by Mary Lynn Bracht
White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht
Hana knows nothing but Japanese occupation. The ancient fishing ritual plans her life on the small island of Jeju, she is a haenyeo, a sea woman. Since 1910 it has been a second-class citizen in her own country, with second-class rights, but she is proud to be a Korean girl with very ancient roots.
Hana has a sister, Emi, and parents who bring her lots of happiness. Her family lives on the southern coast of the island, in front of a small bay where women dive every day to fish. Life is not easy, they live with the specter of the Japanese who raid their villages and kidnap young boys for mandatory leverage and girls to send them to Chinese brothels.
The small community inhabitants are very afraid, unarmed to the Japanese soldiers’ arrogance; no one is able to guarantee the protection of their loved ones. One day, the worst omens come true: a Japanese soldier has kidnapped Hana while she was trying to hide her sister. Since then her life will change forever: she becomes a comforting woman, a field prostitute for the imperial army.
Transferred to a brothel in the distant Manchuria it begins a long ordeal of violence, rapes and abuses. Morimoto, the soldier who had taken Hana from her home, has repeatedly raped her in a perverse game of hate and love and for Hana there is nothing left but remember her memories.
Almost seventy years have passed and Emi, Hana’s sister, has not given up yet, she has looked for, with the only force of desperation, her sister among the many participants at the Wednesday demonstrations, held in Seoul, since 1992, in front of the Japanese embassy. Even today, the Japanese government does not admit war crimes committed against thousands of women during the Second World War.
Emi’s life has not been simple, guilt has persecuted her for most of her life, her shame has deep roots and has become a part of her. Shame because she survived two wars, because she never asked for justice and because she has continued to live without ever really understand the purpose of her life. She feels half-hearted and not at peace with herself, she misses her sister, and even though for a long period of her life she has denied her existence, now is time for peace and forgiveness.
She suffered too for this war, forced to a combined marriage without love, she has lived an unhappy life and with an atrocious suspicion towards her husband.
During one of these events, the thousandth, is inaugurated a statue entitled “The statue of Peace”, placed in front of the Japanese embassy in protest. Emi recognizes, in the delicate features of the young woman’s face, the face of her sister Hana, the expression is of profound understanding, pain and loss, forgiveness and patience. The expression of an infinite and exhausted wait. Destiny has given Emi a second chance to see finally her sister again.
Hana and Emi, two parallel stories that tell two different aspects of the Japanese war and occupation. Hana suffered the physical pain and abuse of young women kidnapped and destined to brothels. An unimaginable suffering, that reappears every time there is a conflict in progress.
While Emi was manipulated she suffered the loneliness after the Second World War, she is the only survivor of a happy family, only the strength of memories and love for her two children allowed her to move on.
Japan’s denial of this crime has focused more attention on a drama that has involved, estimated at around two hundred thousand women. Many of these women after the war hid their drama and could not tell their story for retaliation fear and for fear of being called up as prostitutes, they were forced to suffer in silence.
Only since 1991, when Kim Hak-sun decided to tell the story of her life with a big trial of courage, many others followed his example.
The author has dedicated this book to all those women in the world who have suffered and who still suffer because of the war. A perfect synthesis to describe this story, strong, incisive, suggestive and delicate at the same time. Hana, a young and courageous woman, has never lost herself, she has always found the way back to her family. The long line of men, the beatings, the medical examinations, the hunger, the escape, are confused with the soft light of dreams and with the sweetness of the hands of those who helped her get up.
A brave, lyrical book that moved me, I fell this story, every beat of it as you feel your heart beating. The emotions are very intense, the words are not enough to understand a human drama of this magnitude, yet this talented author has been able to romance two lives, that of two sisters very close to each other, a bond that History has not been able to dissolve. Historical research has given life to an important book that is going to be read by the new generations.
I congratulate the Longanesi for having published this unique and thick story in Italy, and a special thank you to the author Mary Lynn Bracht.
Mary Lynn Bracht faces one of the worst shames of the Second World War, the genocide of “comfort women”: White Chrysanthemum tells the story of women abducted by the Japanese army and forced to work in homes reserved for the Japanese Empire army. Great history and personal story are intertwined in this debut novel whose main character, Hana, becomes the symbol of the over 200,000 “comfort women” of the Second World War, expressing emotions and fears and telling the socio-political implications reached up to the present days.
It is 1943 when the life of Hana, a young Korean pearl fisherwoman, is devastated: in an attempt to hide her younger sister Emiko from a Japanese soldier, Hana is captured, deported to Manchuria and forced to work in a brothel. Sixty-eight years later, Emiko is in Seoul looking for her sister and take part in the events that, every Wednesday, demand justice for the “comfort women” in front of Japanese embassy. The woman wants to discover the truth about what happened in 1943, a fact that for years has forced her to feel guilty.
The story of the Korean women forced by the Japanese army to the fate of “comfort women” has been one of the most serious reasons of friction between the two Asian powers. The existence of “comfort women” was admitted by the Japanese government in 1993 and only in 2015 was officially defined a war crime and the state apologized for it and established a fund for survivors.
MARY LYNN BRACHT lives in London, where she attended a master’s degree in creative writing. She grew up in America, in the South Korean community, developing a bond with her country of origin that made it stronger in 2002, with a visit to her mother’s childhood village. During this trip, for the first time, she learned about “comfort women” captured for the brothels of the Japanese army. White Chrysanthemum is hers first novel.