately, Yoko’s brother, Hideyo, is away working at a factory in another town. Mrs. Kawashima contacts a family friend and military officer, Corporal Matsumura, who assists Yoko, her sister, Ko, and Mrs. Kawashima in escaping from their village. They are smuggled aboard a Red Cross train and, after it is bombed three days later, escape through the fields.

Meanwhile, Yoko’s brother and three friends narrowly escape death when the ammunition factory in which they work is blown up, and the young men journey back to their homes in Nanam. Hideyo’s friends are saddened to discover their family and friends missing or dead, but Hideyo finds his mother’s note and directions as to where to meet. He grabs supplies, clothing, and the bank book and begins his long journey.

So Far from the Bamboo Grove traces Yoko’s escape in detail. Eventually, Yoko, Ko, and their mother arrive in Kyoto, Japan, where Mrs. Kawashima enrolls the girls in school. She leaves the girls behind to fend for themselves and travels by train to find her parents. Mrs. Kawashima returns several weeks later to report to Yoko that the town has been bombed and her grandparents are dead, and she then dies in Yoko’s arms. Although devastated, Yoko and Ko continue to survive on their own, barely scraping by. A joyful reunion occurs when they find Corporal Matsumura.

Meanwhile, Hideyo continues to travel with his friends, but eventually they must separate. Hideyo continues the journey alone, facing many hardships. He almost freezes to death and is saved by a Korean family, the Kims, who own a farm near the thirty-eighth parallel. Risking death at the hands of the Communists, the Kims nurse Hideyo back to health and lovingly invite him to be a part of their family; they know it would be almost certain death for him to cross the thirty-eight parallel. Hideyo is moved by their deep kindness but chooses to swim across the Imjon River, which crosses the thirty-eighth parallel—he must find his family. Although machine-gun fire greets him with nearly every stroke, he makes it safely across the river to freedom.

The book ends as Yoko and Ko are reunited with their brother. The historical notes at the end reveal that the children waited many years before they were reunited with their father, who was in a prison camp.


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Watkins begins her...

(This entire section contains 205 words.)

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story in North Korea, moves into Seoul, South Korea, then into Pusan, a port city of Japan, and finally into Kyoto. These areas have been ravaged by war, and Watkins takes us behind the scenes and introduces us to the filthiest trains, the filthiest stations, and the filthiest people on both sides of the war. Her vivid descriptions of the devastation, the blood, and the stench allude to the ugliness of war. We picture the wreckage, and we feel the fear Yoko experiences when trying to navigate through such horrors without getting killed.

If we study the myths and traditions of Japan, we learn that the Japanese have a deep respect for the environment and the natural features of the land. Watkins describes how Yoko and her family use the Asian landscape to provide relief and protection. They bathe in the ponds and rivers, they hide in the brush, and they find food growing in the fields to sustain them. Watkins uses the setting of her novel to highlight the contrast between war and peace, love and hate, evil and goodness. During war, everything of beauty is destroyed, and the land that protects and provides for them crumbles, but eventually renews itself.

Literary Qualities

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So Far from the Bamboo Grove pits good against evil, war against peace, strength against weakness, and creation against destruction. Unintentionally perhaps, Watkins uses the symbolism of the bamboo to emphasize the contrast. Before Yoko and her family are forced to flee their home, they live peacefully and comfortably in a bamboo grove, so it seems relevant to relate the role that bamboo plays in Japanese symbolism, an evergreen plant that symbolizes constancy. It is also a hearty plant and it lives an exceedingly long time, so it symbolizes longevity. Because the bamboo has strong roots and it always grows upright, it appears to show strength of character. It perseveres, even during hard times: the roots of the bamboo thrive, even in ice and snow, and they sprout multiple stems, which further indicate its strength and vitality. Long ago, the Japanese took note of the bamboo's long life and perpetual foliage, and they labeled it not only a symbol of strength but a symbol of friendship as well. Like friendship, it remains steadfast and true. Watkins may not have intentionally incorporated the symbolism of bamboo into her novel, but in analyzing the themes, it appears that Yoko and Ko embody the same qualities the Japanese attribute to their sacred plant. They too remain strong and they too persevere, even during hard times. And their love for each other remains steadfast and true. Furthermore, their peaceful life in the bamboo grove contrasts greatly with the violence they experience traveling through the war-ravaged areas of Korea.

Watkins draws parallels to compare the devastation of the land to the devastation of people's lives, and to compare the persecution she suffered as an escapee in Korea to the persecution she suffered as a destitute student in Kyoto. She seems to be alluding to the wreckage in her heart when she describes the wreckage caused by bombs and guns and when she describes the destructive comments made by Yoko's insensitive classmates. The death of Mrs. Kawashima is highly symbolic. Did the wreckage in her heart not also stem from the loss of her childhood world? Did Yoko not experience the death of innocence and the death of her old life? It is significant that the first task the sisters face after their mother's death is disposing of their mother's body. They manage to get a ride to a crematorium and pay for the cremation and urn for the ashes. They watch as the men in charge place their mother in the furnace. According to Japanese tradition, Yoko and Ko are given the opportunity to light the fire, and Ko bravely lights it. Watkins then describes how the girls walk away from the furnace, down the hill in the twilight, and watch the smoke rise slowly and spread into the sky. This death and cremation seems symbolic of what Yoko and Ko and all the other Japanese refugees faced at the end of World War II. Their old life reduced to ashes, they had to move forward, painfully, and rebuild a new life in a new land, leaving everything they knew and loved behind.

