Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood
"From 1932 to 1945, the Japanese occupied Korea. Organized in seven vivid scenes, Kim’s fictionalized memoir tells the story of one family’s experience, as told by the boy. The narrative starts in 1933 with a dramatic iced-river crossing into Manchuria, when the boy was just a year old, a story the boy knows from the many times his mother has told him the tale. Next scene and we’re in 1938. The boy and his family have moved back to Korea, where the boy is the new boy in school and is learning new routines like bowing his head toward where the Japanese emperor is supposed to be in Tokyo." (text taken from Amazon)
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University of California Press
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An excellent read, but a challenge for teachers
I was asked to review this novel specifically for its potential usefulness in a classroom setting. I think it has some potential in the classroom, but I have a few concerns as well. The book is well written and is particularly notable for its descriptive language. It also does a very good job of presenting the perspective of a Korean child living during the Japanese occupation of the peninsula. Unfortunately, I also think that a true understanding of the plot and character development requires a knowledge of historical context that will be beyond most of the students that I work with.
In fact, I would be hesitant to recommend it to teachers in my middle school because I believe it is too advanced for the vast majority of the children at our school. Only a small number would have both the patience and ability to read it at all, and I don’t think any of them have the requisite historical background knowledge to truly comprehend it.
I think there is a great deal more potential to be found teaching this novel at the high school level. Certainly one would expect older students to have a greater understanding and appreciation for the use of descriptive language, as well as the question of identity faced by the protagonist. Even for high schoolers, however, I think that any truly effective teaching of the novel would require some time spent upon the historical scaffolding needed to understand the novel at the highest level.
I also have some doubt as to whether students would enjoy and be enthusiastic about reading this book. For all its strengths -- a readable narrative, a young protagonist, and real tension -- there are also weaknesses (in my opinion). Primarily, I think, there’s the problem of basic interest. I’m not sure how easily most students in my district would find it to identify with the main character and develop a compelling interest in his story (this due primarily to his precociousness, not his culture). I think student enjoyment might also be hampered because the tension and conflict within the story is mostly resolved by talk and the passage of time, rather than gripping, climactic scenes.
Weirdly enough, I also felt the book also has a notable western bias, despite being a story told by a native Korean who actually lived through the times he describes. Partly this is due to the Christian faith of the main characters. Again, knowledge of historical context is vital in order to understand this “non-exotic” fact of a story with a setting that might be considered exotic by most western readers. I can’t rewrite Mr. Kim’s biography, but I still feel that the story would have more appeal and educational relevance if it were told by a character with a more traditionally Korean spiritual outlook. Additionally, I also feel that, while the author took great pains to present all of the characters in the novel as realistic characters with strong cultural inclinations alongside more basic human emotions and internal conflicts, the overarching story is told from a classically western “good guy vs. bad guy” perspective. It results in a somewhat confusing resolution, where the reader must be fairly astute in order to recognize the ongoing conflict for the protagonist.
All in all, I think this book might do OK with high school ELA students, particularly as an example of excellent descriptive writing and the internal conflict of the main character. As a social studies teacher, I am concerned that the book leaves too many holes in the larger historical context to be anything more than a supplement to one’s lesson plans or extra-credit reading for advanced students.
Review of Richard E. Kim, Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
For the boy-narrator of Richard E. Kim’s Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood, replacing the family name with a Japanese name is one of the many indignities of Japan’s occupation of Korea. The boy comes of age while enduring occasional beatings from his Japanese teachers, suppression of his native language, and eventually hard labor at an airfield he and his classmates are conscripted to build in the waning months of World War II. All the while, life manages to go on. While there is much he does not understand about the world and his father’s past in the Korean resistance movement, the boy grows in maturity and cleverness, discovering his sense of self amid the privations of colonial oppression and war.
