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Writing about wrongs at home and abroad

Yang Sok Gil reached 'the ragged edge' as a Korean-Japanese before his talents paid off

by Eriko Arita

Yang Sok Gil is renowned for his novels describing, with remarkable humanity and humor, people’s wanton desires and the problems they cause, often from the viewpoint of minorities in Japan or elsewhere.

As a second-generation Korean resident of Japan, Yang was born in 1936 to parents who moved to Osaka from Jeju, an island off the south of the peninsula, in the 1920s.

As he makes clear in his latest novel, “Ashita no Kaze” (“Wind of Tomorrow”), he grew up as a member of an ethnic minority discriminated against by native Japanese. Also, during U.S. wartime air raids on Osaka, Yang and his mother and sister were lucky to survive.

After the war, Yang helped his mother in her business buying fruit and vegetables in the countryside, which he and his sister would sell on the black market in Osaka. During this time, when Yang was living a somewhat “colorful” life, he says the three of them had to fend for themselves because his father spent most of his time gambling and was only rarely around.

However, since being a high school student, Yang had been writing poems in Japanese, and afterward, while working as a shop clerk, he joined a circle of Korean writers in Osaka who published a poetry magazine. Before long, though, that circle was closed down by order of Chongryon (the [pro-Pyongyang] General Association of Korean Residents in Japan).

Next off, Yang started his own printing business in Osaka, but when that failed he became a cafe manager far to the north in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. That job, though, didn’t earn him nearly enough to pay off his large debts, so he moved again, to Tokyo, where he worked as a taxi driver from the early 1970s into the ’80s.

Based on that experience, he wrote his first novel, “Takushi Kyosokyoku” (“Taxi Crazy Rhapsody”), which was published in 1981, when he was 45. The book sold well from the start, and so Yang decided to become a full-time novelist. Then in 1993 the work was made into a film, titled “Tsuki wa Docchi ni Deteiru” (“All Under the Moon”), which won 53 awards in Japan.

The following year, he was back courting major awards again, with a novel titled “Yoru o Kakete” (“Through the Night”) about the tough world of Koreans in Osaka collecting and selling scrap metal from a former arms factory and their troubles with the police around 1960. That work was a finalist for 1994′s Naoki Prize, the most prestigious award for entertaining literature in Japanese.

Staying with the subject of Koreans in Japan, Yang finally struck it lucky awards-wise with “Chi to Hone” (“Blood and Bones”), a book based on the dramatic, shady world his father inhabited, which won the renowned Yamamoto Shugoro Prize in 1998. In 2004, the novel was made into a movie of the same name, with celebrity tough-guy actor Beat Takeshi in the main role.

But Yang’s novels aren’t all set close to home, and he spent time researching in Thailand for his 2004 novel about child prostitution there titled “Yami no Kodomotachi” (“Children of the Dark”). In 2008, that work was made into a controversial hit movie of the same name, with popular actress Aoi Miyazaki playing the heroine, a Japanese staffer at a Thai NGO rescuing sexually abused children.

As well, Yang had also been in New York researching prior to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 — an experience that resulted in his 2006 book “Nyu Yoku Chika Kyowakoku” (“New York Underground Republic”) about the chaos there during and after those events.

As busy as his schedule continues to be, on Nov. 24, 2010 — the day after North Korea bombarded the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong and killed four South Koreans — the 74-year-old novelist met The Japan Times at his house in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward.

What brought your parents to Japan?

My father was kind of a gangster and would hang around gambling dens in Korea and then Japan after he came here in his late 20s. My mother had been forced by her yang ban (upper-class) parents to marry a 10-year-old boy when she was 18. She didn’t like her husband and so she escaped to Japan.

What did she do when she got to Japan?

She worked at a cotton-spinning factory in Sakai, Osaka, for three years. Around that time, industries in the so-called Hanshin Industrial Belt were prospering and the factories there needed laborers. Most of the laborers were women from Okinawa or Korea.

How did she meet your father?

She fell in love with a Korean manager at the factory and got pregnant. But the man abandoned her. He told her he was going back to Jeju for a while and never returned. She couldn’t continue her job and moved to Nakamichi in Higashinari Ward in Osaka. She gave birth to a daughter, my half-sister, who is 12 years older than me. Then she opened a bar and sold Korean liquor, shochu and pork. My father was one of her customers.

I heard your mother supported your family. Is that true?

Yes. My father was usually not at home because he was gambling or living with other women. He was notorious for his violence, too.

Was he a yakuza?

He was not, though he could have become one. Korean yakuza groups were formed after the war when black marketeers were fighting over their territories.

You wrote about your father in your novel “Chi to Hone” (“Blood and Bones”), which was made into a film starring Beat Takeshi. That character was violent and attached to money and sex. Is that how your father was?

