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Invisible Men:
Resident Korean Writers in Postwar Japan, 1945-1972

Christopher Scott
Asian Languages
Stanford University
June 2001

My dissertation examines the emergence and development of Resident Korean literature in postwar Japan from 1945 to 1972. The term "Resident Korean" refers to one of Japan's most invisible minorities: people of Korean descent who have resided in Japan since the colonial period (1910-1945), when Japan occupied Korea. Even though Koreans have been writing literature in Japanese since the 1920s, why did Resident Koreans in postwar Japan continue to write in Japanese, the language of their former oppressors? What did they write about? And, finally, what does this literature say about Japan and Japanese literature in general? These are the underlying questions of my research.

Today, some 600,000 self-identified Koreans live in Japan and Resident Korean literature enjoys critical and commercial success. In the year 2000 alone, Japan's top two literary prizes went to works by Resident Korean writers dealing explicitly with Resident Korean issues. Such recognition and commodification, however, tend to obscure the more complicated issues, such as colonial inequality and postwar discrimination, which surround this genre's rise to prominence.

Most early Resident Korean writers, for example, did not simply choose to write in Japanese; they either grew up under the influence of colonial policies of assimilation, which eventually tried to outlaw the Korean language altogether, or were born and raised in Japan knowing only Japanese. Nor did most Resident Koreans initially think of Japan as their permanent home. After 1945, amidst the chaos of Japan's defeat and the escalating Cold War, many Koreans were not only stranded in Japan as "resident aliens" but were also cut-off from their homeland, which was divided and torn apart by war. Since then, Resident Korean literature, like the Resident Korean community itself, has come to signify both resilience and diversity. In the process of finding a place for Koreans in Japan, this body of writing has also come to complicate the many assumptions behind labels such as "Korean" and "Japanese."

The three authors discussed in my dissertation are a case in point. Largely invisible in studies of Japanese literature outside Japan until now, these writers represent different facets of the Resident Korean experience. Their texts also reveal a profound and critical engagement with the visible traces of colonialism in the postcolonial era. The first author, Kim Tal-su (or Kin Tatsuju, 1919-1997), is considered the "founding father" of Resident Korean literature. Although he spent most of his life in Japan, many of his literary works are set in Korea and explore the injustices of colonial rule and its painful aftermath. The next author, Kim Seok-pom (Kin Sekihan, 1925-), was born and raised in Japan but felt closer to Korea, hence his reputation as a "1.5-generation" Resident Korean. Fittingly, the complicated history and unique folklore of Cheju Island, which lies between Korea and Japan, form the locus of his literary imagination. Finally, Yi Hoe-song (Ri Kaisei, 1935-), a second-generation Resident Korean, was born in Karafuto (present-day Sakhalin, a former Japanese colony) and settled in Japan only after World War II. Focusing on the lives of Koreans in Japan, his literature deals with their alienation from Korea and their ambivalence toward Japan. In 1972, Yi became the first Resident Korean to win the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, thus signaling the canonization of this genre.

Taken together, then, Resident Korean writers force us to reconsider some of our basic assumptions about Japan and Japanese literature, not to mention Korea and Korean literature. Can we ever speak of an essentially or singularly "Japanese" literary tradition? A brief comparison of, say, the courtly world of “The Tale of Genji” and the postmodern ones of the popular writer Murakami Haruki, shows that "Japaneseness" is a fluid idea at best, created through a complex interaction of historical, political, and literary factors. If "Japaneseness" is thus a constructed (rather than a given) notion, then what does this say about Japan, the Japanese language, and Japanese ethnicity? Literary critic Komori Yoichi takes up these and other questions in his 1998 study "Yuragi no Nihon bungaku” (Japanese literature in flux). Komori uses the term "literature in Japanese" to describe the very recent surge in writers and texts that problematize the conflation of nationality, language, ethnicity, and culture in the term "Japanese literature." My project builds on Komori's basic methodology and asks how Resident Korean literature, by predating the "literature in Japanese" boom by over 50 years and by reflecting various historical and social developments in postwar Japan, helps challenge and redefine our understanding of "Japanese literature."

To answer this question, I look to one of the key arbiters of Japanese cultural identity in the modern era: the so-called "I-novel" (shi-shosetsu). Most popular in the prewar years but no less influential in the postwar period, the "I-novel" is a confessional form of writing that encourages an autobiographical mode of reading. These practices reinforce a kind of "imagined community" (to borrow Benedict Anderson's famous term) among the writer, narrator, and audience, all of whom are assumed to be Japanese and usually in Japan. Thus, the "I-novel" became a vehicle for producing and ingraining certain narratives of the self and the state. But what happens when Resident Koreans enter the picture or, rather, the text? Each of the writers in my study appropriated and reconfigured the conventions of the "I-novel" in unique ways: Kim Tal-su by focusing on Korean characters and settings; Kim Seok-pom by attempting a "we-novel" about the people and culture of Cheju Island; and Yi Hoe-song by writing about Resident Koreans in various stages of "Japaneseness."

Yet these writers were not alone in their efforts. A number of noted Japanese writers, including Abe Kobo, Oe Kenzaburo, and Oda Makoto, were experimenting with new models of selfhood at the same time and thus contributing to the larger discourse on subjectivity and national identity in postwar Japan. Therefore, I ultimately hope to show that Resident Korean literature exists not on the fringes of a knowable entity called "Japan," as one might expect, but rather at the very center of an ongoing debate over what "Japan" and "Japanese literature" really mean.