The themes of self-discovery and intergenerational endurance will contribute to the book’s appeal to a high-school or young-adult audience. Readers will find the work more rewarding if, like the narrator, they acquire comfort with paradox and ambiguity—not the least of which is Kim’s insistence that the book fictionalizes events he experienced in his youth. For all the particulars of characterization and plot, Lost Names captures a sense of the Korean spirit and human resilience while maintaining a depth of character among both the Korean and Japanese figures it portrays. The result is a nuanced depiction of life under occupation, the meaning of survival, and the ability of each generation to shape its history. Recommended pairing with twentieth-century East Asian history, world religions, and ethics.
Dr. Brenda G. Jordan
Book Review “Lost Names” by Richard E. Kim
28 November 2017
After allowing a few weeks after the reading of this novel to process the information, this is a recommendation must read to anyone interested in a Korean perspective of WWII. “Lost Names”, through the eyes of a boy and his family, the reader is painted a fascinating picture of occupied Korea. The trials and tribulations of the family trying to hold onto their values, culture, beliefs, and their name.
The story unfolds and, as the reader, the characters names are never given. It is quite perplexing and the plot unfolds without that attachment to a character with a name. A wonderful way to give the reader a sense of misplaced, or better yet, no identity. Who are you? Who am I? Where do I stand in the world? Do I make a difference? As a people, the Korean people were treated as a colony and forced to learn Japanese language and customs. Eventually leading to the forced taking of a Japanese name and surrendering your surname. It is a personal ethnic cleansing without the actual act of killing. The author, in this reader’s opinion, appears to be the narrator and the boy in the story. Albeit, in the closing, the author refutes this belief and states this book is a fictional work. The book is well written and leaves the reader wondering if it is fiction or not.
An excellent insight into Imperial Japanese Occupation
I found this book to be a fairly enlightening experience in regards to how the Japanese treated the Koreans while occupying them. While reading I began to draw parallels to the movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the US Government to “educate” Native American children. The idea of the time was to “Kill the Indian, save the child” by eliminating the learning of their traditional culture and history and converting them to Christianity. They also forced them to learn and speak English in an effort to eliminate their native languages; all in a vile campaign to “Americanize” them and destroy traditional roots. From what Author Richard E. Kim describes in this fantastic novel, it appears the Japanese had studied their lessons on American history.
What makes this book so profound is how simple is. In very plain and easy to understand text, the narrator explains the situation of his family and people, and bluntly describes the propaganda, disrespect, and brutality of the Imperial occupiers. Throughout the novel we see the physical abuses they serve to those who are deemed as potential problems or those who resist against their rule, as seen with his father and Korean teacher. But then we see the disrespect, and the attempts to eliminate Korean culture through their initiatives. For instance, we see early on that they force the children to conform to the worship of the Japanese Emperor and Shinto practices, but as time goes on it gets more and more severe, as they are forced to abandon their language for Japanese, and eventually surrender their old names for new Japanese ones!
Clearly this novel provides excellent insight into the practices of Imperial Japan, who echoing the Americanization of Native Americans, sought to Japanify conquered peoples and erase their traditional identities.
Lost Names Review
Starting 23 years into Japan’s occupation of Korea, Richard E. Kim’s fictional novel is based on real people and real events. It begins with a mother recounting to her son a story about their family when the son was one year old. The young family of three was trying to start life by leaving Korea after the father’s parole time was up. He had spent several years in prison after speaking out against the Japanese occupation. The book, told in the first person of the son, is a series of vignettes in chronological order but often skipping years in between. In the second chapter, the family has returned to Korea, what is today North Korea. The son tells of his experience growing up with a influential, yet compassionate father and living in a Korean society that is ruled by entitled Japanese. Throughout the book, the reader sees, through the eyes of the young boy, the Japanese effort to change and manipulate Koreans into believing the Japanese way, including making them change their names, propaganda films and radio, and termination of speaking Korean in schools, among other things. In the Koreans, the responses are subversion, longing to be free, anger, and even forgiveness and mercy in the fall of the Japanese empire. The book showed strong feelings of pride in Korean culture in the face of foreign occupation and a palpable difference in Japanese and Korean culture.
