Richard Kim’s masterpiece about being a boy in occupied Korea is fictional, though he based it upon elements of his own childhood. The story is about a family during the occupation of Korea by the forces of Imperial Japan in the 1930s and 40’s. The family endures hardship as the Japanese attempt to erase Korean culture and replace it with their own. The boy’s school has become part of the Japanese regime, and he experiences triumphs and defeats based upon his fathers place in the society as a leader; and his eventual understanding and realization what is happening to him and his family.
Then, the teacher gestures abruptly, as if to touch my face. “I am sorry,” he says.
My father gives him a slight bow of the head.
“Even the British wouldn’t have thought of doing this sort of primitive thing in India,” says the Japanese.
I am at a loss trying to comprehend what he says and means.
“…inflicting on you this humiliation…” he is saying, “…unthinkable for one Asian people to do to another Asian people, especially we Asians who should have a greater respect for our ancestors…”
“The whole world is going mad, sir,” says my father quietly, “going back into another dark age. Japan is no exception.”
My teacher nods. “As one Asian to another, sir, I am deeply ashamed.”
“I am ashamed, too, sir,” says my father, “perhaps for a reason different from yours.”
My teacher, without a word, bows to my father, turns round, and disappears into the blinding snow.
“It is a small beginning,” says my father,
The whole book is laid out in a series of chronological vignettes, chapter by chapter that follow the boy’s life. The boy refers to himself and most everyone else by descriptive titles, rather than names. This is actually very helpful in distinguishing relationships and the types of respect and rebellion that traverses between these characters. There is great nuance in this technique, and it helps to build context. The text is very dialogue driven, and expect to be following conversations with implied meanings that the narrator is oblivious to. The things to notice is the state of the Japanese as time goes on, and the desperation they exhibit as the book progresses. Eventually, with the end drawing near, the tension grows as it becomes clear that the Japanese are going to lose; and everyone wonders how violent the end of their rule will be.
More than simply violence is the cultural attack. The Koreans had a culture all their own, and while they shared many traditions and views with the both the Japanese and China, they could in no way be considered similar to either. The Koreans were, and are, a unique culture that may have been influenced by their neighbors, but they identified as their own group. This is important to recognize while reading the book, for the Japanese attempt to eradicate the Korean identity and replace it with a Japanese one. I believe the most benefit to the story is to consider the changes enforced by the Japanese to take away Korean identity. That is the true violence being explored in the book, and it is a story worth hearing if for that reason alone.