Yes. He was very mean, too. Although he once started a business producing fish cakes and made a lot of money, he never spent on his family.

In your essays you have said you began writing poems when you were in high school. Was that the first writing you did?

I didn’t have a special turning point, but even in elementary school I had liked writing. Then in junior high school student I was really into reading, and I began writing poems when I entered high school.

When did you start making your poems public?

I was 18 years old and in the second grade of a night high school. One day one of my friends was hospitalized because of appendicitis and I went to see him. At that time the Korean poet Kim Shi Jung was also in the hospital, and my friend introduced me to him. He was a pioneering Korean-Japanese poet, and a leading figure in the Japanese poetry world. He was also active in the Chongryon. He said, “I am a member of a group of poets. Why don’t you come and visit us?” The group was called Jin Dal Rae.

Did you present your poems in the circle?

Yes. The circle’s members were publishing a magazine and I wrote for it.

How long had the magazine been going?

I am not sure, but the circle published 20 issues. Chongryon had asked Kim to organize the circle by rounding up young Koreans in Japan. Chongryon wanted them to write poems that supported the organization and its policies — but such poems were not interesting at all. Then Kim wrote an essay in the magazine criticizing Chongryon. The organization was upset and branded our circle as being “anti-Kim Il Sung.”

Eventually, Kim Shi Jung disbanded the organization and killed off its magazine. Out of about 50 poets in the circle, only three of us stayed together, and (in 1959) we tried to publish a new magazine. But that didn’t work out and we all stopped writing for it.

What did you do then?

I married a (Korean) woman and had children. To support my family, I became reconciled with my father after years of confrontation. People close to my father persuaded him to get along with me. Then my family moved to a house in a single-story row my father owned. I started a printing company for labels and posters at the site of my father’s former fish-cake factory.

How did your business go?

It went well at the beginning.

How long did you continue?

For one year. At my factory I had old machines that could only print such simple things as flyers. However, to have more orders and earn more, my staff and I decided to get new printing machines. We asked one of my cousins to let us rent part of his land, which he used as a pig farm in Nishinari. I built a new office and a factory there.

How much did all that cost?

It cost about ¥20 million.

How did you raise the money?

I borrowed it all. I was so good at borrowing money. (Laughs) I borrowed from banks and I also borrowed ¥3 million from my father. It was around 46 years ago and ¥3 million then was ¥10 million now.

How did you pay back the money?

I couldn’t. I built the three-story building on the 90 tsubo (297 sq. meter) plot. Four new printing machines were on the first floor and a dormitory for staff was on the second. I lived on the third floor. But the business wasn’t going well, so I hired a new person as factory chief and managing director. I’d heard he was a veteran businessman but he was not good, so I started visiting major companies without an appointment and asking them to give me orders. It was tough. I was always in debt and cash-strapped. Banks refused to lend me money and I borrowed from consumer-loan firms and black-market lenders. The black-market lenders loaned money at 10 percent interest for 10 days, though it was actually seven days because it took three days to send money to business partners or make payment through banks.

That all sounds very difficult.

Yes, it was very hard. Just the interest cost me a lot. If you borrow a sum such as ¥10 million, do you know what that’s going to be? In a week, you have to return ¥1 million as interest. It’s terrible. In one month, it costs ¥4 million. You cannot make enough to return the money. And the lenders are gangs.

What did you do?

It was awful. I was on the ragged edge. But every night I was drinking at bars or hostess clubs. I’d spend ¥100,000 or ¥200,000 in one night. I think that when human awareness starts collapsing, that process then accelerates. I actually heard the sound of my brain collapsing.

Did you go bankrupt?

Yes, of course.

How old were you then?

I was 29. The debt was ¥200 million, which would be ¥1 billion today. I sold everything, including the printing machines — which I had actually rented. Gangs came into my factory to grab the machines and I brought gang members from another group to stop them. It was chaos. My father also threatened me to have me return his money. I locked the door of the building, which was a shutter, but he climbed the gas pipe of the building next door and broke into my house on the second floor. My wife screamed and escaped. He said, “You owe my money.” He head-butted me and burst my nose. I only just managed to escape.

Could you stay there?

No. We moved to a room in a sandal factory owned by the husband of one of my wife’s sisters. Later, we moved out and went to the house of another of my wife’s sisters. Then my father tracked me down and tried to assault me, but my sister-in-law came in and my father could not beat me in front of her because of Korean family tradition.

I heard you went to Sendai. What did you do there?

I had a brother-in-law in Sendai and his relatives had cafes and hostess clubs in the city. So I went there and worked as the manager of one of the cafes. I left my wife and two children in Osaka. In Sendai, however, I could not get rid of my bad habits of borrowing money and drinking. I went around the girlie clubs every night.

How old were you?

I was around 31. I borrowed money and had five or six lovers.