I did enjoy the book, so much so that I read it in two days, which is abnormal for me to read a book that quickly. In a classroom setting, it would be good for many themes and concepts related to a literature class. For Social Studies, the book is very specific to time and place, so it would have to be use in an East Asian or World War II era history class. Although, it could be used to illustrate what happens in occupied countries between the perpetrators and the victims and the ways occupiers try to keep control with propaganda and forced assimilation of culture. I do believe it is a little too old to use in a World Geography or World Cultures class as the setting was over 70 years ago.
Lost Names Review - Phil Bohn
Phil Bohn, Freshman English at Central Catholic High School
Lost Names, Richard Kim’s seminal work diagramming the experience of Japan-occupied Korea, has managed to capture the experience of growing up while under harsh, inhumane conditions. The story follows a young boy who grows up during the Japanese occupation and has to deal with the reality that his identity, culture, and heritage are being stripped away. The story is told in a series of vignettes, skipping through time as we watch and experience this young boy growing up and forming his own opinions to try and understand and make peace with the world around him. The coming of age story is a common one among high school literature and is one that can be imminently relatable to students of that age. Central Catholic is an all-male school, so stories about young men, which are plentiful, will be easy for them to understand, process, and relate to. In the grand scheme of things, I think young women will be able to relate to this story of youth in duress as well as any young man would.
As far as appropriate age groups for this book, my pick would be middle school (probably around 8th grade) to younger high school (probably safe in the freshman to sophomore range). This would be the age range that would allow them to connect with the younger protagonist in the story. One of the major points that drew me to the use of Lost Names in class would be its connection to another major work that is read at Central as part of the Freshman Summer Reading curriculum (and possibly at many other schools), To Kill A Mockingbird. I think that these two works can easily be taught together due to their subject matter and main characters. Both essentially deal with the loss of innocence and have a young kid experiencing and dealing with mature issues. In TKAM, Scout deals with racism, prejudice, and the very real consequences it creates. Through the eyes of a child, we see how ridiculous these prejudices are as she struggles to understand why anyone would ignore evidence to condemn Tom Robinson solely because of the color of skin. In Lost Names, we see a young boy struggle with another kind of prejudice while we are seeing through the eyes of the subjugated instead of the other way around. Major issues of cultural and self identification are brought to light, as well as the importance and sanctity of pride in one’s own background and heritage. Through this unique perspective, we can appreciate that no culture deserves to be drowned out or eradicated. Use of Lost Names could also be a good way to read something new and draw connections to the summer reading assignment that students tire of very quickly after starting the new year. It is a good read, an important message, and a relatable story that can highlight an important, relevant issue for younger readers.
Posted by Peggy Morycz
I am the Director/Teacher of students ages 2 to 5 in a multicultural preschool program, Beginnings, at Calvary Episcopal Church. I am also one of a team of teachers in an English as a Second Language Class for adults at the church, many of whom are parents of the children in our preschool. A large percentage of students in both settings are from East Asia.
Lost Names, Scenes from a Korean Boyhood, by Richard Kim, is a novel about the life of a young boy and his family in Korea during the time of the Japanese Occupation (1932-1945). It is framed as a series of chapters. In each chapter, the boy, as narrator, describes an encounter he and/or his family members had with the Japanese. Writing in first person, the boy describes each event, but also provides information about his family and his community and his own interpretation of what is happening. As the boy grows in age and maturity, his observations and understanding of what is happening around him increases and more detail is revealed.
This book really engages the reader in the story. Through the boy, the author vividly describes everyday life in the small rural town under the occupation. Although the book is not long, the characterizations of his parents, his classmates, his teachers and the soldiers are well drawn.
