Friday, 1 April 2011

Zainichi as Bare Life

Everyone knows it yet
It’s not on the map
It’s not on the map so
It’s not Japan
It’s not Japan so
It might as well vanish
It doesn’t matter so
We do as we please

(Kim Si-Jong, “Ikaino Poems”, 1975)

Translation opens us to other worlds, certainly, but it can also perpetuate exclusions. The first time I read Yu Miri’s Goldrush its Zainichi context was lost on me, neither surname nor Pachinko-parlour setting, at that time, setting off any of the appropriate cultural cues amidst my own ignorance and confusion. It’s hard to image what Stephen Synder in his (excellent) translation could have done to make this context more apparent, without resorting to those cumbersome notes and appendages which signpost what’s supposed to work unsigned, and, besides, the blithely arrogant under-reading of that initial experience (“aren’t I multicultural, one of those rare folk who consume literary fiction in translation!”) may well mirror broader patterns of Zainichi invisibility and exclusion.

Yu herself, anyway, refuses the label of “Zainichi writer” just as assertively as her Korean surname reminds Japanese-language readers of her own inescapable insertion into social ways of inscribing ethnicity and attendant racial oppression, and her darkly humorous, exacting stories can be read for their unsettling and probing observations on heterosexuality and sexual oppression or the nuclear family and violence as much as for any insight into Korean experience. Yu’s achievement, Lisa Yoneyama argues of Fullhouse, is to “probe for clues with which to disturb” the “problematic arrangements” of the modern family. Far from denying the importance of the Korean struggle, though, for Yoneyama – and I think she’s right – writing of this kind “can be disconcerting and threatening to those who desire to maintain the stabilized boundaries of family, ethnic community, and national polity and history, for they reveal and criticize the mutual imbrications of racism and bourgeois family values.”

It’s been quite a few years since I spent time being productively disconcerted by Yu’s writing, but I’ve gone back to her these last weeks after engaging with the scholarship of Sonia Ryang. A displaced intellectual and powerful writer, Ryang is an engagingly precise and provocative guide to the complexities of the situation for Koreans in Japan, and her scholarship – a model of lucidity, engagement and sheer intellectual excitement – stirs up all manner of questions official politics would prefer left unanswered.

Zainichi, in the usual liberal phrase, are described as “second class citizens” in the Japanese system: Ryang polemicises against the complacency behind this common-place. Zainichi are, of course, not citizens of any kind, second-class or otherwise, and part of their oppression stems from their systematic exclusion from all parts of Japanese political and social life. To be Zainichi is, Ryang suggests, to be reduced the quality Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life”, invisible, outside the rules and governing possibilities of the political world.

Besides, what is it to be Zainichi? We’re so used to talking about Chongryon-affiliated people as “North Koreans in Japan” that it takes the shock of Ryang stating the obvious to re-focus discussion: there are no North Koreans in Japan; Japan does not recognise the DPRK, and there are no official channels for DPRK citizenship, outside of diplomatic circles, to be maintained abroad.

DPRK-affiliated Zainichi are, then, doubly invisible. Mainstream anthropology, as Ryang points out, in framing most of its studies of Zainichi as studies of ‘outsiders’ in Japan, perpetuates this disenfranchisement. When considered from within, as a diaspora without homeland, the political priority and possibilities for Zainichi seem rather different.

There’s very little attention given, in media reports and elsewhere, to the historical complexity of the situation which led to their being ‘North Koreans’ in Japan: in insisting on this complexity, Ryang turns it to usefully activist and anti-racist ends. If most studies of diaspora look at the outsiders, what about turning attention to the host societies?

A society such as Japan that firmly stands on the belief in its monoethnicity might be unfit to be a host society for modern diasporas. I state this with a certain urgency: it is public knowledge that since 9/17, North Korea has been roundly demonised and Chongryun-affiliated Koreans marginalised and isolated. The current situation creates constraints not just on the diasporic community but on Japanese society as well (Ryang, “Visible and Vulnerable: the Predicament of Koreans in Japan”, 79)


The Zainichi struggle is, though, as anyone who knows the grubby history of Chongryon will be aware, not just a matter of exposing the lies and racism of the ruling order: it’s also a question of questioning, and opposing, stifling nationalisms and orthodoxies within the community itself.