Social Sensitivity

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The memories of her escape were so painful that it took Watkins thirty-one years before she could begin to write her story. Her story is riveting and her message poignant, and anyone who reads about Watkins's experiences understands how deeply they must have molded her values and changed her outlook on life. Today Watkins lectures to children and young adults throughout the country and in other parts of the world as well. The stories she tells teach all of us important lessons about the sanctity of life, the value of love and kindness, and the necessity of world peace.

Both So Far from the Bamboo Grove and its sequel My Brother, My Sister, and I stress the importance of strength and perseverance in the face of tragedy. In this first book Yoko, Ko, and Hideyo brave hellish conditions and they survive amazing odds. Not only do they face gunfire and bombs and threats from hostile soldiers, but they face poverty and prejudice. These are problems many children struggle with today. Young people today who read Watkins's novel get the message that hardship breeds strength and fortitude. Yoko and Ko do what it takes to survive. They dress like boys to avoid being raped and they eat from garbage cans to avoid starvation. Forced into dire circumstances, these two girls learn how to be resourceful and how to take care of each other's needs. Ko sets an admirable example and Yoko follows suit. When the girls move into the warehouse in Kyoto, they have no coats to keep them warm, no money to buy food, and not even a bed to sleep on. But Ko can sew. She cuts the uniforms they stole from the dead soldiers into small strips, and she uses them to make a coat for Yoko. Yoko can shine shoes, and she uses the money she makes to buy a special dinner and green tea for Ko.

Watkins lived the most difficult years of her life without parents, but with an older sister who not only shared her determination to survive but who showed her unconditional love. Watkins's book teaches important lessons about love between siblings and about the importance of working together. Yoko and Ko leaned on each other and supported each other; they braved the world together and conquered it. The two sisters had lived a comfortable life in the bamboo grove in Nanam, and they never imagined they would spend years of their life fighting for life's most basic needs. Ko acts generously and selflessly and Yoko learns from her example. By the end of the book she has learned the importance of sharing, she has learned not to take comfort for granted, and she has learned that with strength and determination, she can survive. She has also learned the power of love. Strong familial bonds are typical in Japanese society, and the bond Yoko and Ko share becomes virtually unbreakable during their hardship. At the end of the novel, Hideyo finds them in Kyoto, and we know that the bonds among the three of them will only strengthen as they navigate through life together.

Yoko's experience as a refugee tested her strength and endurance, and she passed the test. By contemplating this test, we understand that through hardship we learn values. Many of these values Mrs. Kawashima taught her daughters while she was running with them; she certainly helped them recognize the value of love and family ties, but she helped them also recognize the value of education. It was not easy for Yoko to go to school in Kyoto; she was ridiculed by her schoolmates, called "rag doll" for coming to school in tattered clothes and a blanket for a coat, and called "trash picker" for having to search for food in garbage cans. But this made Yoko more determined than ever to succeed. Ko worked hard so that Yoko could go to school, and we know that her education and determination paid off. Readers will marvel at Yoko's courage and at the strength it must have taken for her to rise above the humiliation she felt, both in Korea and in Kyoto, and become the proud and successful woman she is today.

For Further Reference

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Bulletin of the Center for Children Books (June 1986): 199. A brief review of So Far from the Bamboo Grove.

Contemporary Authors, vol. 153. Detroit: Gale, 2000.

Fujita Sato, Gayle K. "Watkins, Yoko Kawashima." In Oxford Companion to Women's Writing. Edited by Cathy N. Davidson and Linda Wagner-Martin. Oxford University Press, 1995. This biographical entry on Watkins briefly describes the harrowing experiences she wrote about in So Far From the Bamboo Grove and it praises her success in reaching children and young adults with her messages about life, values, and world peace.

Sherman, Louise L. School Library Journal (September 1986): 147. A review of So Far from the Bamboo Grove.

Something about the Author, vol. 93. Detroit: Gale, 1997.

Twitchell, Ethel R. Horn Book (July-August 1986): 453. A review of So Far from the Bamboo Grove.

Ward, Nel. Voice Youth Advocates (August- October 1986): 152. A review of So Far from the Bamboo Grove.

"Yoko Kawashima Watkins: So Far from the Bamboo Grove." In Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them, Vol. 4: World War II to the Affluent Fifties (1940's-1950's). Edited by Joyce Moss and George Wilson. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997. In addition to providing biographical information on Watkins and a synopsis of the plot, this essay includes a thorough overview of the historical events that took place at the time the novel was written, and a list of seven suggested readings that may help students understand the hostile relationship between Korea and Japan that Watkins speaks of in her novels.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide