Linda Sue Park

When My Name Was Keoko

  • This summary of When My Name Was Keoko includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

When My Name Was Keoko Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park.

Taking place in a Korea in strife during World War II, Asian-American author Linda Sue Park’s young adult novel When My Name Was Keoko (2002) involves Japan’s insurgency and occupation of Korea, and its subsequent efforts, both explicit and subtle, to undermine and erase Korean culture. The story is narrated by two Korean siblings Sun-hee and Tae-yul as they observe, grasping for identities in a country controlled by an entity which would gladly see their Korean identities erased. Central to their narrative is the reclamation of one’s namesake and other levels of identity spanning the familial, national, and existential.

The novel begins at an indefinite time in the 1940s. Brother and sister Tae-yul and Sun-hee learn that the Japanese government will enforce a mandatory policy stating all Korean people must adopt and use Japanese names. In an attempt to subvert the law, their family changes their last name to Kaneyama, which translates to the Korean word “geumsan,” the name of a South Korean county. Likewise, the “Kaneyamas” minimize the law’s impact on their first names, changing them to the Japanese words for two randomly selected letters of the alphabet. Sun-hee and Tae-yul thereafter became known as Kaneyama Keoko and Kaneyama Nobuo. The story that follows moves back and forth between Keoko’s (Sun-hee’s) life in school, where she makes a friend named Tomo and develops an interest in a Japanese writing style called kanji, and Nobuo (Tae-yul) who becomes interested in mechanical engineering.

Partially because Japan’s onslaught on the country has made food hard to find, the Kaneyama family is anxious and tense, which often leads to fights. Once the United States joins the war in opposition to Japan, Tae-yul begins to catch sights of planes, inspiring him to one day become a pilot. Tae-yul and Sun-hee lead relatively boring lives under the oppressive Japanese occupation. They hear little about the rest of the world apart from occasional announcements issued by the block leader of their residential area. When the announcements occur, it is mandatory for the residents to congregate in the block and listen in.

One evening, Sun-hee’s uncle asks her to get his dinner because he is overwhelmed with work in his printing shop. She runs into her school friend Tomo, who gives her a cryptic message that she interprets as a tip that her uncle is in grave danger. She relays the warning to her uncle, who absconds from the shop; later, Tae-yul reveals that their uncle had been surreptitiously printing resistance propaganda. Sun-hee learns, in addition, that the government has been tracking the family’s resistance, knowing that her uncle was affiliated. The Japanese government plans to seize their printing press and give it to the military, rendering her uncle’s attempt to subvert the regime largely ineffectual.

The Kaneyama siblings begin to learn about kamikaze missions. Tae-yul is enamored by these suicide stories. The police soon speak to him, hoping that he will help them set up a conference with his uncle. Knowing that if he accepts, it will lead to his uncle’s detainment, he struggles to decide whether to save himself or his uncle. To escape the catch-22, he joins the Imperial Japanese Army, gaining the freedom to leave Korea without answering the police.

Tae-yul enlists in military training, where he hears two Japanese cadets making fun of the lack of Koreans volunteering for military missions, insinuating that they are cowards and weaklings. Tae-yul impulsively tries to prove Koreans’ bravery by volunteering himself. He then discovers that he has inadvertently signed up for a kamikaze mission. He makes the most of his decision, covertly planning for an escape from the suicide plot. When the day comes, in a stroke of luck, the mission is canceled due to a severe storm. When Tae-yul and his compatriots return to the army base, they are arrested by resistance soldiers, as Japan begins to lose the war.

The novel ends a few months after the end of Tae-yul’s service. The block leaders inform the Kaneyamas’ community that the United States has defeated Japan. Tae-yul goes home and justifies his military service to his family, revealing that he never intended to fight for Japan, but rather planned to kill a fellow kamikaze pilot in his final moments, had they been deployed. Sun-hee learns the Korean alphabet and begins to teach it to her brother. When My Name Was Keoko ends with the suggestion that cultural revival is possible despite political powers’ efforts to perform its systematic erasure. Memory, to Park, is an imperishable device for cultural restoration.