朝鮮大学校物語 (Chosen Daigakko Monogatari)
By Yang Yonghi. Tokyo: Kadokawa, 2022. 254 pp.
도꾜 조선대학교 이야기 (Tokkyo Choson Taehakkyo Iyagi)
By Yang Yonghi. Seoul: Maumsanchaek, 2023. 243 pp.
Authors who succeed in recounting their own lives or particular experiences in writing novels present captivating portraits of their time and place. For example, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the autobiographical story of a writer who questions and turns away from his Irish Catholic upbringing. Another such story is filmmaker Yang Yonghi’s Choson Daigakko Monogatari (A Tale of Korea University), a story of alienation and love published earlier this year in Korean as Tokkyo Choson Taehakkyo Iyagi.
Yang’s novel, her first, is unspectacular as art. Her story lacks such sophisticated literary flourishes as magic realism or stream of consciousness, the sort of techniques found in the works of such celebrated novelists as William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Yu Miri. Well written, however, Yang’s story is particularly noteworthy for introducing to readers the realities of life for pro-Pyongyang Koreans born and raised in Japan.
Born in 1964 in Osaka, Japan’s third largest city and the center of that nation’s Korean community, Yang Yonghi was the youngest of four children and her parents’ only daughter. Yang Kong Son (양공선), her father, who was born on Jeju Island off Korea’s southern coast, left for Japan at the age of 15 in 1942 and settled in Osaka. Kang Jong Hui (강종희), her mother, was born in Osaka in 1930 to Korean parents. In 1945, they took her with them to their native Jeju to avoid the American bombs that were destroying Osaka and other Japanese cities. In 1948, Kang returned to Osaka after witnessing the horrors of the April 3 Incident, an uprising that took place in Jeju in April 1948, and its brutal suppression by Korean rightist, police and military forces while the island was under US military administration. The April 3 Incident, the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) later that year, and the pervasive discrimination that Koreans suffered in Japan led Yang’s parents to support Pyongyang. Yang Yonghi’s father became an official of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (commonly known in Korean as Chongryon and in Japanese as Chosen Soren). Her mother, following what she witnessed in Jeju, regarded the Republic of Korea (ROK) with even greater antipathy than her husband did.
Despite growing up in Osaka in a pro-Pyongyang household, Yang Yonghi suffered an early shock to her faith in the DPRK. Over the course of 1971 and 1972, her father sent her three brothers to Pyongyang as part of the Korean “repatriation” project to the DPRK that Chongryon oversaw in Japan. Her brothers were never free after that to visit their family in Japan, although one received permission for a brief return in order to receive medical care.
Yang attended the pro-Pyongyang Osaka Korean High School, where students learned Korean as their “national language.” She then enrolled in the Faculty of Literature at Korea University (KU) in Tokyo–the pinnacle of the pro-Pyongyang school system in Japan. After graduation, Yang returned to Osaka Korean High School and taught Korean there for two years.
Having lost her faith in Chongryon and the DPRK over the years, Yang broke with her upbringing. She left her post as a Korean teacher and went to New York City for a master’s degree in media studies at the New School. Subsequently, she made several documentaries and a movie about her family, the pro-Pyongyang Korean community in Japan and North Korea; exchanged her DPRK passport for ROK citizenship; and, against her father’s wishes, married a Japanese man.
The Films and the Novel
In depicting the lives of Koreans in Japan, known as zainichi (chaeil kyopo or jaeil gyopo in Korean), Yang Yonghi has created three documentaries about her family. She made her father the focus of the first documentary, Dear Pyongyang (ディア・ピョンヤン, 디어 평양, 2005). niece, Son Hwa (선화), who was living in Pyongyang, was at the center of her second documentary, Sona, the Other Myself (愛しきソナ, 굿바이 평양, 2009). Yang’s mother is the focus in Soup and Ideology (スープとイデオロギー, 수프와 이데올로기, 2021), the third in her family documentary trilogy. Between the second and third documentaries, Yang directed the drama Our Homeland (かぞくのくに, 가족의 나라, 2012), based on the brief return of one of her brothers to Japan for medical treatment.
Soon after the release of Our Homeland, the Japanese publishing company Kadokawa approached her to write a novel. Yang, accepting the proposal, wrote a story of love and alienation about a young zainichi Korean woman named Pak Mi-yong (박미영). The story flashes back to her years at Korea University (KU), with each of the book’s four chapters covering an episode in each year of her life as a student there from 1983 to 1987. Although enrolled in the KU Faculty of Literature, Mi-yong has no desire to follow the typical career path for her major of teaching Korean in a pro-Pyongyang school and dislikes the school’s many restrictions and its ideology. All KU students are required to adhere to the following rules in which they must: live on campus, speak only Korean, attend class in uniform, not watch television, and only read the books and magazines that the school allows. At university, Mi-yong encounters a zainichi Korean actor who uses his actual Korean name rather than seeking to escape discrimination by assuming a Japanese identity. Inspired, Mi-yong eventually begins to use her Korean name in private.
