When My Name Was Keoko Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 59-page guide for “When My Name Was Keoko” by Linda Sue Park includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 32 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Resistance and Liberation Occurs Differently for Every Individual and Sacrifice and Struggle Deepens the Appreciation for Community.
When My Name Was Keoko (2002) is a young adult work of historical fiction by Linda Sue Park about the Japanese occupation of Korea during World War II. Many praise the novel for how it exposes this often overlooked topic in history, authentically portraying Korean life, culture, and perspective in the 1940s. Park wrote the narrative in alternating chapters from the first-person perspective voices of two Korean siblings: 10-year-old Sun-hee (aka Keoko) and 13-year-old Tae-yul (aka Nobuo). They live with their father (Abuji), mother (Omoni), and Uncle in a small town. The descriptive writing style gives the story the feeling of a personal diary.
Before Japan enters the war in 1942, Sun-hee and Tae-yul explain the ways in which Korean families must operate and survive during occupation—since Japan invaded Korea decades before the war. Students must speak Japanese, study Japanese, and neglect their Korean roots. It is illegal to speak of, display, or keep any symbol of Korean heritage, and punishable by jail or police beatings. To complicate matters, with the approach of the war, Korea’s situation becomes worse. The Japanese begin to enforce more unreasonable laws, including the name change of each resident. Each character must give up their Korean name and select a Japanese one. No one is happy, but they must follow the rules or face punishment. Sun-hee’s family chooses a name to secretly reflect their Korean pride (Kaneyama, which honors the gold hidden in Korea’s mountains).
Throughout the narrative, Abuji is calm and rational, refusing to resist the Japanese in obvious ways. But Uncle is more rebellious, vocally challenging the unfair laws and becoming involved in a secret Korean resistance as a printmaker to combat the Japanese oppressor. But his life remains in danger by his involvement in his Korean resistance newspaper, and the family grows worried. Meanwhile, as the story progresses, Sun-hee becomes studious and fearlessly confident—even as a young Korean girl whose role is traditionally in the kitchen. She admires her Uncle, and observes his changing attitude as Japanese tyranny takes a stronger hold. She is inquisitive, observant, and supportive, often calculating ways to help her family endure. Her older brother, Tae-yul, equally invests himself in his family’s well-being, but since he is a boy, he receives more permission to help his Uncle with small tasks. Both of these young characters show a deep admiration for Uncle, who teaches them about forbidden knowledge, such as how to draw the Korean flag.
When Sun-hee learns about a potentially dangerous situation from her Japanese school friend, she reacts instinctively by alerting her Uncle, knowing he might be at risk of severe punishment. Uncle is grateful, packs his belongings, and flees in secrecy, unable to explain why or where he is going. This act devastates the family, and it marks the beginning of many drastic changes they will all endure for years as Japan’s abuse of Koreans during the war escalates. Soon, the Japanese begin to patrol every neighborhood more closely and even invade homes for random searches. The fear and anxiety causes strain in the family, and every character’s sense of right or wrong and good or bad becomes warped. Tae-yul grows angry with his father’s passivity, and Sun-hee becomes despondent and blames herself for causing Uncle’s departure. However, there are small moments of community and trust, such as when Sun-hee and Omoni help Mrs. Ahn, their widowed neighbor, against soldiers during neighborhood searches.
In desperation, and with dwindling supplies and options, Tae-yul—a laborer and plane enthusiast who helped build an airstrip for the war—joins the Japanese Imperial Army to gain his family honor and extra supplies. By this point he is nearly 18, and sees his role in the family as a provider. Inspired by his Uncle’s courage, he thrives in training and dedicates himself to becoming a kamikaze pilot. He and Sun-hee develop a secret system of communication since the Japanese censors his letters. At first he seems to be doing very well and has a plan. But his destiny quickly changes, and it seems that his mission fails when soldiers report him dead. When the family receives the news, they are devastated. It is the climax in the story’s series of unfortunate events that ruin the Korean community’s ability to sustain joy or hope during this historical period.
The war ends in 1945 when the US drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese occupation of Korea also ends. Shockingly, Tae-yul arrives home from the war and explains how his mission failed but he had no way to contact his family since being jailed as a Japanese war prisoner. The story concludes by revealing that Abuji was secretly involved in Uncle’s printing press, and Tae-yul—though confused by and angry about his country’s plight—decides to re-open his Uncle’s shop.