That was rather excessive, wasn’t it?

Right. I was notorious and people called me “Osaka yaro” (“Osaka scum”).

Could you send money to your family?

Not at all. I quit the cafe and got a job managing a standup bar, but still I had no money apart from what I borrowed. I could not stay in Sendai and so I escaped to Tokyo. I had only ¥5,000.

I don’t think that would have been enough to stay long in a hotel, would it?

No. So I slept out on cardboard in an underpass near Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Next day, I went to a park and picked up a newspaper and found a classified ad looking for taxi drivers in Tokyo. It said the company had a dormitory and paid ¥3,000 a day, which I thought that would be great. So I went along and applied.

Did you get the job?

Yes. Taxi companies were short of drivers then.

Was that during the 1970s period of rapid economic growth?

Yes. The economy was good and we had many customers. In Shinjuku, too, many people would be hailing taxis and competing to get one. Around 11 p.m., taxi drivers would go to Shinjuku and open a window slightly. People would then crowd round and say “¥1,000!” or “¥1,500!” — which meant they would pay that on top of the meter rate.

How long did you work as taxi driver?

For about 10 years. But the good times didn’t last many years before the earnings gradually declined. In my 10th year, I was rear-ended when I was stationary at a red light. A 10-ton truck hit my car, which was crushed to one-third its size and hit another taxi in front, which was jumped forward 100 meters. That was according to the official of my company in charge of accidents, because I myself was knocked unconscious and didn’t come round till I was in hospital. I had three broken vertebrae.

How long were you hospitalized?

For three months — and then I wanted to quit driving. But after about six months I started taxi-driving again because I couldn’t get another job as I am Korean, and also I was around 42. Then, after three months, I was again rear-ended when I was waiting for customers in the Roppongi entertainment district. That’s when I finally decided to quit the job.

Was that when you started writing novels?

Yes, it was around that time. I used to drink at a bar named Karin in Shinjuku every other day, and there I met a critic named Noboru Okajima. We became friends. Okajima introduced me to the editor-in-chief of publisher Chikumashobo. His name was Mr. Kashiwabara. Okajima said to him, “Why don’t you let Yang Sok Gil write a novel — it would surely be interesting.” And Mr. Kashiwabara asked me to write one.

Was that to be “Taxi Crazy Rhapsody”?

Yes.

In that book, there’s quite a lot about your fellow taxi drivers. One of them is often saying, “I hate Koreans — but I like you.” Didn’t you dislike him?

No, I didn’t dislike him. I accepted it in general (that Japanese didn’t like Koreans). The novel was made into a film titled “Tsuki wa Docchi ni Deteiru” (“All Under the Moon”) — although that was also based on my nonfiction book, “Takushi Doraiba Nisshi” (“Taxi Driver’s Diary”). The film won 53 awards, the most-ever in the history of Japanese cinema.

Other novels of mine that have been made into films are “Yoru o Kakete” (“Through the Night”), “Chi to Hone” (“Blood and Bones”) and “Yami no Kodomotachi” (“Children of the Dark”).

In “Yami no Kodomotachi,” you wrote about an 8-year-old girl in Thailand. Her father sold her to a brothel, where she contracted Aids. Is that a real story?

No, it’s fiction — but I think such things really happen. I went to Thailand and saw some awful slums there built over swamps. There was no fresh water or sewage system and it smelled terribly bad.

Why did you decide to write about child prostitution?

One of my friends is a nonfiction writer and he said, “I want to write about the issue but it is difficult to write it as nonfiction.” So I wrote it as fiction.

The descriptions in the novel feel terribly real. Did you actually do research in Thailand?

Yes. I researched there for three days.

Did you go to a brothel like the one you portray in Bangkok?

Yes, although the one I went to was in Chiang Mai.

Did you pretend to be a customer?

No. I asked a powerful person to take me there for my research. It was too dangerous to go there unless you were accompanied by someone like that.

Did you see children there?

No.

What were the rooms like?

They were small, about the size of six tatami mats (roughly 10 sq. meters).

What kind of people patronized the brothel?

I was told that most were Caucasians, but Japanese also went once in a while.

How old are the children?

I heard they are normally around 12 or 13, or even younger. I also found that out by watching a video showing actual child prostitution.

Did a nongovernmental organization fighting against child prostitution provide you the video?

No. I had a source who showed it to me.

Was it on sale?

No. I guess just a few people have copies. Probably they show it secretly to pedophiles, or maybe curious tourists, because it would be too dangerous if it became widely known about.

In the novel, one of your characters is a Thai child who is forced to be an organ donor for a Japanese child with a life-threatening condition. Is that based on a true story?

No, it is fiction. But it is a fact that, in some Asian countries, the bodies of newly dead children are sources of organs for transplants.

Who buys such organs?

