Min Jin Lee, Apollo, 2017
The climactic scene of Kim Tal-su’s 1952 novel 富士の見える村で Fuji no mieru mura de (In the Shadow of Mt. Fuji) has its Korean-Japanese protagonist fire a rifle at Mount Fuji. Romantically entangled with a Japanese woman who rejects his suit, he ‘shoots’ the famous icon of his adoptive country in a fit of desperation. He, like Kim himself, is what Japan would call ‘在日韓国人’ (Zainichi Kankoku-jin) – an ethnic Korean living in Japan. Commonly shortened to just Zainichi (‘[resident] in Japan’), the nickname denotes a temporary status. In the eyes of the nation, Zainichi have historically been outsiders, despite the term referring to Korean families who have lived in Japan since the colonial years of 1910-45.
Korean immigration to Japan is not a recent phenomenon, and in antiquity Koreans enjoyed a great degree of social mobility in their adoptive country. However, Japan’s modern reception of its immigrants – especially those from Korea – is inextricably tied to the emphasis on cultural and ethnic homogeneity that has come to define Japan in recent centuries. The Tokugawa shogunate, Japan’s last feudal government, barred nearly all foreign interaction for nearly 200 years under the isolationist policy. And when the country opened up again in the Meiji period, it was only to pursue nationalistic ideals, culminating in the 20th century with the Japanese annexation of Korea and Manchuria. Combined with the anti-foreigner ethnocentrism of World War II, with its narrative of Japanese ethnic superiority, 20th-century attitudes to ‘outsiders’ became charged with antagonistic rhetoric just at the point in which a wave of Korean families were emigrating in hope of a better life on the occupied peninsula.
Writing in the post-war years when these attitudes were still at their height, Kim Tal-su’s frustrated protagonist feels the full weight of an identity which doubles as a societal burden. Shooting at a mountain may be a futile act, but it is a ‘symbolic murder of Japanese-ness’ that brings release to a character struggling as an ethnic minority in a conservative Japan. Kim himself is the first Korean to achieve notoriety for his work in Japanese. His writing, which uses a specifically Japanese autobiographical writing style 私小説 (shishō-setsu, or the ‘I-novel’) makes his experience as an outsider narrating his outsider-hood all the more poignant. Shishō-setsu is a characteristically apolitical form, but Kim’s genius is to fill a Japanese literary style with the experience of characters who are kept at a distance from Japanese society. Kawamura Minato points out in his groundbreaking essay 生まれたらそこがふるさと Umaretara soko ga furusato (Home Is Where You’re Born, 1999) that reading Kim’s novels is equivalent to reading ‘a history of Zainichi political life’. Although Kim’s novels do not directly discuss politics, his writing carries political implications.
From Kim begins the evolution of a genre that challenges both the Japanese literary establishment and the idea that the ‘Japanese experience’ is ethnically uniform. In 1986, ex-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone described Japan as a ‘homogeneous’ country, something considered a widely-held view – and not just by conservative politicians. Nakasone’s comments have resonance with his followers on an idealistic level, though they were not made without protest: the indigenous Ainu, just one of many ethnic minorities to call Japan home, took issue with the prime minister’s statements. Yasunori Fukuoka, an academic, responded by observing that the ‘myth of homogeneity can no longer go unquestioned.’
But asserting difference cannot be easy in a society that places such stress on homogeneity. In 2005, Chung Hyang Gyun, a Japanese-born nurse, was barred from applying for a management position at her work because she is Korean-Japanese and therefore a ‘foreigner’ (legally, only Japanese citizens can hold such positions). ‘For the Japanese government, there is no greater eyesore than the Zainichi who refuse to be naturalised, because the Zainichi are a reminder of unresolved postwar issues’, she said. ‘Zainichi people’s existence is significant because we are witnesses to history.’
What makes ‘Zainichi’ literature powerful, then, is its assertion of being that witness to history. The Korean Japanese experience entered the Japanese literary mainstream two decades after Kim’s first novels with Ri Kaisei, the first Korean Japanese novelist to win the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for 砧を打つ女 Kinuta o utsu onna (Woman who Beats the Falling Rock, 1972). ‘The personal is political’, reads the headline of one review applauding Ri’s writing, echoing praise for Kim’s use of the ‘I’ novel.
It has taken still decades more for Korean Japanese experiences to be recognised on the world stage, but they can be traced most recently to Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (2017), an English-language novel centred around the experiences of four generations of Korean immigrants in Japan. Lee, a Korean-American, was compelled to write fiction based on the real experiences of Korean immigrants after a 1989 lecture at Yale, where she was a history major in her senior year. The guest lecturer talked about the experience of third- and fourth-generation Korean Japanese. Most powerfully lodged in her memory, Lee writes, is a story the speaker told about a boy in his early teens: bullied aggressively at school because of his Korean heritage, he committed suicide by jumping off a building.
Lee’s first piece about being Korean Japanese appeared in 2002, when The Missouri Review published ‘Motherland’, a short story about a boy who gets fingerprinted and receives a foreign identity card on his 14th birthday. In the early 2000s, she worked on a novel that further explored the experience, but knew the narration was from the point of view of an outsider looking in: something it took a family move to Tokyo for her to fully appreciate. She conducted interviews with Tokyo residents about being a Korean in Japan, and in doing so realised that she had ‘gotten the story wrong’. Putting her focus on the historical roots of the problem rather than contemporary experience, she had inadvertently treated the Japanese discrimination against Koreans as static: unchanged and undiminished in the 100 year period since Japan first colonised Korea. Lee concluded that confusing an historic experience of social victimhood with a more complex modern reality was unhelpful; she threw out her first draft, and, starting from the stories of the people she met in Tokyo, began to write what became Pachinko.
It is tempting for many writers – myself included – to likewise treat the Korean Japanese experience as something static. But to do so is to create a stereotype equivalent to the calcified two-dimensionality of the term Zainichi. While it is often used to describe Korean Japanese people or their literature – The Cambridge Companion to Japanese Literature calls its chapter on Korean Japanese literature ‘Zainichi literature’ – in reality, many Koreans in contemporary Japan dislike the term. Overwhelmingly, this is because the majority of Koreans who are not recent immigrants go by their 通名 (tsumei) – adopted, official Japanese names – and are distinguished very little from the ethnically Japanese population. While the threat of discrimination is a possible factor, studies have indicated that Koreans use their tsumei because they identify with Japan more than they do Korea, or are simply more accustomed to doing so. To call people who only differ from the ‘Japanese’ population in ethnic heritage ‘Zainichi’ seems out of place at best: it is a term for a stereotype that is fixed in time and space. At the other end of the scale, a minority of Korean Japanese feel the term is not Korean enough. Either way, the term implies their identity is not their own: Chung Hyang Gyun may be part of a minority in her resistance to being ‘naturalised’, but she raises an important point about naturalisation being a denial of history – Japan does not easily allow for someone to be ‘different yet equal’ in either a legislative or a social sense. This power imbalance is borne out in the literary world. when does literature written by Korean Japanese authors cease being ‘Zainichi’ literature – a literature written by ‘others’?
After the Chung Hyang Gyun controversy, Lee rethought her approach to representing the tension between belonging and difference felt by Korean Japanese people, and her new draft incorporated as much of the complexity of real personal experiences as possible. The resulting novel, Pachinko, reads like something halfway between fiction and history, a realisation of Lee’s desire to write about the subject in a way that preserves its complexity and variance. Her story is a far cry from Fuji no mieru mura de, but her writing echoes Kim Tal-su’s emphasis on the personal simultaneously being the socio-political.
The discrimination faced by Min Jin Lee’s characters – and indeed, widely attested by interviews with Korean-Japanese people – varies in intensity from the openly aggressive to the mundane, becoming more complex as time progresses. Ethnocentric discrimination in the early 20th century against Korean immigrants was blatant, aggressive and sometimes life-threatening. The theory that 部落民 (burakumin) – the ‘untouchable caste’ of Japanese society that was instituted under the feudal system – were descended from Koreans was popular around this time: a 1965 government survey showed that 70% of people polled believed that the burakumin were of a different race and lineage from Japanese, though modern scholars think this improbable. In other ways too, burakumin and Korean people living in Japan were often conflated into a single category, sharing neighbourhoods and existing in the margins of society. In Pachinko, the second-generation immigrants of the Korean family face this problem of ‘uncleanliness’ from boyhood. Fellow schoolchildren call the boys ‘garlic eaters’ who ‘smell like pig’, both referencing the false belief that Koreans brought meat-eating to Japan as founders of the burakumin class. (The conception of meat-eating and the killing of animals as ‘unclean’ has its roots in Shinto and Buddhist beliefs.) Several of Lee’s adult characters are the target of rumours about their ethnic origins being ‘Korean or burakumin’, as if the two are similarly damning possibilities.
