The Japan Men

Teachers tell wonderful stories; perhaps because we’re experts in reading aloud and explaining.  Big city teachers have more eclectic subject sources than other educators: In New York, it is not unusual for an educator to be placed in a neighborhood where anything from Urdu to Ebonics is spoken.  Along with picking up a few phrases; we soak up cultural schema as well.

The cruel and violent history of Japan and Korea was unknown to me as I grew up in Brooklyn.  I may have worn a USA issued dog tag during the Korean War and learned to duck and cover in case of nuclear attack at school. (Years later we learned that hiding under our desks would not stop a bomb from blowing us to bits), but the historical accounts of the land of the morning calm and the land of the rising sun were conveniently left out of our curriculum.

When I began teaching in North-East Queens, my students were an olio of mostly European and African-Americans with a dash of Hispanics and a pinch of Middle-Easterners.  I adored them when they were sweet and worked harder for them when they were horrible.  (The Department of Education uses euphemistic terms, but really—sometimes children are horrible.)

It was a year or two before my school’s student population dynamics reflected its Chinese/Korean neighborhood, when among my usual student roster, were two little girls; Bom and Haruko.  I’d like to take a moment to point out that on the continent of Asia, like the continents of Africa, Europe and even North America, Asians identify with their nationalities.  Koreans are keenly aware they are not Chinese, just as Italians aren’t Scots nor Angolans, Zimbabweans.  Yet, as hyphenated Americans, we tend to protect ourselves with circles of friends who look like us (even when they don’t sound like us.)

This was probably why Korean Bom and Japanese Haruko, in fledgling English bonded quickly.  They sat next to each other, fetched their lunches from the coat closet arm in arm and returned from recess holding hands.  By the time Indian summer had scorched the sidewalks for the last time, they were inseparable. 

I designed Reporter Acorn; an essay project to teach organizing thoughts, proofing final drafts and all the narrative essay functions in between.  The students would interview grown-up relatives to learn about their roots.  Sometimes, family secrets were read aloud in class, but usually they were timeless tales of becoming American. 

The sharing day arrived and one by one, my students presented their biographies.  It was Bom’s turn.  With an encouraging nod from Haruko, she walked to the front of the room, where in her small voice, she began, “I interviewed my helmonim (grandma) who lives with us.  She told me about the Japan men who came to Korea when she was little.”

I had read enough history tomes to know about Comfort Women.  My stomach tightened like a tourniquet as I pictured what would surely be weeklong reprimands from my principal over the tens of notes from the PTA about the inappropriate subject matter being explored in my classroom.  But, the moment after I saw my career in the toilet, my heart broke for Haruko.  For the centuries of Japan’s occupation in Korea, this little girl was being singled out as a barbarian—and by her best friend. 

I didn’t stop Bom’s reading.  She (or her helmonim) chose their words carefully even while reporting the loss of their family’s worldly goods including the family name, the conscription of her younger male relatives and the disappearance of a young aunt.  All through her report she referred to the antagonists of her family’s holocaust as the Japan Men.  Each time she used the term, I scrutinized Haruko’s expression.  She kept her shy smile.  Other girls were listening, some were daydreaming.  Only the boys seemed wrapped up in Bom's story of war and loss. 

I was sure, the rift between the girls was imminent and kept them on my radar for the rest of the morning.  When the bell rang for lunch, they fetched their lunches from the coat closet arm in arm and returned from recess holding hands.  They remained friends through middle school. Even as our school’s Korean population grew, Bom stayed true to her Japanese friend.  

Of late, the media’s reports of present day America is grim, but I believe it is still the only place where the children of old and constant enemies can grow up as friends.


Teacher Adrienne’s pop quiz:

What is the odd coincidence in the names Bom and Haruko?

Why did I title the project, Reporter Acorn?

What does the term Comfort Women refer to?

Post your answer on Facebook—I’ll send you an Alice Again treat!