The Clan Records – Five Stories of Korea:
The Clan Records | Seeking Life Amidst Death: The Last Day of the War | When the Hibiscus Blooms | The Remembered Shadow of the Yi Dynasty | A Crane on a Dunghill: Seoul in 1936
Kajiyama Toshiyuki, translated by Yoshiko Dykstra
(University of Hawaii Press, 1995)
A collection of well-translated novellas / short stories about colonial Korea. Written by a Japanese author born in Seoul in 1930, where he remained until he was repatriated to Japan following Korea’s 1945 liberation, these stories portray colonial Korea from a sympathetic Japanese perspective.
Three of the stories stand out for their sympathy towards vanishing Korean culture and the plight of Koreans trying to retain their nationality and dignity under Japanese occupation. Possibly the best known of these is the title work, The Clan Records, which tells the story of the scheme to force Koreans to adopt Japanese names, from the perspective of a pro-Korean Japanese official whose job it is to enforce the “voluntary” name changes, and the pro-Japanese yangban and clan elder who holds out against the pressure because of his obligations to his clan. The plot forms the basis of Im Kwon-taek’s Genealogy, and additional input into Im’s classic film is another story from the same book, When the hibiscus blooms, which tells of a Japanese artist who “discovers” Koryo dynasty celadon — almost a fictionalisation of Yanagi Soetsu‘s life.
The weakest and shortest of the stories is A crane on a dunghill, about a kisaeng who dupes a Japanese into helping her nationalist brother escape to Manchuria, while those who have been following the debate about Japanese history textbooks will be interested in reading The remembered shadow of the Yi dynasty. This again tells the story, set in the 1930s, of a Japanese artist sympathetic to Korean culture. Captivated by the beauty and elegance of a kisaeng he wins her trust and creates an award-winning painting of her Yi dynasty courtly dance. The kisaeng abruptly disowns him when she sees a photograph of the painter’s father, an ex-military man. This leads the artist to research his father’s past. The painter had always been taught at school that Korea and Japan had lived harmoniously together, and that the Japanese had always been welcome in Korea. The artist finds out about the March 1st movement (the mansei incident) and his father’s part in a Japanese atrocity soon thereafter. The discovery, in a secret military account of the event, is seen as subversive and revolutionary by the Japanese police in Korea.
The story which most seems to strike home, and which could almost be autobiographical, is Seeking life amidst death, a first person account of the experiences of a teenage Japanese schoolboy in Seoul at the time of Japan’s surrender at the end of the Second World War. In a way, this story gives what must be the most pure Japanese viewpoint, and the viewpoint is summed up as follows:
We Japanese children brought up in colonial Korea knew a very convenient expression: “Being Korean, how dare you…?” This cruel question possessed an unopposable power until almost the very end of the Pacific War. In spite of all the propaganda about the “unification” of Korea and Japan or about the equality of the two countries, the scornful attitude of the Japanese toward the Koreans had been nurtured in us since childhoods was not easy to change, even if Korean names … were changed into Japanese versions. Besides, we Japanese had been brought up without knowing how cruelly and severely Japan had attacked, exploited and suppressed the Koreans: discrimination against them had been practiced in every area, including education and employment.
The stories are enjoyable in their own right, but are more valuable for the perspective they provide on Korean-Japanese relations during the colonial period. Packed with interesting little details, some of the more disturbing historical realities are mentioned only in passing – for example the post-liberation lynchings of pro-Japanese Koreans. What shines through most, though, is the author’s affection for Korea and his nostalgia for its past.
Well worth searching out.