Mary Lynn Bracht, White Chrysanthemum, Chatto & Windus, 2018. 320 pgs.
In White Chrysanthemum, Mary Lynn Bracht tells the story of Emi and Hana, two Korean sisters who grow up on Jeju Island, just south of the Korean peninsula. The women in their family going back generations are divers who are able to support themselves and their families from the seafood they harvest and sell at the markets. Emi and Hana are to follow their mother and grandmother into the same profession.
But when World War II breaks out, their lives will change forever. In Korea—like all over Asia—girls and women are in particular danger when the Japanese army invades. While the girls are diving one day, a Japanese soldier demands that nine-year-old Emi go with him. Hana, sixteen years old, knows the fate that awaits her little sister. She makes the ultimate sacrifice and hides Hana while she offers herself to the soldier instead.
What happens to Hana is horrifying. It was very difficult for me to read and I’m a WWII history nut and have read about the Rape of Nanking and “comfort women” and the Holocaust. Yet Hana’s story is still so hard to read. There’s a particular line in the novel that stayed with me for the rest of the story and even now: All wars are crimes against the world’s women and girls. If you don’t understand that now, you will after reading this book.
Hana is brought to a building in Manchuria, which had been run by Russia and China and was occupied by the Japanese in the early 1930s, to become a “comfort woman” for Japanese soldiers. I hate the term “comfort women” because it softens what really happened. These girls and women were trafficked into sex slavery, and there was nothing comfortable about it whatsoever. It’s also a term that favours the men who abused these women. Bracht’s book shows that it’s time to take back that narrative and phrase it correctly. It was rape, over and over and over again.
But back to the story. Emi herself doesn’t fare very well even though she is saved from the Japanese. After WWII, her father is murdered just before the Korean War starts because he is viewed as a communist for no reason other than he isn’t originally from Jeju Island. At the age of 14, Emi is forced to marry a southern policeman to purify the south and to keep communist sympathisers out of Jeju. Emi has two children who are in their late 50s and early 60s when we meet them in the book. They know nothing of their mother’s past and have no idea they had an aunt.
Bracht is a beautiful writer and tells this story in alternating voices between Emi and Hana. She doesn’t sugar-coat the history of trafficking and rape during the war, or the repercussions that continue today. For instance, in 2015, Japan and South Korea came to an “agreement” where Japan would only pay retributions if a statue honouring the Korean women trafficked into slavery was removed from an area near the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Removing the statue was touted as a compromise so the Japanese could save face, which was so preposterous to Koreans, especially the women who suffered these horrible crimes. To keep the history from being erased completely, Koreas started replicating the statue and placing these new statues on public buses in South Korea, as if they were passengers along with everyone else riding the bus.
This history has certainly been erased in Japan as it’s not taught in history books, so we don’t know how many Korean women fell victim to sex slavery. Bracht writes that 50,000 to 200,000 women were trafficked into sex slavery, but nothing was said of this until the early 1990s when elderly women started speaking up. Many of these women never married because of the horrific trauma they suffered, trauma that never left them. Today there are less than 50 survivors still alive.
White Chrysanthemum is an important book and one that needs to be read by men and women. As Bracht says in her author’s note at the end, if we don’t learn about and recognise this history, we are bound to repeat it again as we have around the world since WWII. All wars are crimes against the world’s women and girls.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)