Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood
Though I have never studied Korean history, I learned much about it from my parents and from the Korean media. In addition, my parents and I have watched many Korean mini-series type shows that dealt with Korean history and prominent Koreans. Out of all the historical literature and media I have been exposed to, none of them shows the emotional and mental effects of the Japanese occupation on Koreans as this book does.
The book deals with the life of a wealthy Korean boy, whose father is a scholar and a political threat to the Japanese. It begins from when he was an infant as his parents are being moved to Manchuria. It displays the abusive and genocidal intent of the Japanese throughout the child’s life, teaching Japanese, banning Korean printing and eventually re-registering every Korean with a Japanese name. It concludes with the end of the war and the Korean villagers retaking their town from the Japanese.
I, not knowing much about the Japanese occupation of Korea and what had happened, immediately assumed that Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood referred to the mass killing and abuse the Koreans had suffered under the Japanese. At first, it seemed to touch upon that. In the beginning, the parents are moved to Manchuria in a train filled with sick, starving Koreans. Once in a while, the train stops at a station and the Japanese “Thought Police” are taking men away and killing them. The narrator’s father is taken away and severely beaten because of his participation in previous Korean liberation attempts and spreading of anti-Japanese ideas. The mother waits for him, standing outside in the cold winter weather; “She feels neither despair nor sorrow, but outrage of a wounded soul. ‘ Vengeance is mine.’ ‘Lord,’ she prays, ‘free us from them and free us from this nightmare.’” The father eventually returns, beaten and trembling; they continue their journey mentally and emotionally distraught.
As the story develops, it turns its focus toward the narrator and what he encounters in school and in his village. The saddest part of the book was when every Korean person in the village had to re-register their names. The father says to the narrator, “Remember this day, remember the faces and what went on here.” The narrator then goes on to describe all the people waiting on line in front of the village police station in the cold winter weather.
I didn’t fully realize the significance of this until the father finally said to his narrator, “I am ashamed to look at you.” I realized that this finalized the conversion of every Korean into Japanese. They’ve censored the literature, banned their language, and taught the children only about the Japanese “way”. The last element needed to totally change them is by changing their names.
The father’s generation of people valued survival so much that they didn’t realize what was going on and what had happened to them; they’ve lost any pride, respect, and will for themselves. The narrator’s family realizes this and cries in front of the mass graves the Japanese have made of the many Koreans who have perished. They weep and beg for forgiveness, and denounce themselves for the shame they’ve caused.
They were demoralized to the point where they thought survival was an accomplishment. The only thing that was important to them was to live long enough to see the Japanese Empire fall. They didn’t have the morale to rally and try to fight back.
The book clearly depicted the horrendous effects of the Japanese Occupation in Korean and its demoralizing effects. To lose one’s name and culture to another is even worse than being killed. People who think differently have no shame and honor; Koreans at that time lived for the sake of living. They were like dead walking souls waiting for life to be brought by the Western nations; and this book displayed it so well.