Ryang takes the question of naming – the honmyo (true, Korean, name) and tsumei (‘passing’, Japanese, name) – and subjects this site of so much well-meaning, or not so well-meaning, dogmatism to useful interrogation:

It is all very well to condemn passing names as the legacy of colonialism. But as long as there exists strong discrimination against Koreans in Japan – whose mark is most clearly discerned by name rather than skin colour or accent, for example – the use of a name is no simple matter. When a subject prefers a particular name – no matter how compromising such a deployment may be in the eyes of the nationalist orthodoxy – how can others (ethnic community leaders, teachers, parents, or even the nation-state or history) force them to use another name? Whether a Korean name is honmyo for an individual is not a given, since otherwise it would be tantamount to assuming that one’s alien registration name has to be one’s real name. After all, who decides which name is true to the person? The law? The community? Parents? Teachers? Or the person herself? Rather than assuming that the “true self” exists in “true Korean names”, we should withhold conclusions about the authenticity of names. (Ryang, “Introduction, 14).

It’s not just the insistence on complexity which is inspiring; Ryang insists on individual agency and the capacity to struggle.

The very ambiguity of the question of names for Zainichi points to some of the political possibilities of the position they inhabit. Issuing ‘anthems from nowhere’, residents of the imaginary country which, in the words of footballer Jong Tae Sae, is “another country in Japan”, Zainichi, in their very in-between status, defy the nationalisms which disfigure the region:

More recently, as the association with either North or South has waned, the term zainichi, meaning “existing in Japan”, has become common currency for representing Koreans in Japan. This name does not come without problems, in my view. To begin with, the term is parodic; it inverts the reality of the treatment of Koreans by the Japanese state. In this system, Koreans are treated as outsiders and their exclusion is justified on the basis of that they do not have Japanese nationality. By calling them zainichi, as if they merely “exist” in Japan, the name obscures their clear disenfranchisement. Although calling oneself zainichi chosenjin or zainichi kankokujin no longer denotes exclusive association with either the northern or the southern regime, the contours of zainichi life are becoming more complex and volatile. The parody name zainichi condenses this complexity: in spite of the diversity of names for Koreans in Japan, not one captures them properly. (Ryang, “Introduction”, 11).

This condensed complexity inspires anti-racist organising and activism, from Zainichi groups in the United States to Tokyo.

There’s plenty in Ryang’s thought I disagree with: her writing consistently down-plays the importance of the struggle aspect of class struggle, and accedes too easily, perhaps, at times, to claims of Zainichi invisibility which in turn erase their obvious contribution, and importance, in Japanese working-class politics. (For an example of this, see her brilliantly argued but, to my mind, one-sided piece “The De-Nationalised Have No Class” in Japan Focus.)

It’s unusual, though, to encounter academic writing which combines accessibility and political urgency and intensity with carefulness and rigour. Now, while the humanities are under such sustained attack, her work stands out as an example of the sort of practice I want to take up and defend.


I’ve quoted from two collections here:

Sonia Ryang and John Lie (eds.), Diaspora Without Homeland: Being Korean in Japan (Berkley: University of California Press, 2009).

Sonia Ryang (ed.) Koreans in Japan: Critical Voices from the Margin (London: Routledge, 2000).

Lisa Yoneyama’s essay is in Koreans in Japan. The Kim Si-jong quote is taken from Melissa Wender’s article in the same volume. Ryang has also published a number of other very useful books; one I’ve found particularly helpful is North Koreans in Japan : language, ideology, and identity (Boulder, Colo. : Westview Press, 1997).

With thanks to Shomi, who introduced me to Yu Miri's writing, and whose 2005 conference presentation started me thinking about translation in the Zainichi context.

1 comment:

  1. Does anyone use comment boxes on websites anymore? They seem so retro since facebook took over.
    I identify with zainichi, perhaps in a similar way to Jewishness. While on the one hand it is a very specific, even biological identity, in another sense 'normal' for many working people in industrialised countries resembles more the emigre, the abnormal, experience.