Jackie J. Kim and Sonia Ryang, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004

Reviewed by Lisa S. Chaudhari

Author Jackie Kim in Hidden Treasures: Lives of First-Generation Korean Women in Japan presents a rare perspective on the lives Korean women who have lived in Japan from the early twentieth century to recent times. The author uses in-depth interviews as her principal method to determine the life histories of ten Korean women who were at least seventy-nine years old at the time of their interview (between 1994 and 2000). The author essentially presents the interviews to expose the similarities and differences of marginal community members, contextualize the daily lives of Korean women in a historical timeframe, and allow the readers to draw their own interpretations of these women’s life stories. The direct voices of these women provides a rare glimpse that helps us understand the position of these immigrants, living and adjusting a foreign society that did not welcome them, though historically Japan sought Koreans as a source of labor. This book reveals how Korean immigrant women, who, in general, are greatly repressed in their freedom of movement, education, activities and speech in and out of the home at any age, dealt with being a women in a Korean community that was itself greatly repressed by Japan at the time. This book (in English) provides a rare insight into these Korean women’s lives through largely uncensored words and adds to the available literature on gender perspectives and immigrant lives in the Korean diaspora.

The book’s preface, written by Jackie Kim, is scanty, barely describing the purpose of the book, and cursorily introducing the framework of the interviews that comprise the bulk of the book. This is the only section where the reader can overtly read the author’s driving interests and topics as she refers to immigrant women’s strategies, suffering, isolation, solidarity, clashing traditions, persistence and cultural challenges (ix). The introduction by researcher Sonia Ryang provides a historical and political context so that we may better understand what was happening in Korea and Japan from the early to late twentieth century. Dr. Ryang also includes a section on the particular Korean community in Japan of which the interviewees consistently speak. Without this introduction, readers unfamiliar with this period in Asian history would not be able to fully benefit from the lives that are revealed in the book. The ten life histories are presented in ten different chapters that are divided into four parts. In each chapter, the author introduces the interviewee and the interview setting. The remainder of the chapter is subdivided by short headings (for example: family, children, work), followed by direct portions of the interviews as chosen by the author.

Each of the four parts is made up of two to three chapters or two to three of the women’s stories. Part one, “To Join My Husband”, includes three chapters that contrast the lives of three women with very different backgrounds. The first woman now spends all her time studying because previously her family never had resources available for her education. While raising her family, this woman insisted that her children receive a formal education while she concentrated on her responsibilities. This first chapter introduces many common themes that persist throughout the book. For example, this woman explains her belief that Japan offered more material opportunities for a better lifestyle than did Korea. She also speaks of taking on any and all types of occupations to meet her family’s needs. Her enterprising spirit, disillusionment and generosity with others are repeated numerous times. Another common thread considers Japanese xenophobia. The rest of part one introduces a contrasting situation, a childhood in which another woman had the luxury and support of receiving a formal education, and yet rejected this rare opportunity. Other themes include unhappy marriages and relationships, heading the household by providing for children, caring for elders as tradition would require, and defying male authority.

Part two, “Journey of a New Bride”, consists of three interviews. The three chapters focus on the migration from Korea to Japan of three young women after their marriages. In addition, these chapters share in common the multiple levels of hardship that these women have undergone in their move from Korea to Japan as young women. This part explores how, despite the long list of duties women were already expected to accomplish, several worked tirelessly to pay of their husbands’ debts. One of the women in this section speaks of the limited prejudice she and her family felt living among Japanese, evidently a rare occurrence. Other themes introduced include the continual hardships of these women as they grow older, hunger, lack of hunger and generosity towards those in need, remarriage, and domestic violence. The last chapter introduces us to the attitude some Koreans had towards their Korean leaders, particularly General Kim-II, who worked to protect the interests and lives of Koreans everywhere. This chapter describes the death and destruction caused by the war in graphic detail, which not only introduces another level of lifelong psychological trauma, but also directly depicts the destruction that occurred during World War II.

Part three, “Solitary Sojourn”, includes the life histories of two women. One woman insists on living alone with her meager government assistance, despite attempts to make her move in with family. Throughout the book many of the women refer to themselves in deprecatory terms (such as dumb) yet each chapter reveals astounding levels of resilience, enterprising spirit, independence, and perseverance in order to survive, make ends meet, and raise their family despite their family backgrounds and the upheaval war created in all of these women’s lives. At their advanced age many of these women, as they reflect back upon their lives, speak of happiness and fulfillment in knowing they did everything possible to provide for their families.

Part four, “Growing Up in Japan”, is composed of the life stories of two women who went to Japan at the early ages of 12 and 13, with very contrasting stories. These women were brought up in very different circumstances. One was able to study until the graduate level in the United States and outwardly defied the traditional role by denouncing her father’s abusive habits and consciously deciding not to marry. The other woman discussed how she still continues to work in her old age, while living with her children’s family. She also points out the prejudice she faced as a Korean working among Japanese while at the same time trying to make her life meaningful.

This book is significant primarily because it introduces these women’s voices to the reader in the first person. Many of the Korean female narratives of the time focus on the ordeals and lives of Korean women who were “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers during World War II (Dolgolpol and Paranjape 1994; Hicks 1997, Howard 1995, Schellstede 2000, Tanaka 2000, Yoshimi 2000). Other publications speak more generally about the lives of Koreans in Japan (Ryang 1997, Ryang 2000, Weiner 1989). Though the reader might question any biases present in the author’s interviewing method, or in the manner in which she organized each woman’s story, the book offers a rare glimpse into the lives and self-interpretation these Korean immigrant women faced as doubly marginalized members of Korean society. The author could have added a valuable dimension to the book by including an overarching interpretation or analysis, and an even a longer introduction for the reader. However, the lack of the author’s more direct perspective enables one to make up his or her own conclusions. The eloquence of the interviewees as they describe their lives is also more vivid and poignant without the author’s commentary.

Lisa S Chaudhari is a third year graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Georgia. Her areas of focus are ethno-ecology, well-being and how these concepts and practices evolve as people migrate from rural to urban and urban to metropolitan destinations.

Dolgopol, Ustinia and Snehal Paranjape
1994 Comfort Women: an Unfinished Ordeal: Report of a Mission. Geneva, Switzerland: International Commission of Jurists.

Hicks, George
1997 The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War. New York: WW Norton and Company.

Keith Howard, ed.
1995 True stories of the Korean Comfort Women: Testimonies by the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and the Research Association on the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. Young Joo Lee, trans. New York: Castell.

Ryang, Sonia
1997 North Koreans in Japan: Language, Ideology, and Identity. Boulder: Westview Press.

Ryang, Sonia, ed.
2000 Koreans in Japan: Critical Voices from the Margin. New York: Routledge.

Schellstede, Sangmie Choi, ed.
2000 Comfort Women Speak: Testimony by Sex Slaves of the Japanese Military. New York: Holmes and Meier.

Tanaka, Toshiyuki
2000 Japan’s Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution during World War II and the US Occupation. New York: Routledge.

Weiner, Michael
1989 The Origins of the Korean Community in Japan, 1910-1923. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International.

Yoshimi, Yoshiaki
2000 Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military during WW II. Suzanne O’Brien, trans. New York: Colombia University Press.

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