Small Beginnings: The Struggle for Identity in Lost Names and The Calligrapher’s Daughter


The essay adapted below I wrote for my Asian Literature class at Grove City College. I read both Lost Names by Richard E. Kim and The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim for that class. I found it amusing that this was the first time I had to use initials for first names for in-text citations in MLA, because they both happened to have the same last name. I enjoyed both of these books thoroughly and would recommend them wholeheartedly.

Warning: Spoilers Below!


Korea’s rich traditions and culture have been passed down through generations, shaped by the introduction of Confucianism and later Christianity. Bordering China and across the sea from Japan, Korea has been influenced by the flow of art, literature and philosophy between these two powerful countries. Korea’s auspicious location made it a principal target for subjugation by Japan during a period of military conquest stretching from 1909 until 1945. The country was forced under the yoke of Japanese rule, stripped of natural and human resources, and subjected to annexation and enforced “reform” aimed at the destruction of Korea’s national identity. In The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim and Lost Names by Richard E. Kim, the resulting search for identity, the rapidly changing gender roles, and the struggle between compromise and resistance underlie the development of the main characters. Najin from The Calligrapher’s Daughter and the boy narrator from Lost Names offer contrasting yet complementary perspectives of building one’s identity in a time when even names can be stolen, and each observance of tradition or step forward can be thought of as a “small beginning” (R. Kim 109).

Names are intimately connected to character and family pride in each story. Richard E. Kim’s omission of names in the text, with the exception of the Japanese surname Iwamoto, relates the tangible feelings of loss that permeate the experiences of the narrator’s generation. Their absence is notable throughout, and the narrator keeps returning to the incident of loss in his memory, with the recurrent fear that “I am going to lose my name; we are all going to lose our names…” (R. Kim 100). The repetition of this solemn refrain reinforces that names are an integral part of one’s identity, representative of the past, previously thought to be beyond the reach of political corruption. The older generations have established their identity by names that have been handed down over hundreds of years, and as a result, they are devastated by this recent change. Though the narrator’s father chooses a name meant to reflect his family’s Christian beliefs and moral character, conforming to the Japanese mandate is considered an affront to their ancestors and a humiliating breach of tradition. Iwamoto means “Foundation of Rock,” a biblical reference that suggests the family’s faith is strong enough to withstand the shifting global powers that buffet Korea, and provides hope that God’s fidelity will remain even if the family must revoke ancestral ties (R. Kim 106).

The disconnected feeling that the narrator has toward his ancestors emphasizes that the narrator’s generation cannot create their identity based on the past, and instead must make a name for themselves, re-establishing their identity in the aftermath of the Japanese occupation. The boy does not fully understand the significance of the new names, and wishes to harness his hatred and pain to bring change to Korea. The shame he feels is not because of the loss of names, but because he could not play a part in the liberation of Korea. He outlines his own hopes for his generation, asserting that they will be “stronger and more confident” since they are “beginning with our liberation and freedom,” acknowledging the break from the pattern of the past, while nonetheless emphasizing that “we are all in the making of history together” (R. Kim 186-187).

Though Najin and the boy narrator from Lost Names both come from privileged families, it is the boy who receives the greatest benefit from his position. Being the eldest son and heir of his family gives him authority over the female members of the family, including his mother. As a son, he is favored with the best food and is highly esteemed despite his youth. While Najin was sent to a school with a mild Korean teacher, the narrator of Lost Names is enrolled in a Japanese school with militaristic tendencies. While there, the narrator is forced to decide between upholding his Korean heritage and conforming to Japanese restrictions. Without practicing the traditions of his ancestors, there is a risk that they will fade from memory and not be passed to future generations; yet, lack of compliance may result in severe punishment. Even a violation as insignificant as singing a foreign song, results in a thorough beating. This experience provides him a way of evaluating the costs and benefits of intentional resistance he uses later on to affirm his identity as a Korean with the lowest possible risk to him and his family. His parents advise him to comply with the formalities of worship ceremonies from the emperor without feeling true reverence for Korea’s conqueror, but do not prevent him from appearing at the school production to honor the emperor. At that time, his critical condition shocks the audience and serves as a form of private protest that is too obscure to punish, but effective nonetheless. At the end, the narrator appears to have finally accepted both the Korean and Japanese influences on his identity as he takes advantage of his militaristic schooling to aid in liberating his town from the Japanese occupants.

