Akutagawa Prize #122: Kage no sumika, by Gengetsu

Gengetsu 玄月Kage no sumika 蔭の棲みか.  Bungei Shunjū, 2000.

This was the co-winner of the 122nd A-Prize, for late 1999.  The other co-winner was Fujino Chiya 藤野千夜’s Natsu no yakusoku 夏の約束.

Gengetsu (the copyright page romanizes his name like that) was born in 1965;  he’s a zainichi Korean, born and raised in Osaka by Korean parents.  “Kage no sumika” (Dwelling in the shadows) is about zainichi Koreans in Osaka, but the point of view character is in his seventies.  Clearly this is not autobiographical, but equally as clearly, Gengetsu is writing, at least in general terms, about his community.

The character is called Soban;  it’s not his name, but a Korean term of respect that was applied to him when he was young and that has stuck.  It’s one of a few vestiges of multilingualism in the community as depicted in the story, a Korean enclave dating to before the war that is now (i.e., in 1999) almost gone.  Soban’s father built it, and now Soban is on his last legs.  So this story is, above all, a snapshot of an Osaka zainichi community at a particular point in time.

The community itself is unnamed;  it’s a warren of barracks hidden in the backstreets of east Osaka, and in the story it’s only referred to as shūraku 集落, the “settlement.”  It was and still is dependent on a shoe factory in the neighborhood, which is now run by Nagayama, a product of the settlement;  but most of the zainichi residents have moved up and out of the settlement.  Many still live in the neighborhood, but Soban himself is the only one who still lives in the actual barracks.  The other rooms are either empty or inhabited by illegal immigrants from China employed in Nagayama’s factory.

So there are, in a sense, two communities being focused on.  One is the community of zainichi Koreans who founded, grew up in, and have now moved out of the settlement.  Nagayama is one of them;  another is Takamoto, a doctor who practices in the neighborhood.  Both of these men are of the generation younger than Soban;  Takamoto was once friends with Soban’s late son.  We also meet men of the next generation young, Nagayama’s son and others;  they field a community baseball team that Soban, Takamoto, and other men in the community follow religiously.

Nagayama and Takamoto are both success stories, after a fashion.  Nagayama has made it as a capitalist, and in the story he displays both the energy and the aggression that one would expect from such a character;  Soban’s father founded the settlement, and Soban lives on there as a sort of revenant of the original community, but Nagayama now rules it, keeping the Chinese laborers firmly under his thumb.  One imagines that to him the barracks are less home than useful machine.  Takamoto, although portrayed as unsentimentally as everything else in the story, is, as a doctor, the selfless healer ministering to the community;  Soban visits him frequently, both for medical and social reasons.

Both these men have managed to integrate to one degree or another with Japanese society;  Soban has not.  He served in the Japanese army during the war, lost his hand, and spent a lot of his adult life suffering the scorn of those in the settlement who are less enthusiastic about assimilating into Japanese society.  Not that Soban seems to have ever been interested in that;  he never left the settlement, and after his son died (having gone to Tokyo during the sixties, gotten involved in the liberation movement, and then gotten mixed up with criminals) and his marriage ended, he seems to have just lingered in the barracks, supported (barely) by Nagayama.  By the time of the story, he isn’t doing much:  living in squalor, watching baseball games.

And developing a friendship, and perhaps more, with Saeki-san, a Japanese woman from Kōbe who visits him from time to time as a social welfare volunteer.  She’s in her forties, and is unfazed by the atmosphere of the barracks.  She’s not a crusader, just a cheerful companion, and Soban comes to look more and more forward to her visits.  It’s not clear whether he’s falling in love, or just appreciates some connection to the outside world, or what;  but her visits arouse the jeering interest of Nagayama, Takamoto, and others at the ballgames.

There are only two women in the story:  Saeki-san and Sutcha.  Sutcha is a derelict old woman who, in her youth, had been entrusted with money by members of the settlement who didn’t trust (or perhaps didn’t have access to?) banks;  she embezzled it, and as a community they subjected her to a horrible ritual beating, which left her the way we meet her.  This violence at the heart of the closed community is something echoed in the story’s present, as Soban stumbles across an eerily similar scene among the Chinese residents.  The fact that the settlement’s violence had been directed against a woman is also echoed in a suggestion, near the end, that Nagayama has raped Saeki.  As the story ends, the police are threatening to raid the settlement to clamp down on the intra-Chinese violence;  there’s no hint that they’re investigating the rape. 

