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Shining a light on Korean sorrow in Japan

by Michael Hoffman

INTO THE LIGHT: An Anthology of Literature by Koreans in Japan. Edited by Melissa L. Wender. University of Hawai’i Press, 2011, 226 pp. $22 (paper)

The eight stories in this anthology span nearly 60 years, from 1939, when Korea was a resentful and mutinous Japanese colony, to 1997, when South Korea was a thriving democracy and young people there and in Japan were more apt to be united by their involvement in each other’s pop culture than divided by ethnic and political hatreds.

Interestingly enough, peace and prosperity seem to have solved little. The passions of the last story are as violent and despairing as those of the first — in a sense more so. At least in the early stories the characters could look forward to a future when peace and prosperity might set things right.

Japan’s colonization of Korea in 1910 triggered an influx of Korean farmers, laborers and students, ancestors of a resident Korean community whose uncertain status and identity crises over the generations are the book’s unifying theme.

The stammering protagonist of “Frozen Mouth” (1966) by Kim Hak-yong (born in Japan in 1938) symbolizes a sense of blockage widely shared: “I simply cannot express my thoughts freely. . . I battle my stammer in the same way that Koreans battle oppression and campaign for true independence and nonviolent unification.”

In “Into the Light” (1939), the story from which the anthology takes its half-ironic title, the symbolic issue is names. An ethnic Korean teacher changes his surname Nam to its Japanese equivalent, Minami. No, he explains to a fellow Korean who bitterly upbraids him, he is not hiding: “I just wanted to get along well with the children . . . If those children knew I was Korean, I’m afraid their feelings for me would change from affection to something more like morbid curiosity.”

It’s a point, but an unruly half-Korean urchin who hates the Korean blood in his veins and goes around shouting “Stupid Korean!” at anyone, Korean or not, weaker than himself, convinces Mr. Nam-Minami that there are larger matters at stake. The story ends triumphantly — hence the title — with a touching man-and-boy friendship and Minami reverting to Nam. It is the only happy ending in this bleakly pessimistic volume — the only light that isn’t a lurid glow.

The story’s author, Kim Sa-ryang (born in Pyongyang in 1914), harbored, in common with other authors included here, tragically divided and irreconcilable feelings toward imperial Japan. As a Korean patriot and independence activist he should have hated it, and yet he found its culture and language irresistibly appealing. (All the stories in this book were written originally in Japanese, with, at most, a sprinkling of Korean expressions.)

The conflict is treated most overtly in “Foreign Husband” (1958) by Chang Hyok-chu (aka Minoru Noguchi, 1905-1997). Chang, Korea-born, came to Japan as a young student. His writer-protagonist fled to Tokyo from a lover’s enraged husband back home. There he met Keiko. His love for her “overwhelmed the love I felt for my people.”

Partly for her sake, partly on the advice of a sympathetic literary critic who warns him his writing will deteriorate if he persists in being “exotic” — that is, self-consciously Korean — he resolves to become Japanese. He will deepen his mastery of the Japanese language, acquire Japanese citizenship, brave abuse for being a “traitor” to his people, brave the Japanese police who pursue him as an anarchist, and so on.

He’s a dogged character, but the road he’s chosen proves impossible. His relationship with Keiko soon sours. Trivial spats turn racial and ignite. Her weapon is humiliation, his is violence. Peace is fleeting, truces soon broken. Finally, “with cold eyes, I watched my wife and children leave” — youth and country both gone.

Though most of the authors represented here are recipients of prestigious Japanese literary prizes, the stories are of very uneven quality. Least rewarding are those whose violence seems merely gratuitous.

In the best of them, “In the Shadow of Mount Fuji” (1951), author Kim Tal-su (Korea-born, Japan-raised, 1919-1997) traces the delicate relationship between ethnic Koreans and Japan’s downtrodden burakumin class of untouchables. Shared discrimination should unite them. Sometimes it does, and yet when a family of burakumin learns that the visitors brought home by their son are Korean, their palpable discomfort bodes ill for the prospects of a future human brotherhood.

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (VBW, 2010)