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FICTION

The Significance of Hong Sung-won’s Novel However

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Vol.9 Autumn 2010
  • byShinfune Kaisaburo
されど (However)
2010

However, a novel by the late Hong Sung-won, was published in Japan in April, marking the second anniversary of his death. The novel depicts a character that staged a fight against imperialist Japanese to secure independence for Korea but later betrayed his own country and led a shameful life. The novel chronicles the miserable life of the turncoat and the tragic life of his descendants. The editor who helped publish the Japanese edition explains the significance of the novel.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Japanese annexation of Korea. A turning point in Japanese history, various attempts to re-examine the relationship between Korea and Japan once again are appearing in a variety of forms such as publications, symposiums, or special TV and newspaper reports. Looking back at Japanese modernization and the neighboring countries plundered in the process (the Japanese took over the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, and northeast China, and founded a puppet country, Manchuria) is an important exercise not just in learning from past mistakes, but in looking to the past to understand where Japan is today.

The contempt and prejudice with which many Japanese regard Koreans is a product of history that dates back to Japanese modernization. The animosity has not vanished in spite of the 65 years, almost double the span of Japanese occupation, that have passed since the 36 years of colonization. Thismay be attributed to the greater complexity of ideas that formed in the past 65 years as compared to those of the colonial period. Underneath all the complexity is the notion that the Japanese could no longer be a free people after Japan’s defeat in World War II and Japan’s military and economic subordination to the United States. This collective feeling of suppression is, in turn, the result of further social stratification in the course of economic development that has in recent years created a perception of Japanese society as one polarized into the “victorious” and the “defeated.” In ruling over those different from they, the Japanese have created a social structure that discriminates and excludes.

Koreans, Okinawans, and the Ainu from the northern Japanese islands have thus functioned as “psychological pedestals” for the Japanese who have wanted to be better than the rest, if by a small margin. Correction: The Japanese have intentionally marginalized them to use them as “pedestals.” The recent issue of moving the U.S. army base in Hutenma, Okinawa reflects this idea. This past June, the new prime minister Kan Naoto thanked the Okinawans for sharing their space with the U.S. army base. But there is no word or hope of negotiating to take back the land the U.S. took by force with rifles and bulldozers 65 years ago and continue to occupy today. The Japanese pander to the powerful and demand acquiescence from the weak. It appears it has not occurred to the prime minister that Okinawans are also Japanese, nor has he pondered on the meaning of continued U.S. military presence in Japan. He who does not understand what it is like to be oppressed cannot recognize that he himself is also oppressed.

I wanted to share Hong Sung-won’s full-length novel, However, with Japanese readers because of the place Japan is in right now. I have realized that it is the task of the Japanese is to find out what they must do to become free people and a free country, and part of that education is finding common ground with neighboring countries.

This novel explores issues that cannot be overlooked for many reasons. Finding viewpoints in novels may not make sense in light that fiction is fiction, but this must be excused when one needs all the help one can get in finding answers.

The first issue is how one should see the Japanese annexation, that is to say, Korea’s colonization by the Japanese. The second is whether one should leave the division between the pro-Japanese and anti-Japanese the way it is now. The latter is also related to the theme of the novel, the relationship between truth and history. The third is how one should see the circumstances that turned some anti-Japanese to pro-Japanese—the conflict that arose between the authoritative Japanese rule and unstable infrastructure of anti-Japanese organizations. The fourth is how one should see Chinese socialism or socialism itself.

The author deals with these issues through the stories of celebrated anti-Japanese fighters Hyeon-san Han Dong-jin, and a man, Dong-pa Seo Sang-do, from the same village who participated in the March 1st movement but are now criticized for later siding with the Japanese. The characters that push the plot along are Kim Hyeong-jin, an ex-news reporter novelist who was commissioned to pen Han Dong-jin’s biography, and Eda Saiko, a Japanese writer. Kim Hyeong-jin was married to Han Dong-jin’s great-grandchild who died in a car accident, and Saiko is the daughter of a daughter Han Dong-jin had with a Japanese woman he met in northeast China. An affection for Saiko grows in Hyeong-jin as he sees his dead wife in Saiko, and their love drives the plot along to the end.

What particularly intrigued me were the three aforementioned issues usually brought up by Kim Hyeong-jin’s friend, Im Jeong-sik, who studies modern Korean history at a university in Seoul. Im Jeong-sik offers several new perspectives on the anti-Japanese, the despair and destitution of those who had to flee to northeast China to escape Japanese prosecution, the hostility and terrorism that hatched within anti-Japanese movement organizations, the dreadful descent to self-destruction, and the breach of the barrier between the anti and pro-Japanese. Japan was carrying out expansion plans across Asia, which no international power including the League of Nations was willing to check, and Nissen Itai, the idea that Japan and Korea are one, was propagated throughout, turning Korea into Japan. Under such deplorable circumstances, anti-Japanese revolutionaries sought asylum abroad to find no solution or plan but to bide their time. Cut off financially, they had to devote their time to living hand to mouth. Their enthusiasm and faith began to peter out. I find it heartbreaking that it was the Japanese that stamped out the very existence, the very humanity of such people. We must not dismiss this story as a tale from long ago.

From a neutral area, this novel poses the question of whether a true reconciliation between Korea, who refuses to forgive, and Japan, who refuses to apologize, is possible. Such problematization is, in my opinion, absolutely necessary, but what is more important is that the Japanese give some serious thought to what it is that they must apologize for. Such contemplation is closely associated with the Japanese recovery of their pride as a member of humanity. This novel will provide them with the opportunity for such contemplation.

I met with Hong Sung-won in Seoul three years ago and spoke with him about Korean literature. He said, “I believe that there aren’t any writers in the world today that can have a far-reaching influence like Camus or Sartre yielded in their day. Even if the message goes far, they are not understood. Humanity is becoming shallow all over the world. Our job is to recover maturity.”

Japanese literature today also tends to avoid this important task for humanity as works that burrow deep into the private lives of writers and hide in the miscellaneous details flood the literary world. I am uncertain how much popular acclaim However will receive in a market such as this, but this novel asks fundamental questions about the meaning of life. I am confident that However holds the key to the future of history. 

 

 

* Shinfune Kaisaburo is a literary critic and editor of Riron, a quarterly periodical.