Mi-yong continues to face anti-Korean sentiments in her time at KU, wary of running into classmates who may report her to the KU authorities, visiting a relative who was banished from Pyongyang as punishment for not adhering to DPRK standards, and at one point navigating her family being put under surveillance. By the end of university, Mi-yong, who has become deeply alienated by this time, rejects the order by KU to return to Osaka. At the graduation ceremony, she storms out of the auditorium, leaving her community.
Love and Alienation in Tokyo
I think that A Tale of Korea University stands on its own as a novel of a young woman’s formative college years. Yang Yonghi writes fluidly of Mi-yong’s love of art as she explores the world of film and theater, a drive that takes her beyond the walls of Korea University and into the wider world. Outside the bounds of her university and community is also where she discovers love with a Japanese man.
The novel is as much a tale of alienation as it is a love story. Mi-yong finds herself an outsider. She rebels against her university’s restrictions, rejects its propaganda, and becomes an uncomfortable witness to the reality of North Korea. In the middle of a Chongryon rally, watching an adulatory film on the leader, Kim Il Sung, Mi-yong finds its style disturbingly similar to the films of the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. Treated as a foreigner in Japan, the country of her birth, Mi-yong is treated the same in the DPRK as well, where she takes the train to Sinuiju in a comfortable first-class carriage reserved for foreign visitors.
What struck me about this novel is how Yang Yonghi provides so many real details about Japan’s pro-Pyongyang Koreans and North Korea. Yang shows the reader Korea University and North Korea in the 1980s. She introduces the idea of an “organizational life” (組織生活, 조직생활), which is the submission of the individual to collective control and guidance, via the KU Committee, Chongryon, and the DPRK under the leadership of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. She refers to the mysterious emergence of Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang media as the unnamed “Party Center.” She informs readers that the League of Korean Students in Japan (留学同, 류학동), which is for pro-Pyongyang students attending university outside Korea University, exists. From the viewpoint of ethnic Koreans traveling to the Fatherland, we learn that Pyongyang attaches officials of the Bureau of Overseas Compatriot Affairs to watch and take care of them during their stay.
In comparing the novel in Japanese to its Korean version, I was interested to see points of divergence in a translation that was largely true to the original. When Mi-yong and others speak Korean in the original, the words appear in transliterated surtitles above the Japanese text; whereas in the Korean translation, those surtitles, which are unnecessary for a Korean reader, disappear. As the original text has an occasional explanation of Korean items, such as the chima chogori (치마저고리) that female KU students wear to class, the Korean translation has added remarks to explain such things, like what Japan’s Korean high schools are, what is the “master” of a Japanese bar is, and who 1980s Japanese pop star Matsuda Seiko was. In a translation that seemed to adhere closely to the original, the only passage that seemed to fall short was the point where Mi-yong reflected on how impressed she was with the 半島人の大陸的なスキンシップ (“continental skinship of people of the [Korean] peninsula”) (230), contrasting the warmth of people throughout the Korean Peninsula with the reserve of the island-dwelling Japanese. In the Korean translation, the passage becomes 한국인의 뜨거운스킨십 (“the affectionate skinship of [South] Koreans”) (226). This translation reduces all the peninsula’s people to those of the ROK alone and eliminates the contrast between continental warmth and insular reserve.
Yang Yonghi’s novel is worth reading both as literature and as a guide to the pro-Pyongyang zainichi Korean community in Japan. I hope that this tale appears one day in English, as it deserves a wider audience.
Korean and Japanese names in this review appear in traditional order, with surnames preceding given names. The author’s name, which she renders in English in her own particular way, comes in several other forms: Korean, 양영희; Chinese, 梁英姫; Japanese, ヤンヨンヒ; standard McCune-Reischauer transliteration, Yang Yong-hui; and its Pyongyang version, Yang Yong Hui.
In the Japanese education system, the Japanese language is taught as “the national language” (国語), which corresponds to 국어 or 우리말 (“the national language” or “our language” of Korean) on the Korean Peninsula. The pro-Pyongyang Korean school system in Japan, established to preserve Korean identity and develop future leaders for Korean organizations in Japan, refers to Korean as the “national language” for Koreans in Japan.