Identity in the Literature of Zainichi Koreans

The designation and scope of the literature written by Zainichi Koreans, or ethnic Korean residents of Japan whose roots trace back to the forced occupation of Korea by Imperial Japan, defies categorization. It is sometimes referred to as “Zainichi Chōsenjin Bungaku,” “Zainichi Kankokujin Bungaku,” or “Zainichi Korean Bungaku,” but strangely the most common term in Japan is simply “Zainichi literature” (Zainichi bungaku). The title of an 18-volume collection of the literary works by Zainichi Koreans published in 2006 was An Anthology of Zainichi Literature (2006), and when Shakai bungaku (Social Literature) and Shin nihon bungaku (New Japanese Literature) published a special issue on the subject in 2007 and 2003, respectively, the term used was also “Zainichi literature.” The lack of either “Kankokujin” or “Chōsenjin” to explain their works is a result of the ideological conflict amongst Zainichi Koreans following the division of Korea into the South and the North. It is as if NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization, were to air Korean language lessons under the program title “Hangeul Lessons,” which would only indicate a fraction of what was being taught.

As such, the literature of Zainichi Koreans shows the complex and various aspects of their lives by dealing with the themes of diaspora, identity, minorities, nationalism, the subaltern, racism, as well as of nationality, language, fatherland, ethnicity, ideology, and division.

The first generation of Zainichi Korean writers, including Kimu Saryan (Kim Sa-ryang), Kimu Tarusu (Kim Tal-su) and Chan Hyokuchu (Chang Hyok-chu), wrote in Korean, still their mother tongue, and were acutely aware that their motherland was Korea. The second generation, including Lee Kaisei, Kimu Hagyon (Kim Hak-yeong), and Kimu Sokubomu (Kim Seok-beom), found distance from the Korean people and language, and assimilated into Japanese society. While the first generation had to merely adapt to a new society, the second generation had been born into that society and was confused about whether they belonged to Korea or Japan, or North or South Korea.

By the third generation of writers, including I Yanji, Yu Miri, and Gen Getsu (Hyeon Wol), the questioning of ideology, nation or ethnicity, as well as any hint of nostalgia for their motherland, all but disappears from their work, focusing instead on depicting one’s torments as something universal. Four works by Zainichi Koreans have received the Akutagawa Prize, one of the most prestigious recognitions of literary acheivement in Japan presented by the publishing company Bungeishunjū: Lee Kaisei’s The Cloth Fuller in 1972, I Yanji’s Yuhi in 1988, Yu Miri’s Family Cinema in 1996, and most recently Gen Getsu’s Where the Shadows Reside in 1999.

The question of identity in Zainichi Korean literature is most often asked based on the typical themes of one’s nation, or people, and family. National or ethnic identity appears in the form of devotion to one’s nation and one’s people, sometimes demanding the sacrifice of an individual. For the Zainichi Koreans who wished to maintain their ethnic identity in a country that strived to establish a strong sense of national unity, the national assimilationist policies backfired, thus intensifying the sense of otherness and strengthening ties within the ethnic Korean community. Kimu Saryan’s Into the Light and Celestial Horse, as well as Kimu Tarusu’s Korea Strait and The Trial of Paku Tari, recreate the dismal lives of the Joseon people under colonial Japan, and criticize the intellectuals who betrayed their own people. Lee Kaisei focuses on the question of ethnic identity throughout The Cloth Fuller, while Kimu Hagyon captures what it means to be marginalized through the tormented soul of a frustrated individual whose existential status as a Zainichi equal...