I enjoyed reading the book. I agree that it would be suitable for secondary students. It would also be useful in providing the teachers of students from Korea with background knowledge and insight into some of the history of the relationship between Korea and Japan. Because of my own limited knowledge of this period and the nature of the material, I would not see this as an appropriate book for discussion in our English as a Second Language class.
Review of Lost Names by Sarah Logan
Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood by Richard E. Kim was an enlightening read. The narrator is an adult who grew up during the Japanese occupation in South Korea, and he retells his childhood during this time period. This book is somewhat autobiographical, though the author encourages readers to interpret it how they wish.
Personally, I enjoyed the book. I found myself sympathetic to the characters, particularly the young boy. I found this to be an easy read and very accessible, possibly because it is told from the point of view of a young boy.
I teach 9th and 10th grade English, and I believe my students could read and enjoy this novel. It is an easy read, though some background knowledge about the historical time period would definitely be helpful in comprehension. This would be a great novel to use to tie in History and ELA, as well as developing some cultural knowledge.
Excellent Historical Narrative
I currently teach this book to a 12-grade World literature course, and I find it to be an effective teaching tool within the classroom.
Historically, it pairs well and accurately with primary source documents and other documentaries. Each chapter goes through a different scene from a Korean boyhood and that scene can be linked with a number of different works. For example, if you take a look at the curriculum plan I've also attached to the EAGLE website, you will see a number of resources. For example, in the chapter "Crossing" The narrator's father is described as a rebel against the imperial Japanese, and there are a number of documents supporting the existence and success of rebels like him.
As a narrative, it is easy to follow and excellent read mostly because it is written from the perspective of a child. Through this perspective, it is easy to grasp on themes such as 'loss of innocence' - for both the narrator and the Korean nation. Each chapter is an individual, so the students have an easy time following the text and discussing it in smaller 'chunks.' I've grown to prefer novels that are organized in this fashion because the students do not feel overwhelmed by the text, characters, plot.
The book offers an excellent addition to a World War II unit or one on imperialism. Quite often this side of the Second World War is ignored and Richard Kim's narrative offers both emotional voice, as well as historical.
This book provides historical perspective on what it was like to be Korean in Japanese controlled territory during WWII. The author takes the reader through his life as his family struggles to survive through political strife. The author's father, a political dissident, is jailed several times for upholding his Korean culture and his Christian beliefs. In the Korean community he is hailed as a hero and highly respected.
The story opens with the boy as an infant in his mother's arms while his parents flee to Manchuria to teach in a missionary-run school. After several years, they decide to return to Korea to help in the family apple orchard and with the farming. The remaining chapters of the book are focused on his life in Korea during the Japanese occupation.
The author connects the historical events with his life in an appropriate manner so the reader can grasp a better understanding. His strong will and determination provide him a status in his class as class leader and respected by his fellow students. Just as his father, his fellow classmates look to him for answers as the Korean community looks to his father for leadership and answers.
One of the most moving chapters in the book is when they must go the the police station to register under their new Japanese names. All the students who had not registered their new names were asked to leave school and return as soon as they were registered. The father takes his son to the police station to register his father proudly announces the new family name as "Iwamoto" meaning foundation rock. His father used the reference from the Bible "upon this rock I will build my church..." The new name is another indicator of the strength of his father that will be passed on to his son as the reader soon learns.
Throughout the oppression, Korean was forbidden to be spoken in schools or public, The Thought Police arrested and beat dissenters, the school children were mandated to bow at the shrine of the emperor, they were required to gather all the rubber balls in the village because of a shortage of rubber, all Korean magazines and newspapers were banned, and the farmers were required to sell their rice to the Japanese forcing many of them to grow just enough to sustain their families.
This book is appropriate for any student studying U.S. history from middle school to high school. It is important for students to learn about both sides of the story including the mind-set of the Japanese and their propaganda which become important in the struggle for the Koreans to survive under Japanese oppression.