I Learned More about World War II from 'When My Name Was Keoko' Than I Learned in School

I Learned More about World War II from 'When My Name Was Keoko' Than I Learned in School

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I have no recollection of learning about World War II in high school. I took AP U.S. History, so you’d think it would have come up, and it might have, but I don’t remember it. So, before I read When My Name Was Keoko, all I knew about Japan during World War II was that we dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I knew nothing about Korea. 

When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park came out in 2002. The book follows a young Korean girl, Sun-hee (Keoko), and her older brother, Tea-yul (Nobuo), during World War II. By the time we get to Sun-hee’s story, the Japanese have occupied Korea for thirty years. When My Name Was Keoko begins with Sun-hee having to choose a Japanese name. “Graciously allowing”—as the Japanese Emperor’s official order phrased it—Korean's to choose Japanese names was one tactic Japan used to indoctrinate the population of Korea.

When My Name Was Keoko is a fantastic book, and, like Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, it is loaded with history.  In her author’s note, Park expounds some of the history she includes in her story. Despite her thoroughness, I found two interesting bits of history that she touches on in the book but doesn’t mention in her author’s note. Because When My Name Was Keoko is a children’s novel set in Korea, Park couldn’t go into too much detail on the war crimes Japan committed both in Korea and in other countries during World War II. Also, given the scope of the book, she only touches on the next chapter of Korea’s history: the events leading to the Korean War. So, here we go.

Atrocities Committed by the Japanese Imperial Forces

After the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, Sun-hee visits her Japanese friend Tomo. She finds him in his yard with some friends playing with a model of an Imperial airplane known as a Flying Dragon: 

The Imperial forces have huge fleets of these planes,’ Tomo said excitedly. ’The Americans don’t stand a chance! Ack-ack-ack-ack-ack—‘ and he began running around again with his plane held high. 'Kill them! Kill the Americans!’ another boy shouted. The others took up the chant. ‘Kill the Americans, kill the Americans!.’ ‘All of them!’ shouted the first boy. ‘Even the babies?’ I said. The words slipped out before I could stop them. The boys stopped chanting and stared at me. (p. 50)

Tomo then reminds Keoko of a movie they watched in school. It was a piece of propaganda that depicted Americans as cowboys who “hated all people with black hair and killed even the women and babies of their enemies just to amuse themselves.” (p. 50)

This is one of my favorite passages in the book because it references World War II propaganda, which I find fascinating. It's also one of a few instances where we see either Sun-hee or Tae-yul rejecting propaganda. This particular scene alludes to the irony of the movie Sun-hee saw. In "Taking Responsibility" published in the Berkeley Journal of International law, Harry N. Scheiber points out that the Japanese “slaughtered civilians, enslaved hundred of thousands of people, mistreated and killed its military and civilian prisoners, or subjected conquered people to military conscription and to service as sex slaves (cynically known as ‘comfort women’).” [1] What’s more, Joshua A. Fogel, author of The Nanking Massacre in History and Historiography describes the Japanese soldiers as “gleeful” while killing hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians during the Nanking Massacre. [2] And, the Nanking Massacre was only one of a number of massacres, death marches, and other war crimes carried out by Japanese Imperial Forces during World War II.

Korea After World War II

Jumping forward a bit, at the end of the book (Surpise!) World War II ends, and we learn that something is going on in the northern part of Korea. Sun-hee’s family receives a letter from Miss Lim who, according to Park's author's note, was based on a real historical figure, Young-sin Im (a.k.a. Louise Yim). (p. 194) Sun-hee’s father reads, “’She says that the Communists are making things very difficult in the north. They have seized control and are allowing no travel, except for official business.’” (p. 177) This tidbit caught my attention. I suspected that the split between North Korea and South Korea had something to do with World War II, but I wasn't certain until I read that sentence. North Korea's a scary little country, and before I read When My Name Was Keoko, I always wondered, where the heck did North Korea come from? After I read When My Name Was Keoko, I looked it up. 

At the beginning of the book, we learn that the Japanese have occupied Korea since 1910. That means that by the time World War II ended, Korea hadn't had it's own government for 35 years. To make a long, complicated story short, after the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, the U.S. issued an order that divided Korea in half, according to Encyclopedia Brittanica. [3] The Soviet Union handled the Japanese surrender in the northern half of Korea and the Japanese surrendered to the U.S. in the southern half. In the south, the U.S. set up a military government. In the north, the Soviet Union created a communist government that by 1948 was run by Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jung-Un’s grandfather. [4] I’m not going to get into this any further because I’m already over simplifying North Korea’s short history, but I think it's important to note the parts that the U.S. and the Soviet Union played in creating the North Korea we know today. I encourage you to get the full story by checking out Encyclopedia Brittanica’s pages on Korea and Kim Il-Sung.

Before I read When My Name Was Keoko all this information was new to me, and that makes me a little sad. Although I can’t say with confidence that no educator ever tried to teach me about World War II, I can safely say that I learned more about Korea and World War II’s Pacific theater from When My Name Was Keoko than I ever did in school. There is so much more to Korea’s history than what’s in this post, so read the book (it’s short) and do some research. If you've read the book, let me know what you learned from it in the comments. Did the book inspire you to do more research? Did you read one of the nonfiction books Park mentions in her author's note? If you haven’t read the book, what did you learn about World War II in high school? Do you think that your high school history classes sufficiently covered World War II or any history since then? I know mine didn’t.

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  1. Scheiber, "Taking Responsibility,” 235.
  2. Fogel, The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography, vii.
  3. Korea | Historical Nation, Asia.”
  4. Ibid.

Bibliography

When My Name Was Keoko

By Linda Sue Park
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 208pp. 

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