White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht



Hana is sixteen and living on Jeju, an island off the coast of the Korean Peninsula in the south, which is under Japanese occupation. Hana is a haenyeo – a woman of the sea – and spends her days diving with her mother for food to eat and to sell at the market. Her little sister Emiko, just nine years old, remains on the beach protecting their catch.

From the day Emiko was born Hana loved her baby sister and vowed to always be her protector.

“I will keep her safe, I promise” she tells her mother.

So when Hana sees a Japanese soldier walking along the beach, knowing he poses a threat to her little sister, she lures him away to spare Emiko and is subsequently snatched from her family and forced into a harrowing life of sexual slavery, her innocence plundered .

She has never left the island before. The realisation that she is being taken to another country terrifies her, and her feet freeze, refusing to take another step

The story is told by both Hana and Emi but during different periods of time. Hana’s narrative covers her captivity during 1943 and Emi’s is a reflective account, told in 2011, of the tragic events that shaped her life.

Hana suffers terrible abuse along with other young women who are kept as ‘comfort women’ for the Japanese soldiers during the second World War. When she first arrives at the brothel she is uncertain of her fate but discovers it all too soon as she waits in her room.

The door swings open and she sees soldiers lining up for the new Sakura. Hana later learns that a new girl’s arrival spreads like wildfire through the camp, and all the soldiers show up early, racing to be the first to try her out

It is impossible not to be moved by Hana’s pain as she tells of being repeatedly raped, without any empathy from her abusers, knowing this was reality to so many young girls during that time, ripped from their homes, separated from their families and used without any concern for their well-being.

“10 hours a day, 6 days a week she ‘services soldiers’…raped by 20 men a day

Emi did not suffer the same fate but is beleaguered by pain and guilt from the horror of separation from her beloved sister and for the torment so many had to endure during that time. As she sits on a plane to Seoul, visiting her children, the agonies of the past are too distressing to remember.

Emi could not stop her mind imagining what lay beneath the tarmac, buried for too many years. Who, not what. There were many faces looking up from the Earth as she flew overhead. Emi doesn’t want to remember them. She pushes their vacant stares away allowing the sounds of the city to distract her”

Although Emi escaped the horrors her sister was subjected to she still bears the scars of an unhappy life. Grief and sadness is still apparent over sixty years after the war. Life has continued but the pain remains, ready to be triggered at any time.

“Many had survived the second World War only to die in the Korean War. But, if like Emi, they had managed to live through both, they forever after carried a burden of helplessness and overwhelming regret

The story of the comfort women is a piece of history that the Japanese Government refused to acknowledge until 1993 and one that, still today, many know little of. Bracht does an excellent job of bringing the plight of these women into our thoughts. It is estimated that anything between 50,000 and 200,000 women were abused in this way.

The language is honest and often quite brutal as we learn the extent of abuse the comfort women had to endure. Women have always suffered at the hands of soldiers, who somehow become dehumanised by the very nature of war causing them to do despicable things to women. It is a story that is all too familiar and still prevalent around the world today.

However, it is the cold and calculating way the Japanese military organised the comfort women that makes it all the more shocking. Rape in war is often opportunistic but for a government to sanction the abduction of young girls to service the soldiers as they fought for their country is abhorrent and Bracht does not attempt to protect the reader from these harsh realities.

Although White Chrysanthemum is a book filled with heart-rending and tragic events Bracht has used an array of complex characters to write a gripping story. Hana’s strength during her ordeal is inspiring, while even the soldier who abducts her at the beach and is the first to abuse her – Morimoto – has his own sad tale. The kindness of Keiko, an older woman at the brothel who helps Hana through the ordeal, shows that even in such dire circumstances there is room to provide sympathy and support to others in greater need.

Mary Lynn Bracht has succeeded in telling a disturbing part of little known history in a compelling and entertaining story. As well as the many fascinating details in the book about the comfort women and the occupation of Korea, the Author’s Note provides further information which is of great interest, followed by a timeline of events beginning in 1905 when “Korea becomes protectorate of Japan, ending the Korean empire” to 2015 when the “Japanese and South Korean governments announce a ‘landmark agreement’ on the ‘comfort women’ issue

A superb book which I highly recommend reading.

You can follow Mary Lynn Bracht on Twitter: @marylynnbracht