As Lee found when she was researching Pachinko, the modern-day treatment of Korean Japanese people has roots in this history of discrimination, though its manifestations often take a subtler form. Time has certainly brought with it a decrease in hostility, but that has not necessarily led to systematic acceptance. Today Korean Japanese people have an uncertain status, often existing in a limbo between Korea and Japan, not easily or entirely welcomed by either. Many cannot speak fluent Korean, but are still officially North or South Korean nationals, treated as tourists when they visit Korea, and as migrants in the country where they were born. Or they are officially stateless. Many choose to go by their tsumei in high school, only to be shamed upon graduation when their official Korean names are read out or they are denied a promotion only available to a Japanese citizen. Some give up Korean status entirely in favour of a Japanese nationality that disguises their origin; and those who choose to remain openly of Korean descent, like Chung, are likely to face both social and legislative discrimination.
In Tokyo, a Korean-Japanese person might regularly be asked whether they are North or South Korean, even if their families moved to Japan when there was no distinction between the two. Another common question might be ‘Your Japanese is good, where did you learn?’ On his 14th birthday, a Korean boy in Japan might head to a registration office to attain a temporary residence stamp: he will have to get a new one every three years for the rest of his time living in Japan, and his passport might be South Korean, not Japanese. The vast majority of young Koreans in Japan don’t speak or understand much Korean. Their native language is Japanese; Korean is only the language of their ‘nation’.
Reflecting this progression, Pachinko’s narrative censure against the Japanese attitude to Koreans is harshest in the decades when her fictional family moves to Japan. They arrive during the time of worst segregation and discrimination, and the relative black-and-whiteness of the narrative’s distinction between the colonised and the coloniser reflects the family’s own perceptions of their new country. However, as the story progresses, the complexity of an evolving attitude on the part of both immigrants and Japanese nationals increasingly comes to the fore. More Japanese characters are introduced, and through them many differing attitudes to identity and nationhood are explored; Lee also broadens the narrative to include discussion of other minorities in Japan, such as the discrimination against the disabled, or the struggles of being homosexual. While her narrative style can be heavy-handed in places, and at its worst favours exposition over nuance, it is consistently compelling in its intensity of feeling and its clarity: ‘Japan … was like a beloved stepmother who refused to love you’, one character thinks to herself as she dreams of moving to Los Angeles as an escape from Japan’s social politics, a sort of ‘grass is greener’ escapism not shared by her husband, who determines to be successful in Japan despite societal barriers.
Most effective is Lee’s exploration of the tension between ‘othering’ and acceptance that defines the way Pachinko’s later generations of characters live their lives. Noa, a second-generation Korean immigrant, begins dating the beautiful Akiko while studying at Waseda University. Akiko goes to great lengths to prove she is not a racist ‘unlike her parents’, but Noa realises that in doing so she fetishises him freely, itself a kind of racism. In bed she asks him to speak Korean, and regularly makes comments about how good-looking Korean men are, to which Noa thinks in frustration: ‘not all Korean men were good looking, and not all Korean men were bad looking, either. They were just men.’ That many Koreans using their tsumei pass for Japanese citizens unnoticed underlines this point, and Noa realises the attraction he holds for Akiko lies largely in the fact that he is Korean:
She would not believe that she was no different to her parents, that seeing him as only Korean — good or bad — was the same as only seeing him as a bad Korean. She could not see his humanity, and Noa realised this was what he wanted most of all: to be seen as human.
Under the pressure of a role in society that he has no control over – and the pressure of his father, Hansu, who expects him to achieve academically as an example to all Japanese that a Korean can be a model citizen, a ‘mission in the world that neither could articulate fully’ – Noa drops out of university to begin a new life posing as the ethnically Japanese Ban Nobuo, forsaking his family along with his Korean heritage. His act of ‘passing’ again bears striking parallels with burakumin stories from a slightly earlier era: Shimazaki Tōson wrote a novel called 破戒 (Hakai – ‘Broken Commandment’) in 1906, depicting the life of a schoolteacher who ‘passed’ until his conscience gets the better of him. He confesses his 穢多 (eta – derogatory slang meaning ‘abundantly filthy’) background to his students. Shimazaki’s inspiration for the novel came from the story of a real teacher who was regularly fired from his position when his burakumin background was uncovered. ‘Passing’ might be possible for a while, but Shimazaki’s character, like Noa, lives under great pressure: Noa is indeed eventually discovered by his estranged mother, and commits suicide to hide the revelation from his unsuspecting wife and children.