I guess it’s people with money who have a sick child.

Why did you write about these shocking issues?

I wanted to present the issues to the public. They are important, but in general people don’t know what’s happening. However, it’s not inconceivable that (in the face of desperate poverty) living children would be forced to donate organs. Novelists write stories by using their capacities for imagination, but they use facts as well.

You have written novels based on human rights issues. One of them, “Megurikuru Haru” (“Spring Coming Around”), is about the so-called comfort women who were forced to become sex slaves of the Imperial Japanese Army before and during World War II. In the early 1990s, some of these former “comfort women” went public and demanded apologies and compensation from Japan. In response, the government issued an apology and created a semi- governmental fund to distribute “atonement money.” However, many of the victims were not satisfied. What do you think about this?

The issue of “comfort women” was widely covered by the mass media back then and it became a huge issue. The Japanese government paid a certain amount of money, but now the public’s interest in the issue has largely declined. There are nonfiction books about it, but there’s no novel (in Japan). I believe that’s because novelists (in Japan) avoid contentious issues. But I thought I had to write about it. A novel is fiction, but truth can be written as fiction.

In that novel about Korean women forced to become wartime sex slaves, readers can well understand their feelings and what they suffered. Was that your aim?

That wasn’t my only aim. That problem and other wartime problems that were its background still continue. If we ignore them, we brush the problem away. We should not do so. The problem occurred during the time Japan had colonies, but I don’t doubt that the subconscious awareness that caused the problem still remains in Japanese society. I also don’t doubt that Japanese people still look down on other Asians.

In one of your essays, you wrote that your daughter started using her Korean name when she entered a Korean high school here, and that her Japanese friends weren’t at all critical, but said, “That’s cool.” Do you think this means that today’s Japanese young people accept Koreans without any disdain?

No, I don’t think so. Human beings have multiple awarenesses. Many young Japanese will have heard their parents saying something (negative) about Koreans. Such things influence their subconsciousness. That may enter their consciousness when they become aware of nationalism.

Such consciousness has become apparent in Japanese society over issues related to North Korea.

That’s right.

When North Korean issues have been in the news, there have been instances of Japanese harassing students wearing the uniforms of Korean schools.

Yes, and even people who don’t do any such harassment may be saying negative things. Japanese people used to show hatred for Koreans by saying “they smell of garlic” because they eat kimchi. But kimchi has become one of the most popular foods of young Japanese nowadays. Still, they once in a while say, “Koreans smell of garlic.” There is a disparity (between their consciousness and their actions).

Yesterday, North Korea attacked South Korea, which returned the North’s fire. What do you think of the attack? I cannot but think (North Korea) is crazy. It’s like no other government in the world. The attack makes me feel like we are in medieval times, even though we are living in the 21st century.

Why did they do such a thing? One reason might be to highlight the coming shift of power (from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un) to the world. Another might be to pull together government officials and also to release stress among the military. But their action is like strangling themselves. . . . Their way of thinking is somehow that the “Kim Dynasty” will commit suicide together with 20 million people.

Is it true that you have half-siblings in North Korea who are your father’s children with a Japanese lover?

Yes — if they’re alive. When my father moved to North Korea he took them with him.

As a Korean resident of Japan, what do you think of the current situation?

It is very regrettable. If the countries go to war, North Korea will be destroyed. Probably Pyongyang had calculated that the attack could not lead to full-scale war.

What can Japan do to improve the situation?

The Japanese government should watch the situation calmly. North Korea is poor economically. If the situation gets worse, the government there will be boxed into a corner. What I am afraid of is the possibility of North Korea firing ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads at South Korea and Japan.

What can the public in Japan do to improve the situation?

Various measures have been taken, such as restrictions on trade with North Korea and on sending money there. I guess even the Chongryon people are tired of North Korea.

By the way, is your nationality South Korean?

Yes. Originally people from the Korean Peninsula had only a nationality termed “Korean” in Japan. But in 1960, the governments of Japan and South Korea met and then the Japanese government acknowledged two nationalities for Koreans in Japan: South Korean (for those who opted to be classified as such) and Korean (for the rest). People who had supported South Korea (during the Korean War of 1950-53) and those who belonged to the (pro-Seoul) Mindan (Korean Residents Union in Japan) opted for South Korean nationality.

Because I did not belong to the Mindan, and was rather left wing, I didn’t opt to be classified as South Korean, so I was just a Korean. But when I began to go to South Korea and other countries for my job, I was having to apply for a re-entry permit every time by going to consulates or the Immigration Bureau. Because it was too much trouble and I did not feel especially attached to North Korea, I changed my classification to South Korean.

So, what is your identity?

I am a Zainichi (Korean resident of Japan).

Do you identify with South or North Korea?

Neither. I am a Korean resident of Japan.