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Richard E. Kim, Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998. 198 pages $12.95 (paper). ISBN: 0-520-21424-2.

Reviewed by J. Michael Allen
Brigham Young University - Hawaii


Most readers of this review have probably already read Richard Kim's Lost Names. Those who have not should do so at the first opportunity. The reissue of Lost Names will be particularly welcome news to two groups: anyone interested in the experience of Koreans living under Japanese rule, and any teacher looking for a non-academic book on the colonial period to assign to students studying Korean history. It is an engaging book, both because of Kim's easy style and because of the youthful perspective from which the story is told. Richard Kim shuns questions of whether the book is fictional or autobiographical, pointing out that while he wrote it as fiction, it has generally been regarded as an account of his own early years. It is as a result of this "happy predicament" (in Kim's words) that the book has both the realism of remembered experience and the imagination of a series of stories. Kim has stated elsewhere that "everything in the book actually happened" to him. (See Education About Asia, Vol. 4, No. 2 [Fall 1999], p. 23.) Nevertheless, he maintains that because he arranged and interpreted events while writing the book, it is not strictly autobiographical. More important than questions about the book's genre, however, is the fact that it puts a human face on the colonial period that can easily be overlooked in more academic treatments.

Each chapter is a separate story, which means that a teacher using this book would not necessarily have to assign the entire thing. Taken together, however, they form a vivid picture not only of life under colonial rule but of family dynamics as well. The incidents cover the period from 1933 (when the storyteller/author was one year old) to liberation in 1945. "Crossing" tells the story of the family's departure, across the frozen Tumen River, from Korea to Manchuria, where the father has taken a job at a Christian school shortly after his release from prison. The setting sun, "plummeting down toward the frozen expanse of the northern Manchurian plain," seems symbolic of the ultimate demise of the Japanese empire, even in the first story, twelve years prior to Japan's defeat.

The father's prison term is referred to a number of times throughout the book, and while it is never clear exactly what his offense was, the manner in which it is mentioned makes it clear that it had something to do with the authorities' perception that he was acting against them. It also becomes clear over the course of the book, however, that the narrator's father has earned the respect not only of his fellow Koreans, but of many Japanese colonial officials as well.

The family returns to Korea after a few years in Manchuria. The remaining chapters of the book chronicle school activities (including humiliation and intimidation at the hands of other pupils as well as teachers), various kinds of mobilization ordered by colonial authorities (from the collecting of rubber balls for recycling to the building of a runway), and the efforts of a family (one that clearly has considerable local prestige) to cope with unwelcome colonial rule while trying to avoid an oppressive siege mentality at home. The title story comes from the requirement that, as subjects of the Japanese emperor, Koreans adopt Japanese names. The day when the boy's father takes him to the local police station in order to register their new names is clearly a painful one for the family. The occasion becomes a chance for the father to teach his son a lesson about both national shame and personal dignity. After the registration is over and the family has been officially renamed Iwamoto, the father, with tears in his eyes, tells his son: "Take a good look at all of this. . . . Remember it. Don't ever forget this day."

Kim suggests the range of reactions to Japanese rule-from cooperation to resistance-that we know of from other sources. There is a mysterious uncle in Manchuria, clearly part of an anti-Japanese resistance movement. One of the boy's teachers, who rescued him from a beating overseen by a Japanese teacher, joins this uncle, only to be captured and killed as a spy in Mongolia by Russian forces. On the other end of the scale, there are Koreans like the detective who interrogates the boy's father at the beginning of the narrative, someone the boy's mother describes as the foreigners' hound. But equally important (and perhaps more representative) are all the Koreans found between these two extremes. These Koreans are not as visibly represented in Kim's volume, but one always knows they are there. Similarly, Kim does not want to depict Japanese as easily pigeonholed, cardboard characters-even those who officially represent the Japanese state that has subjected Korea. He issues no blanket condemnations of Japan or Japanese. The group whose motivation and actions he wishes to analyze most is his own countrymen. In the 1999 interview referred to earlier, Kim declared that one of his missions in life was "to teach Koreans to accept responsibility for their lives, to stop blaming others, the Japanese, the Chinese. We lost it. . . . but many Koreans would like to think someone grabbed it . . . thinking this justifies hatred. I've often said that Koreans need a national psychotherapy session, a large couch. Why are we as we are, why is self-examination such a rare commodity in Korean life?" (Education About Asia, p. 25.) A "national psychotherapy session"? This is quite a call. But such a frank statement, it seems to me, suggests that Kim himself has done rather a lot of thinking about responsibility and history, and about just what else may have been "lost" along with Korean names.

The final chapter, "In the Making of History-Together," is powerfully evocative of the ambiguity both of liberation and of the liberated. The boy and his father have a conversation about what liberation means for them and for all of Korea. The boy has previously told his mother of his feelings of shame that liberation was not won by Koreans, but given to them. "It just dropped from the sky," he had complained. "Just like that. A present!" His father, who knows of this conversation, tries to explain not only what liberation means, but what he sees as the burden of successive generations of Koreans. "You are right. Our liberation is a gift, so to speak, and not something that we have fought for and won. That bothers me, too, son. And perhaps that's why most of us, the grown-ups, are confused and bewildered and feel at a loss." He then explains that his own father's generation was "ineffective and disorganized-not only aimless but also very stupid in many ways, although the royal dynasty had more to be blamed for than anyone else in the country. They let the country get kicked around and, finally, sold down the river, you might say. Then, they handed it over to my generation and said, 'Look, we are sorry about this, but there wasn't anything we could do to save the country.' Now, what could my generation do?" The generation that led Korea in 1910 could have prevented the loss of the country, the father argues, and could have put in place many needed reforms, but as Japanese rule became more and more entrenched after annexation, it was too late. For this generation, the burden was survival: "We could do very little, too, except, perhaps . . . to sustain our faith and remain strong in spirit, hoping, just hoping, that, someday, a day like today would come. Survival, yes, that's it. Survival. Stay alive. Raise families, our children, like you, for the future. Survival, son, that's what my generation accomplished, if that can be called an accomplishment."

But the torch also passes from the father's generation to the son's. Recognizing this, the father expresses his hope for the future: "I am only hoping that your generation will have enough will and strength to make sure the country will not make the same mistakes and repeat its shameful history. I only hope, son, that mere survival will not become the only goal of your generation's lives. There must be more in life than just that." This exchange epitomizes both the anguish behind the history of Korea's liberation, and the multiple possibilities for the future that liberation held. The post-liberation generation, as the concluding chapter's title suggests, must become masters of their future, making history rather than merely watching it happen, becoming the shapers of their destinies rather than pawns in others' power schemes. The book ends on that note, and on an optimistic determination on the part of the narrator to ensure that the future of Korea does indeed belong to Koreans.

Since its first publication in 1970, Lost Names has attracted a loyal following among teachers and students of Korea. This reissue will make it even more accessible. Perhaps it will also lead some readers in the direction of Kim's other books on Korea (The Martyred [1964]; The Innocent [1968]), helping to ensure that an eloquent voice continues to be heard.

Allen, J. Michael 2001
Review of Richard E. Kim, Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood (2000)
Korean Studies Review 2001, no. 2
Electronic file: http://koreanstudies.com/ks/ksr/ksr01-02.htm

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