Though in the previous novel Korean names are lost due to a Japanese mandate, in The Calligrapher’s Daughter the protagonist was never named as an act of resistance. Japan instigated social equalization of caste and other reforms aimed at women, which the scholar Han stands staunchly against. As a result, he will utilize every opportunity to speak out against the Japanese, even if it is at the cost of his children’s development. Consequently, Najin must cope with continuous insecurity that stems from her father’s refusal to name her. The novel revolves around her need to discover what she truly desires, and her attempts to make a name for herself, which proves difficult in a society that values women only in proportion to the reputation of their family line—particularly their paternal lineage. The title of the book identifies Najin by her father’s prestige, and the characters refer to her as “the daughter of the woman from Nah-jin” (E. Kim 4). Najin often reflects on the emptiness of her name, which has no meaning, without realizing the freedom that it gives her to make her own identity.

The protagonists are faced with the need to establish their cultural and personal identity, but overt expressions of individuality risks drawing the attention of the Japanese Thought police. As a woman, Najin also struggles with open prejudice within her community. The Confucian values within her society serve to restrict the role of women to the domestic sphere, and the traditionally patriarchal society results in girl children being less valued than boys, and women being treated as property. Yet Najin harnesses the change brought about by the occupation; she benefits from many of the reforms focused on appeasing the Korean public while slowly eroding their sense of identity as a nation distinct from mainland Japan. The establishment of schools for girls and the re-opening of a women’s college are a testament to the growing role of women, and Najin’s mother ensures that her daughter receives proper schooling. To persuade her husband, she emphasizes that education “can’t be harmful,” and that she will still be prepared for marriage (26). This shows that even the limited freedoms that woman have in occupied Korea primarily exist in order to hone their domestic skills and teach them proper conduct as daughters, wives, and mothers. Women are expected to follow the mantra of “decorum, quietude, acceptance,” and Najin is told to “obey your parents in all things” (E. Kim 32, 10). She accepts this as inevitable and respectable, while still associating education with independence and self-sustainability for women. Christianity also has a freeing effect on the women of Najin’s town, who “shocked” the community by worshipping in “the same building as the men,” even though they covered their faces (E. Kim 33). Najin’s personal struggle with Christianity deeply influences the development of her character.

The threat of the Japanese police remains a brutal force in Najin’s life, suppressing her ability to express her individual thoughts and opinions. Her mother warns her that “what one says is not only heard by mice in the night, but by birds in the day,” silencing her whenever she makes any comments that could be utilized to harm the family’s reputation or serve as an excuse for police intervention (E. Kim 31). She engages in subversive activities, associating herself with the cause of liberation like the boy narrator of Lost Names, and proving that women can make political statements as well, even if this is merely a “small beginning” (R. Kim 109). The fortitude of women under Japanese oppression become even more apparent as tensions rise, stories of female courage under torture reach the scholar Han, and Najin is finally subjected to prison herself due to letters she has received from her husband in America. It becomes increasingly clear that Korea’s longstanding beliefs about the roles of women have begun to change. Women have been given more control over their futures and the shaping of their own identity, separate from their class status and family reputation, and Najin must come to terms with her family responsibilities and her personal ambitions. At the end of the novel, Najin is in a state of agnosticism and is uncertain of her role, but the return of her husband provides hope that she will be able to establish her identity in the aftermath of the Japanese occupation.

Najin and the boy narrator of Lost Names were forced to accept their unique roles in occupied Korea, and were unable to simply rely on the example of previous generations for their sense of identity. Each found that they were distanced from their ancestors, the boy by his lost name, and Najin by the loss of her family home. Traditions were not sufficient for survival in their situations and in light of changing societal norms. Examining the founding of new identities through the eyes of a male and a female protagonist revealed the degree to which Korean culture and society has changed. Though the boy’s position was more advantageous and he will inherit his father’s wealth, Najin is able to enjoy more freedoms than women of previous generations. Their experiences have prepared them for the struggles Korea will undergo following the liberation, and they each will have the responsibility of passing their story, and family traditions old and new, to future generations.

Works Cited

  • Kim, Eugenia. The Calligrapher’s Daughter. Henry Holt and Company, 2009.
  • Kim, Richard E. Lost Names. 1988. University of California Press, 1998.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s