As a portrait of this zainichi community, this is a very effective story, partly because so much of the community is absent, gone, moved on.  What we have is the suggestion that most products of the settlement have found lives outside it, at least somewhat better lives, and have left it behind.  A few of the diaspora like Takamoto maintain ties, and others like Nagayama have made a life exploiting the infrastructure that made the settlement possible, turning it to new uses.  But mostly, from Soban’s point of view, the settlement is just empty, a husk of what must once have been a teeming village.  It’s a community that, in most sense, doesn’t really seem to exist anymore, except in the person of Soban, who is almost a ghost.

Not easy reading, but dense and impressive.

The second story in the volume, “Oppai おっぱい” (Breast), was a finalist in the previous prize round.  It’s narrated by a “normal Japanese” man in his late 30s whose wife Yūko, or Yūsha, is a zainichi Korean.  The story thus focuses on a non-zainichi person’s perceptions of zainichi culture.

The narrator and Yūko are childless and both have careers.  They’ve settled down into a distant but comfortable, mostly sexless relationship;  it’s unclear how engaged the narrator is with his wife’s heritage but she keeps in touch with fellow zainichi classmates.  The story revolves around two visits, one in the present and one told in flashback, to the couple by a former teacher of Yūko’s, Kan-sensei, and his daughter Mika or Mifa.

Kan-sensei is no longer working as a teacher;  during the first visit it’s unclear how he supports himself, but it’s hinted that he makes money by selling videos from North Korea to former students, giving them an excuse to give him money.  He’s of North Korean heritage, and it seems that Yūko and her classmates are too;  Kan-sensei at one point helped some get into North Korea to take up lives there.  Yūko still maintains a sentimental respect for her former teacher;  the narrator muses that he has nothing to learn from the man.

Mifa is a different story.  Blind, during the first visit she exerts a strange fascination for the narrator;  while Yūko and the teacher watch a North Korean political speech, the narrator and Mifa get drunk and flirtatious.  By the second visit, however, Mifa is married and has a newborn baby;  during the visit she breast-feeds the child in front of the couple.  Thus the title – they’re both shocked, and the sight of the ample bare breast gives the narrator thoughts of having a child with his wife.  She shuts him down.  End of story.

There’s a lot going on in this story, but it may be too much for the short plot.  The idea of portraying a mixed couple like this from the non-zainichi partner’s perspective is, for a zainichi writer, an interesting one, and there are a lot of possibilities hinted at here.  The narrator never quite says how he feels about it, but he clearly feels like something of an outsider when seeing his wife interact with her zainichi friends.  Meanwhile the scenes with Mifa are quite vividly realized, their mutual awkwardness alternating with moments of surprising directness;  but quite how this is supposed to fit thematically with the rest of the story isn’t quite clear to me.  It’s memorable and well written, though.

The last story in the volume, “Butai yakusha no kodoku 舞台役者の孤独” (The loneliness of the stage actor), is the longest and the earliest.  Thematically it seems to be a precursor of the title story.  It takes place in what seems to be an Osaka slum with a large population of zainichi Koreans;  the place is not quite as well defined, but it has alleys, abandoned houses, and other features of the “settlement” from the later story.  It also has a Korean Christian church, shuttered, around which much of the action revolves.

It’s told from the point of view of a young man, rather than an old one, a zainichi named Nozomu, about twenty.  He has been surrounded by death and other kinds of loss from childhood:  parents, younger brother, aunt and uncle, peope in the neighborhood.  Much of it violent, and at least some of it in some part due to him, although he’s late in realizing this.  He was wild in his teenage years, but is now trying to go straight, without much success.  The story involves other street kids, drug dealers, violence, theft, a hit and run, cops, prostitutes, and a defrocked Canadian priest.

Like “Kage no sumika,” it’s kind of a group portrait;  the figures who come into sharpest relief are Kim, Nozomu’s uncle (maybe) from Jeju Island and a drug smuggler and who knows what else, and Mayuko, an ethnically Japanese woman whose husband abandoned her next to the church and who is now a prostitute.  There’s kind of a triangle between Nozomu, Kim, and Mayuko;  it kind of gets resolved when the cops crack down on Kim and the defrocked Canadian priest convinces Mayuko to join his new religion…

It’s a bit overstuffed, like “Oppai.”  It’s also a bit hard to follow, narratively;  overall, Gengetsu’s prose is rather challenging, and his storytelling rather choppy.  But it’s vivid, and is an effective bookend with “Kage no sumika,” showing what might be the same community from the perspectives of men on opposite ends of their lives.

(Added 1/5/19)