When My Name Was Keoko
by Linda Sue Park
Originally published in 2002 by
Yearling, 2004, 199 pages
Koreans suffered oppression when Japan ruled their country
from 1910 to 1945. When My Name Was Keoko, a young adult novel based on
the historical experiences of the author's parents, depicts the struggles of a
Korean family named Kim from 1940 to 1945 as Japanese repression became
harsher. Sun-hee and her brother Tae-yul, ten and thirteen years old
respectively at the novel's beginning in 1940, jointly narrate the story of
each family member's own covert efforts to resist Japanese rule. The novel's
title comes from the Japanese law forcing Koreans to take Japanese names. The
Kim family chose the Japanese name of Kaneyama, and Sun-hee and Tae-yul
reluctantly changed their names to Keoko and Nobuo, respectively. This novel
not only provides young readers insight into an often-neglected part of WWII
history but also vividly portrays strong emotional reactions to tyranny.
Linda Sue Park's historical novels have won much critical
praise. In 2002, A Single Shard, a historical novel set in 12th-century
Korea, won the Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to
American literature for children. In 2003, the American Library Association
selected When My Name Was Keoko as a Best Book for Young Adults and a
Notable Children's Book. These awards reflect Park's storytelling talent and
the thoroughness of her historical research. As Park explains in the Author's
Note at the end of When My Name Was Keoko, several stories in the book
come from her own parents' childhood experiences in Korea. Her mother, just like
Sun-hee, used the name of Keoko Kaneyama during Japan's rule over Korea.
Although the Kim family clearly hates the Japanese occupation, the author does
not demonize all Japanese people in the novel but instead presents Sun-hee's
Japanese friend positively and some Koreans negatively as they seek to profit
from the Japanese occupation.
Sun-hee and Tae-yul alternate as narrators of separate
chapters, and many times they both provide individual views of the same events.
They explain Korean customs and historical events in an easy-to-understand
manner that does not detract from the main story line. Tension fills the book,
as each member of the Kim family fears discovery by the Japanese
of their secret resistance to foreign rule. For example, the mother with the
help of her two children hides a small rose of Sharon tree, the national symbol
of Korea, despite Japanese orders to destroy them and plant cherry trees. The
atmosphere of fear intensifies when Sun-hee and Tae-yul witness girls sixteen
and older being forced one day to volunteer for work in textile factories away
from home without even the chance to return home to tell their families
goodbye. Park explains the Japanese use of comfort women in the Author's Note
at the end of the book, but the novel's narrative only hints vaguely at what
might happen to these girls.
The novel starts with the Kim family selecting Japanese names after being forced to register at
the local police station. The Japanese rulers have tried to wipe out Korean culture
by requiring schools to teach Japanese. They have banned teaching of Korean
language and history, printing of Korean newspapers, and conversing in public
in Korean. Sun-hee enjoys writing Japanese kanji and keeps a daily diary, but
her older brother Tae-Yul has much more interest in mechanical things
rather than academic pursuits. They both enjoy conversations with their uncle,
who owns a print shop, but he is forced to flee town because of his support of
the Korean resistance movement. Their father serves as vice-principal of
Sun-hee's school with the position of principal, like all top positions in
Korean society, reserved for a Japanese man.
Cover of 2002 hardcover
edition published by
Life for the Kim family becomes harder as the war
progresses. Food shortages lead to the family's eating millet rather than rice,
and the Japanese Army confiscates personal metal items for use in the war
effort. In early 1945, Tae-yul enlists in the Imperial Army and goes to Seoul
for training. He has always had a fascination with planes, and he also realizes
that families of Army volunteers receive better food rations and clothing. In
Tae-yul's seventh week of training, he volunteers for a special attack unit of
kamikaze pilots after he overhears Japanese officers talking derogatorily about
Korean soldiers' lack of bravery. When sent on a kamikaze mission from Japan,
he plans to miss the American ships, but his squadron has to return to base
when they cannot find any enemy targets due to heavy cloud cover. In the
meantime, the Kim family receives a last letter from Tae-yul written the day
before his mission. They believe he has died in battle, but they are overjoyed
when he returns home after the war.
Eleven Korean pilots actually died as kamikaze pilots in the
Army during the Battle of Okinawa , but the author's description of
Tae-yul's experiences as a kamikaze pilot contains a few inaccuracies. Park
used two kamikaze pilot memoirs, Kamikaze by Yasuo Kuwahara and Gordon
Allred and I Was a Kamikaze by Ryuji Nagatsuka, to provide details for
Tae-yul's fictional experience in the Army, but some basic facts still differ from actual
history. Tae-yul entered the Army in early 1945 and would have had at most five
months of training prior to his kamikaze mission on June 20, 1945. Kamikaze
pilots actually required at least a year of training, including time for basic
training, flight training, and training for a specific type of plane. Tae-yul's
short time period seems even more unbelievable with only two training planes
for 200 men at his base and with training being carried out during a period of
frequent American air raids and lack of fuel.
Park used Nagatsuka's failed kamikaze mission  on June
29, 1945, from Kagohara Airfield near Tokyo for details contained in Tae-yul's
mission, although she changed the date and other details. Tae-yul's kamikaze
mission on June 20, 1945, occurs on a date in history when no Army special
attacks happened. During the Battle of Okinawa through June 22, both the Navy
and Army used air bases in southern Kyushu, not the Tokyo area, for kamikaze
attacks. Tae-yul writes in his last letter to his family that he has been
promised that it will not be censored, but this seems impossible since military
officers censored all correspondence from military bases. A letter written by a
Korean would be especially suspected. Nagatsuka writes in his memoir that he
got thrown in the brig for three days for failing to accomplish his suicide
mission , but Tae-yul's imprisonment lasts several weeks.
Young adults not only can learn Korean history and culture
but also can understand the value of freedom through reading this excellent
novel. Although the description of Tae-yul's experiences in the Army and a
special attack squadron lacks historical accuracy in several places, the rest
of the book reflects Park's thorough research and her parents' personal
experiences living in Japanese-occupied Korea during World War II. The actions
of Sun-hee, Tae-yul, and the other Kim family members reflect their courage and
love during Japan's attempt to eradicate Korean culture.
1. Muranaga 1989, 17.
2. Nagatsuka 1973, 179-99.
3. Nagatsuka 1973, 198.
Muranaga, Kaoru, ed. 1989. Chiran tokubetsu kougekitai
(Chiran special attack forces). Kagoshima City: Japlan.
Nagatsuka, Ryuji. 1973. I
Was a Kamikaze. Translated from the French by Nina Rootes. New York: