A Story about Koreans in Japan
I mentioned a while back that I was writing a story about ethnic Koreans living in Japan (i.e. zainichi Koreans). Well, here is the first chapter. Consider it a teaser because I’m probably not going to post the continuation on my blog. This is primarily an anime blog, so I’d rather keep my posts on topic. If you’re interested in reading the subsequent chapters, feel free to leave a comment on this post and I’ll keep you updated via email.
For more info about the story, including a synopsis and a list of all chapters published so far, see here.
Chapter 1: Yakiniku Daughter
The Year 6 of the Heisei Era
Chieko entered high school with the weight of the world on her shoulders—or at the very least the weight of her entire neighbourhood.
Even now, just a matter of weeks before the first day of term, her parents were still stumbling around the house in a daze. “I can’t believe it,” they would routinely mutter as they shook their heads in wonderment. “The highest entrance exam score…” And sometimes, entirely out of the blue, Chieko’s father would seize his teenage daughter in a bear hug and ramble on about how no father could be prouder. Most of the time, he wasn’t even drunk when he said it; Chieko’s father always spoke his mind.
The celebrations lasted for weeks after Chieko received the acceptance letter. Every day, the grills inside the family restaurant crackled and sizzled without pause, and the irresistible scent of yakiniku wafted all the way down the street. In this neighbourhood, every self-respecting adult enjoyed their yakiniku and liquor. The sounds of drunken cheering and singing would ring out long into the night.
Every single regular customer came by the restaurant to congratulate Chieko for her exam results. Mr. Hashimoto from across the road sported several tattoos and a jagged white scar across his left arm, but he was in tears when he heard the news. Old, blind Mrs. Nakamura, who smoked like a chimney, wouldn’t stop saying, “Your parents named you well. Such a clever, clever girl you are.” Then she would spend at least ten minutes sermonising about the benefits of a good education, despite the fact that she had never attended high school herself.
Mrs. Nakamura wasn’t the only one in their neighbourhood who had never experienced a full education. Hardly any of the adults living in their street had been to university. At best, they went to some third-rate tech school that was better off not being on a person’s resume. Chieko’s own father had only a high school diploma to his name. He had chosen to continue the family business, as his father had done before him.
“But things are different these days,” Chieko’s father told her. “You need a good education if you want a good future.”
All the adults said the same thing. After a while, they started to sound like a broken record.
Just as Chieko thought the celebrations were finally over and done with, the package containing her new school uniform arrived at their home. That same day, her parents made Chieko parade around the house in her skirt and blazer. They oohed and ahhed and took photos, and soon enough Chieko’s mother came up with the bright idea of showing her off to the neighbours.
“Just drop by next door and give them this,” her mother said that afternoon, handing Chieko a bag of yesterday’s leftovers from the restaurant.
It was routine to share their leftovers with the Kim family. It had taken Chieko some years to realise that her mother’s generosity towards the Kims wasn’t necessarily driven by magnanimity, but rather by long-standing pride.
“This is embarrassing,” Chieko muttered. The uniform’s fabric felt stiff and unfamiliar against her skin. The mottle green blazer had a more sober, mature feel than the sailor uniform she had worn throughout middle school. It felt as if she was cosplaying a character in this uniform instead of wearing clothes that rightfully belonged to her. Was it really okay to go out dressed like this?
Her mother assured her that she looked good, and so reluctantly Chieko walked over to the adjacent house and knocked on the front door. She knew that Mr. Kim worked at the pachinko parlour during the day, but his wife, a part-time accountant who worked from home, was almost always inside the house at this hour.
It took only a few seconds before Mrs. Kim opened the door. She was a typical ajumma, with permed black hair and a somewhat frumpy figure. Her eyes widened at the sight of Chieko. “My, my, you look wonderful in that uniform!”
Chieko smiled awkwardly. Was that what everyone said?
“Come in, come in,” said Mrs. Kim eagerly. As soon as Chieko was inside, the ajumma turned her head towards the stairs. “Dae-suk! Come down here! You must come and have a look!”
“Um, you really don’t have to…” Chieko began.
She was interrupted by a boy’s voice coming from the stairs.
“Oh, it’s you, Min-ji.”
Chieko turned her head, responding instinctively to the name. Standing at the foot of the stairs was Dae-suk, the only boy in the world who called Chieko by the name that was written on her family registry.
Born in the city of Kobe in the Hyogo Prefecture. She had never once been to South Korea, but that was her nationality according to the registry. According to Japanese law, she was a “special permanent resident” of the country of her birth, just like her mother and father.
Everyone in the Kim family knew all about that because they were in the same boat. When the Kangs first settled in this part of town, the Kims had been there too. They had lived in the same neighbourhood for decades. Now, they grew old together.
“Hey, Dae-suk,” said Chieko, addressing the boy by his first name, as she had done for as long as she could remember.
Kim Dae-suk could have been a guard dog in his past life. The concept of peripheral vision seemed to have no meaning to him. His jet black hair was cut straight, neither too long nor too short, and his shirt was tucked in impeccably. He peered at Chieko with a perpetually straight face.
“So what do you think?” his mother asked Dae-suk as she nudged Chieko with her elbow. She was clearly talking about the uniform.
Dae-suk stared blankly at Chieko for a very long moment. Chieko fidgeted and pulled at her red plaited skirt, wondering if it was too short or something.
Finally, Dae-suk spoke. “It looks good.” Then he said, “Is that for dinner?”
He was peering directly at the bag of leftovers in Chieko’s hand.
“Yeah,” said Chieko, smiling a little. Typical Dae-suk. “Here, take it.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I was feeling hungry.”
There was no bigger fan of yakiniku than Kim Dae-suk. That part of him never seemed to change, no matter how many years went by.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Kim was still beaming at Chieko. “It’s so wonderful that the two of you will be going to school together from now on. Dae-suk will be your seonbae.”
Senpai, Chieko mentally translated. Dae-suk was one year older than her and would therefore be her upperclassman when she entered high school. They had gone to different middle schools, but from the way Mrs. Kim talked, it was as if they were always supposed to be together. Her smiles carried the weight of unspoken expectations.
“Such a clever girl you are. You and Dae-suk make us proud.”
Kanda Chieko had grown up believing that she was Japanese.
As a child, she had never seen any difference between herself and her friends. They spoke the same language, watched the same TV shows, read the same manga and played the same games. Even now, her English was better than her Korean, and her favourite subject at school was Japanese history.
When Dae-suk called her Min-ji, she never thought anything of it. It was like a nickname. Her true name—the name everybody called her by—was Chieko. Her father’s yakiniku was pure Japanese to her, for she had never known anyone prepare it any differently. As far as she was concerned, there was no other way that yakiniku should be prepared.
It was only when her grandmother died when she was in fifth grade that her parents told her the story of their ancestors.
Like so many other Koreans of their generation, Chieko’s grandparents had first come to Japan just before the war began, conscripted to do the manual labour that the Japanese would not do, for all their men were too busy fighting wars in far-off lands. Her grandparents remained labourers even after the surrender, scrambling for a living in a war-torn land in whatever meagre ways they could manage.
The family restaurant was established just over fifty years ago, during the whirlwind years of the American occupation. Only after arriving in Kobe did Chieko’s grandparents find the resources to settle down and start a family. They named their restaurant the Yakiniku Daughter after their newborn daughter, full of tentative hopes about their future.
They did not know then that they would never return to their homeland for as long as they lived. Only a few years later, when their daughter had just begun to walk and talk, the civil war in Korea began, and the entire country was cleaved in two.
Later at the funeral, Chieko found out that her grandparents identified with the northern part of Joseon, a land now known to the world as the communist state of North Korea.
“I’m glad,” Dae-suk said to her, interrupting her thoughts.
“For what?” asked Chieko.
They were walking down the shopping strip together. Mrs. Kim had told Dae-suk to go out and buy some soy sauce in preparation for dinner, and predictably she had insisted that Chieko go along with him. She had said okay because she wanted to stretch her legs, but also because she preferred hanging out with Dae-suk when Mrs. Kim wasn’t breathing down their necks.
