Yuasa Katsuei was born in Japan in 1910 and before his second birthday moved to Korea where his father worked in the colonial police force. He went to university in Tokyo from 1929, before returning to Korea in 1936. While in Tokyo he became involved in left-wing circles.
The two novels translated by Mark Driscoll in this version could be said to reflect much of Yuasa’s personal experience. In particular, the central character of Kannani is a young Japanese boy, son of a policeman who moved to live in Suwon at an early age. For the Japanese, it was a significant step up in terms of pay and living standards. Kannani is set in 1919, starting on New Year’s Day and climaxing soon after the March 1st movement demonstrations. At its centre is the relationship between the Japanese boy and a Korean girl who lives next door. The boy, Ryuji, is clearly sympathetic to things Korean – he wants to be able to wear Korean clothes and fly Korean kites – and there are characterful descriptions of children’s games and scenes in the market. Less idyllic is the description of Koreans risking their lives to salvage melons from the flood waters or watching helplessly as houses complete with their occupants are swept along in the torrents. And the narrator recounts with a detached gloom the excesses of the Japanese in the strained post-March 1st environment. The narrator’s father represents possibly the “decent” face of Japanese colonialism, in that his ambition is to quit the police service. As a counterfoil, there is the “bad Japanese” police chief who practices his sword technique on Korean prisoners.
Document of Flames is equally interesting, presenting the colonial story from a female perspective. A barren Japanese woman, cast out by her husband, goes to Korea with her adopted daughter as it seems to be the only option available, where a destitute woman can hope to survive by her wits and body among the colonials. She manages, after a while, to fall on her feet, and having been exploited most of her life by Japanese men finally is in a position of power over her Korean tenants. Meanwhile her daughter goes to university in Tokyo where she becomes involved with left-wing student activists and gets herself a record with the police.
Both of the stories published here are incomplete as a result of Japanese censorship, but not seriously so. It makes one wonder what the originals were like. Driscoll argues that these early novels reveal an anti-colonial viewpoint, while Yuasa’s later work shows an acceptance and support of Japanese imperialism. While the reader might disagree with the assessment of these novels as anti-colonial, one can certainly agree that they are sympathetic to the colonised. In a fascinating introduction and postscript Driscoll discusses the process of “tenko” whereby Japanese consciously or unconsciously, (willingly, unwillingly or without even noticing it), came to embrace the imperialistic mindset. In fact, this volume is almost as worth reading for Driscoll’s essay as it is for the novellas themselves.