When My Name Was Keoko tells the story of a Korean family during the period of Japanese occupation in the Second World War. Author, Linda Sue Park uses two voices to tell her story, that of Sun-hee and her older brother Tae-yul. The story opens in 1940 when 10 year old Sun-hee's family learns that they must take on Japanese names. Although they must comply, they decide to make their Japanese names as similar as possible to their Korean names. Sun-hee takes the name Keoko which means "the sun's rays". Sun-hee and Tae-yul live with their father Abuji, their mother Omoni and an uncle who runs a printing business.
In school, the children sing the Japanese national anthem, recited the Japanese emperor's education policy and learn Japanese alphabet and writing. Sun-hee works hard in school and especially loves learning kanji, a special and complex type of character writing.In 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese enact many new laws and life gradually becomes more and more difficult.
Linda Sue Park's writing is astonishingly vivid and realistic. Through the experiences of Tae-yul and Sun-hee we understand what it must have been like for the Korean people to live under the rule of Japanese and their struggle to maintain their national identity. Sadly, they are not alone as Japanese expansion spreads to Hong Kong, Singapore, Burma, The Philippines, and New Guinea.
Sun-hee and Tae-yul have different responses to the events that occur within the short years recounted. Sun-hee struggles to maintain her Korean identity and wonders what makes her Korean. She wonders whether it is possible to write Korean thoughts in Japanese. She wants to learn how to write Korean. Her rebellion is quiet and personal.
Tae-yul, on the other hand, is more open about his opposition to the Japanese. He tries to resist when Japanese soldiers take away his homemade bike. When students are given rubber balls in honor of the conquest of Malaya, Burma and Singapore Tae-yul responds,
What they take: our rice, our language, our names. What they give: little rubber balls.
I can't feel grateful about such a bad deal.
Park is direct about some of the brutality suffered under Japanese occupation such as beatings of civilians and hints at others such as the comfort women - the recruiting and wholesale kidnapping of Korean women for the sole purpose of working in brothels for the Japanese army.
I have to say that I really enjoy Park's writing. Her fiction is fascinating it tends to focus on events and situations not widely written about. While I knew about the comfort women, I didn't know about the Japanese occupation of Korea.
Although When My Name Was Keoko is fictional, it takes some of its basis in the events that were experienced by the author's parents, Eung Won and Joung Sook, while growing up in Korea.
When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park
New York: Clarion Books 2002