The good thing about Dae-suk was that he was perfectly content saying nothing in Chieko’s company most of the time. Whenever he expressed himself verbally, Chieko listened to him. If one didn’t know any better, he could have been mistaken for the manly, stoic type.
“I’m glad you’re with me,” Dae-suk said solemnly, looking her straight in the eyes. There was something soulful about his dark brown eyes.
Then he turned his entire body on a ninety-degree angle and walked straight into the video game arcade to his right.
“Help me look for change on the floor,” he said. “Two pairs of eyes are better than one.”
“You didn’t bring money to buy the soy sauce?!”
In truth, Kim Dae-suk was a complete airhead. He was just good at keeping a stiff upper lip.
At this point, Chieko would have insisted that she buy the soy sauce instead, but then she realised that she had also forgotten to bring her wallet. At least she had an excuse, unlike somebody she could name. When she left her house, she didn’t think she would be going shopping of all things.
“Oh, geez,” she muttered.
It actually wasn’t the first time the two of them had spent time in the arcade like this. Dae-suk spent a lot of time in gaming areas, but not because he had an especial fondness for gaming. He possessed an uncanny ability to detect small coins and tokens that could be traded for money at the vendors in the back alleys behind the pachinko parlours. Perhaps it was a skill he had learned as the son of a pachinko parlour operator.
Looking at him now, searching the area underneath a purikura booth with total concentration, it was kind of nostalgic. When they were in elementary school, they had spent a great deal of time looking for money in the arcades because Chieko wanted to play games all day long without spending her pocket money. They’d stopped doing it when she entered middle school, though.
“We’re high schoolers now, Dae-suk! We don’t have to do this!”
Technically, she wasn’t in high school yet, but she was wearing her high school uniform at the moment, so she did feel a smidgeon more grown up.
Dae-suk, who had somehow managed to find a small mountain of coins during the time it took Chieko to complain at him, pocketed the money and stared at her.
“It is perfectly legal,” he said calmly.
“That’s not the point! This is so immature!”
“Then how would you like me to act?”
The sudden pointed question took her aback. “Er, well, I, uh, um… sort of all mature-like?” She floundered.
“I see,” said Dae-suk. “Then lead the way.”
Although there was nothing about her response that could have been considered enlightening, he nodded briskly.
Had anyone else uttered those words, Chieko would have assumed they were making fun of her, but somehow she knew that Dae-suk really did expect her to lead the way.
Yet Chieko could give him no answer. She opened her mouth and closed it, but no words came out. Though she had achieved the highest score on the entrance exam, her mind for the moment was utterly blank.
Dae-suk continued to gaze at her silently. His eyes were filled with the same unspoken expectation that Chieko had seen so many times earlier that day.
Eventually, Chieko decided that she had to say something. She shook her head. “Uh, you picked up enough coins to buy that soy sauce, right?”
Dae-suk painstakingly counted each individual coin in his pocket. “Not yet,” he responded. His eyes fell on a 100 yen coin that had fallen to the carpet a metre away from him. Instinctively, he got to his knees and reached out for it.
A heartbeat later, a dirty sneaker came down hard on Dae-suk’s hand.
“Hey, that’s mine,” a rough male voice called out above him.
Dae-suk made no sound, but he did look up, startled.
A boy dressed in a high school uniform looked down at Dae-suk, his arms folded against his chest. Although the boy was casually handsome, with bleached blonde hair, that was not the part of him that caught Chieko’s immediate notice.
She recognised the mottle green blazer worn by Mitoho Academy students. How could she not? She was wearing the exact same blazer herself.
There was a flicker in the boy’s eyes that told Chieko that he recognised Dae-suk. He lifted his foot from Dae-suk’s hand. “Oh, you can have it,” he said flippantly, thrusting his chin towards the 100 yen coin on the ground. Chieko noticed that he did not bother apologising for stepping on Dae-suk’s hand.
“No, it’s yours,” Dae-suk said quickly. His face showed no sign of pain, but it did look as if he was gritting his teeth behind his tightly pursed lips.
“Are you sure? You look like you really need the cash,” said the other boy. “I’d be happy to lend you some more. Here you go.”
The boy took out another coin from his pocket and flicked it to the ground about a metre away from Dae-suk.
A girl sitting at a gaming machine behind the boy started giggling. She was evidently with the boy because she was dressed in the same uniform. However, she chose not to say anything, preferring only to watch from the sidelines.
Dae-suk made no move. He merely stared up at the boy through narrowed eyes, as if measuring him.
“Ungrateful, aren’t you?” said the boy. “That’s what you chons are like.”
As soon as Chieko heard that word, all thoughts of acting mature vanished from her mind. In fact, she stopped thinking at all.
“Don’t pick up that coin, Dae-suk,” she insisted, stepping forward. She whipped her gaze to the boy with bleached hair. “Hey, you.”
“Are you talking to me?” said the boy, somewhat incredulously.
“If you want to give something to someone, hand it to them directly. Don’t be so half-assed about it.”
The boy blinked. He was probably surprised to see a girl talk to him with such an aggressive tone.
“Well, sorry,” he said, not looking very sorry at all. He shoved his hands into his pockets and looked away. “Let’s go,” he said to the girl behind him.
Obediently, the girl got up from her seat. The two of them made to walk past Chieko but she spread her arms and stood her ground.
“I want a real apology from you. How dare you call my friend a chon.”
She stared at the boy unflinchingly.
If there was one word in the world that was guaranteed that ignite her fury, it was chon.
The first time she had heard the word was in fifth grade. It was a week after her grandmother had passed away. Chieko had opened her mouth and told her classmates that she was a Korean, and none of them had really understood it.
“Why don’t you go back to your country, then?”
They had asked her this question sincerely. Even back then, Chieko had no answer for them.
Then one of the boys in her class got into his head to start calling her a chon because he had heard his father say that word and he thought it sounded funny, even though he did not understand fully what it meant. The word caught on with the class, and eventually everyone started calling her ‘Chonko’ as if it were her real name.
Chieko hated that name. Nobody else was called that. But whenever she tried to complain about it, her classmates said she lacked a sense of humour. After that, they felt even more compelled to use the word chon in front of her, because they thought it was funny the way her cheeks puffed out whenever she got mad.
She remembered playing by herself during lunch breaks, because she didn’t want to be around anyone anymore. She got mad too easily, and she cried too easily as well. She hated that about herself.
If she hadn’t met the hero of justice back then, she wondered what would have happened to her.
“Even if you don’t feel the injustice, I do! I have no choice but to feel it!”
“Min-ji…” she heard Dae-suk murmur her other name behind her.
Chieko realised belatedly that she had just uttered the hero’s words aloud. All of a sudden, she was back in the present, glaring at the boy with the bleached hair.
At that moment, she knew how right those words were. The boy in front of her did not understand. He would probably never understand, and this knowledge only made Chieko’s anger seethe even further. Even if she could do nothing to change the situation, she could not stand by silently. She could not live with herself otherwise.
The girl behind the boy nudged him and whispered something to him. She seemed anxious not to make a scene. “Fine,” Chieko heard the boy say grudgingly.
He turned to Chieko. “I’m sorry. Really.” He nodded his head stiffly, almost like a bow but not quite. “I’ll take my coin back,” he said gruffly.
Chieko watched him kneel down on the floor and pick up the fallen coin. He put it in his pocket and left without saying another word. Chieko glared at his back until he was gone.
It took a while for the rage to stop pulsating through her veins. For a short while, she could not even hear the sounds of people chattering or machines beeping. The arcade itself had faded into insignificance.
Then she sighed, and all the pent-up frustration leaked out of her body. She knew with a twinge of shame that her temper had gotten ahead of her again. Suddenly, she was very conscious of how small and weak her body was.
She felt a presence near her shoulder and turned to look. Dae-suk was standing beside her, nursing the hand that the other boy had stepped on. Unlike Chieko, his face showed no visible anger.
“He took his coin back in the end. He was surprisingly stingy,” Dae-suk remarked.
“Wow… you’re right,” said Chieko, and then she chuckled. A reflexive response. “Did you know that guy, Dae-suk?”
“Yes, that was my classmate Takano. We don’t talk much.”
“I see…” said Chieko, looking down.
She wondered how Dae-suk dealt with his unreasonable classmates. Did he just sit there and take it all?
A heavy feeling came over her once again. Just like before, she looked at Dae-suk and realised that she did not know what to say. She knew what was expected of her, and yet for some reason she could not formulate the words.
Eventually, Dae-suk broke the silence.
“We should go buy the soy sauce now,” he said.
“But you didn’t pick up enough coins!”
If that Takano guy had taken his coins with him, then Dae-suk still didn’t have enough money to buy the soy sauce like they were supposed to. What a pain.
“No problem,” said Dae-suk. He reached into his back pocket… and pulled out a black wallet filled with bank notes.
Chieko stared at him.
“You had money all along!”
“S-so why’d you go scavenging?”
“It is always a good idea to stockpile extra money in case of an unforeseen expense,” said Dae-suk, with the same reverence one would use to quote Confucius.
“Aaaaaaargh,” said Chieko.
They took no more detours after that. Dae-suk went into a nearby convenience store and bought the soy sauce without fuss, and after that they started walking home.
Just like before, they walked along silently. Chieko couldn’t help but keep dwelling upon the scene in the arcade earlier. She had done the right thing then, hadn’t she? Of course. She certainly hadn’t done the wrong thing.
Yet at the same time, she couldn’t help but get the feeling that she had merely been taking out her frustrations on that boy. Frustrations which were not entirely caused by the things he had said and done.
…which begged the question: why was she so frustrated? What was she frustrated with?
“Min-ji, wait here,” Dae-suk said suddenly.
He had stopped outside an accessory store. Just what kind of business he had here Chieko had no idea. Still, she said, “Sure,” and waited for him patiently.
She passed the minutes by looking up at the sky and checking the time. The afternoon had grown late, and she could see a faint red tinge in the horizon. Evening would come upon them soon enough, perhaps before they even made it home.
All of a sudden, Chieko shivered and hugged herself. She was conscious of her bare legs underneath her skirt. It was early March, so there was still a distinct chill in the air, especially now that the sun was starting to go down. Technically, it was already spring, but the sakura flowers had not yet bloomed.
Soon it would be spring break, she reminded herself. And after that, her first day of high school would begin. She could see the outline of her future ahead of her, but when she tried to imagine what life would be like at Mitoho Academy, she honestly had no idea. Only a small handful of people from her middle school would be going there, and she was friends with only one or two of them. Everyone else would be strange and unfamiliar, except for Dae-suk.
“I’m back,” she heard Dae-suk’s voice announce behind her. Speak of the devil.
Chieko turned around and saw her friend clenching a small plastic bag. “What’s that?” she asked.
“It’s for you,” he said.
“Huh?” She took the bag and fished out what was inside it.
An ornate red hairpin. She could tell just from looking at it that it had cost a lot more than the soy sauce bottle.
“I thought of it when I saw you in that uniform,” Dae-suk explained. “It suits you.”
“Oh.” It was all she could muster in response.
Was this perhaps the reason why he had gone looking for money earlier? In order to buy this for her?
She thought she had figured Dae-suk out after all this time, but maybe she actually had no idea what was going on in that head of his.
“Y-you didn’t have to,” she stammered. She didn’t deserve this.
“It’s fine. Take it.”
With slightly trembling fingers, she put on the hairclip. “H-how do I look?”
“It looks good.”
It was the exact same thing he had said when he first saw her in the Mitoho Academy uniform earlier that day. And he said it in exactly the same way: completely earnestly.
Before Chieko knew it, a lump had formed in her throat.
“Thanks,” she mumbled.
“There’s no need to thank me. I should be thanking you,” Dae-suk said matter-of-factly. “You were really cool back there.”
“You mean… in the arcade?”
“Oh.” Chieko smiled and scratched the back of her head. “Glad you thought so.”
Even if she had stood up to Dae-suk’s classmate for reasons she was not entirely aware of herself, she was glad that some good had come of it. For the sake of defending Dae-suk, it was worth it.
“I have the feeling that things will be different at school this year,” Dae-suk said, turning his face to the path which led back home. Then he said, “I’m glad.”
“For what?” asked Chieko.
“I’m glad you’re with me,” he said.
Chieko looked at him. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking from his expression, but she could take a guess.
Like her, Dae-suk was a boy who was caught between worlds. There was a word for people like them.
It was written with two Japanese characters: one that meant “to exist” and the other that meant “sun”—as in, the Land of the Rising Sun. It was supposed to refer to a foreigner staying in Japan, but for Chieko and Dae-suk and their families, that stay had stretched into a lifetime. Multiple lifetimes.
Because of this unusual situation, it was not uncommon for zainichi communities to build their lives together. A person who was not zainichi could not truly understand the lives they led. They had learned that the hard way.
“But still, why don’t you have a passing name, Dae-suk?” Chieko asked. “It’s more convenient that way…”
Pretty much every zainichi Chieko knew had a Japanese name. Like Mr. Hashimoto from across the road or old, blind Mrs. Nakamura, who smoked like a chimney. Perhaps her parents had mentioned their names in passing and she had forgotten. Either way, their Korean names were unimportant in their daily lives.
“I don’t want to forget,” Dae-suk responded. His voice was even firmer than usual. He looked up, pointing his gaze at the hazy, indistinctive clouds in the northern sky.
Chieko wondered what was going through his mind, now that she realised how little she understood of it.
Dae-suk and Chieko had gone to different middle schools. While Chieko had attended a regular Japanese school, surrounded almost entirely by other Japanese students, Dae-suk had gone to a Korean school. In those schools, all the classes were taught in Korean and the students had to wear uniforms based on traditional Korean costumes.
A few years ago, Dae-suk had gone to Pyongyang on a school trip. He never spoke of his experiences there, but Chieko understood that it had made a deep impression on him. He had never been a talkative kid, but after going through middle school, he grew ever more silent and pensive, as if he were somehow detached from the world around him. He had become the Dae-suk she knew today.
“You don’t want to forget…?” Chieko repeated uncertainly.
“No,” Dae-suk declared. “I don’t want to forget where I belong.”
Chieko felt a hand on her shoulder. Dae-suk was peering straight into her eyes, his gaze as serious and as unflinching as ever.
“You won’t forget either, will you?” And then he uttered her name. “Min-ji.”
A strange tingle went down Chieko’s spine when she heard that name. The name belonged to her, but she did not own it.
Seeing Dae-suk’s face so close to hers, Chieko once again felt the weight of expectations bearing down upon her through his eyes. At that time, she could not push him away, nor could she bring him closer.
Abruptly, Dae-suk pulled away. The weight lifted from Chieko’s shoulder. “You’re shivering,” Dae-suk said. He began to take off his coat.
“No, it’s fine,” Chieko insisted. She took a step back and spread her arms. “We’re almost home.”
“Home?” Dae-suk seemed almost bewildered for a moment, as if he did not know what she was referring to. He looked around himself, as if taking stock of his surroundings, and then seemed to come to an understanding. “Oh, right.”
Chieko snorted. “You’re such an airhead, seriously. I can’t believe you managed to get into Mitoho Academy.” The Mitoho Academy entrance exam was notoriously difficult.
“I studied hard every day,” Dae-suk responded seriously. “Maths, history, geography, even Japanese literature.”
“I know, I know. You’re always trying hard. Maybe too hard.”
Chieko laughed, and for that brief moment she forgot all her worries. It didn’t matter if she didn’t fully understand everything. Whatever problems came her way, she would take it one day at a time. Now that her destination was in sight, she began to jog ahead. Careful not to upset the soy sauce bottle, Dae-suk trudged along a few steps behind her, following her lead.
Embraced by the familiar spicy scent of yakiniku, they made their way down the path towards the only home Chieko had ever known.