Modern Japan is in many ways still a deeply conservative country, and shows many instances of revisionist history practised by those in power. Ishihara Shintarō, the far-right governor of Tokyo from 1999 to 2012 and an acclaimed novelist in his younger days (winning, two decades before Ri Kaisei, the Akutagawa Prize for literature), called the Rape of Nanking a fiction invented by the Chinese, and asserted that Japan’s imperial rule in Korea was absolutely justifiable. The casual approach to sweeping the ‘unsightly’ side of history under the carpet by some of Japan’s most prominent politicians and authors is exactly why Kim Tal-su’s novels must remain significant ‘witnesses to history’ – and why it is important that the experience of his generation and their descendants is being revisited by Min Jin Lee.
If Pachinko has a fault, it is a tendency to lapse into a Zadie-Smith-esque multiculturalism that seems, at points, artificial or contrived. But this is an understandable part of its attempt to promote narratives that are still overwhelmingly hidden beneath Japan’s homogeneous face: that of Koreans, burakumin, homosexuals, victims of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, or those born disabled. The concluding chapters of the book deal with the experiences of the family’s fourth-generation descendant, Solomon, who lives a life of relative social mobility until he is abruptly fired from his first job at a finance company. Rumours that his father Mozasu, who runs a chain of pachinko (a type of gambling) parlours, used mafia ties to clinch the company’s important business deal, and while never substantiated, the rumours cause Solomon to lose his job. His boss tells him: ‘I like working with Koreans … I just don’t agree with your father’s tactics.’
The titular pachinko parlours are central to the novel: a pachinko business is what Mozasu is first welcomed into after getting into trouble for fighting his schoolyard bullies, and it provides him with a place in which to succeed despite his Korean heritage. It is the business which renders him incredibly wealthy; but no matter his success, to the Japanese ‘Pachinko gave off a strong odour of poverty and criminality’ which becomes a taint on his son, a ‘tax’ exacted by the country on his success. His illusions of easy acceptance into the Japanese workplace abruptly dispelled, Solomon decides to take up his father’s business, symbolically acknowledging that he cannot escape his heritage. In one of his last conversations with his Japanese boss, Kazu, Solomon is advised to accept the impossibility of escaping it. Kazu bitterly characterises Japan as a nation that aspires to homogeneity:
And in this great country of Japan – the birthplace of all my fancy ancestors – everyone, everyone wants to be like everyone else. That’s why it’s such a safe place to live, but it’s also a dinosaur village … Japan is not fucked because there is no more war or it did bad things. Japan is fucked because there is no more war, and in peacetime everyone actually wants to be mediocre and is terrified of being different.
If we can accept Kazu’s words as a pessimistic but not wholly inaccurate characterisation of modern Japanese society, the act of writing these personal stories – the ‘I-novel’ and its literary descendants – is defiant. But it is a unique kind of defiance. Shooting the landmark (and, by extension, the country and the culture) ‘in the shadow of’ which one lives is significant for the real-world powerlessness that it implies. It is a battle between the personal and the national, but it is not one that the protagonist can ‘win’ in any material sense. Society dwarfs individual experience just as a rifle shot makes no difference to a mountain. Lee’s characters also display a certain powerlessness: they do not ever, perhaps cannot ever, entirely ‘beat the system’. Solomon comes the closest, yet the novel concludes with his retreat into the pachinko business of his father.
For a nation that values homogeneity, the importance of this type of literature lies in the very fact that it bears witness to a different kind of Japanese experience – and attests to the fact that there is more than one kind. The tension between personal and national agendas, a major theme of Japanese literature, is thus reappropriated for a context where the person’s ties to the nation are considered uncertain by a culture that is often reluctant to celebrate heterogeneity. Kim’s protagonist shoots for the release that expression brings: to say this makes no material difference is to misunderstand his motive for shooting.