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What could have been from what was seen


KANNANI AND DOCUMENT OF FLAMES: Two Japanese Colonial Novels, by Katsuei Yuasa, translated and with an introduction and critical afterword by Mark Driscoll. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2005, 193 pp., $19.95 (paper).

The odd rightwing extremist excepted, it is difficult to find anyone these days who has a good word for colonialism, much less imperialism. Thus it is easy to forget that back when the Japanese imperialists were riding high there were thoughtful artists and intellectuals who believed in and supported what might be called “liberal colonialism,” and that one can, without being an odd rightwinger oneself, write, as Mark Driscoll does, of “pluralist innovations in colonial governance that were a feature of Japan’s imperialism until 1940.”

These innovations stemmed, Driscoll suggests, from a notion “that was ubiquitous in colonial discourse and was something that the majority of literate Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese believed up until the end of World War II: East Asians for the most part possess a shared ethnological and cultural history within the imperial Chinese regional sphere.” Therefore, Driscoll believes, “the historical trajectory in East Asia can be said to begin with multicultural postcoloniality in the period of Japan’s colonial rule and end with an ethno-racially homogenized cultural nationalism.”

What was it like, however, to live in this premature “multicultural postcoloniality?” We get an excellent sense of that from the novels “Kannani” and “Document of Flames” by Katsuei Yuasa.

“Kannani” opens with Ryuji, a Japanese boy in Suwon (near Seoul), who wants nothing so much as to be one with the Koreans around him. Rejected by the neighborhood children because he is Japanese, Ryuji determines that he will wear “the poncho-style shirts that the Korean kids wore so that . . . he’d be dressed exactly like them.” That the Korean kids reject Ryuji because he is Japanese demonstrates the tension between the colonizers and the colonized. Ryuji, however, far from looking down on the Koreans, wants to become one with them, showing that there may indeed have been a moment in the early days of Japan’s empire when things could have gone a different way.

Ryuji, even before he leaves for Korea, is already an advocate of the liberal, paternal, colonialism that Yuasa champions so hopefully in both these novels. “When he got to Korea,” Ryuji decided, “he would care for and love the Korean kids and be respected by all the people, and when he did become governor, he would try with all his might to bring glory and prosperity to Korea.”

A Korean girl, Kannani, befriends Ryuji, and from her he begins to learn that the colonialists are not bringing “glory and prosperity” to Korea. Instead they are prospering at their subjects’ expense, while doing their best to deprive the colonized of any glory at all. Thus, although Yuasa allows us to see how a more humane colonialism might have been possible, he also shows us the tremendous forces arrayed against it.

The brutality of this colonialism comes across forcefully in a scene in which a Korean girl is raped by a gang of Japanese schoolboys. Attempting to come to terms with this, Ryuji writes: “Our school principal told us that we must be good friends to Koreans and that Japanese who marry Koreans are great heroes. I truly believe this.” Ryuji’s belief that a merging of the colonizers with the colonized through intermarriage might defuse the tension between them reminds us that he is a child: naive, innocent and, as history has shown, unjustifiably idealistic. This idealism, which he shares with Kannani, is contrasted with the brutal adult world in which they live. And since they enact in their relationship the liberal colonialism Yuasa champions, this contrast overlaps with that between humane colonizers such as Ryuji’s father and the less humane colonial majority.

As in “Kannani,” “Document of Flames” reflects differences between the more and the less liberal colonizers. The contrast this time is between a woman and her husband (who moves a concubine into their house and finally casts his wife off when she fails to bear him a son). We follow, filtered through the memories of this unfortunate woman’s daughter, her journey from rejected wife, to small-time businesswoman in Korea, to longshoreman, to prostitute — until, through a stroke of luck, she finally becomes a wealthy landowner. She moves from a poverty-stricken lifestyle, where she is indistinguishable from the poor Koreans among whom she lives, to being a member of the exploiting colonial class. Along with her good fortune, “her voice, the way she talked, even the way she walked became more and more masculine.” She becomes, in short, a man. The link Yuasa has established between oppressive males and the oppressive Japanese is clear.

Yuasa’s novels are a reminder that, as bad as things ultimately turned out, there was a moment when it seemed things might have been different.