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Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011
Writing about wrongs at home and abroad
Yang Sok Gil reached 'the ragged edge' as a Korean-Japanese before his talents paid off
By ERIKO ARITA
Yang Sok Gil is renowned for his novels describing, with remarkable humanity and humor, people's wanton desires and the problems they cause, often from the viewpoint of minorities in Japan or elsewhere.
As a second-generation Korean resident of Japan, Yang was born in 1936 to parents who moved to Osaka from Jeju, an island off the south of the peninsula, in the 1920s.
As he makes clear in his latest novel, "Ashita no Kaze" ("Wind of Tomorrow"), he grew up as a member of an ethnic minority discriminated against by native Japanese. Also, during U.S. wartime air raids on Osaka, Yang and his mother and sister were lucky to survive.
After the war, Yang helped his mother in her business buying fruit and vegetables in the countryside, which he and his sister would sell on the black market in Osaka. During this time, when Yang was living a somewhat "colorful" life, he says the three of them had to fend for themselves because his father spent most of his time gambling and was only rarely around.
However, since being a high school student, Yang had been writing poems in Japanese, and afterward, while working as a shop clerk, he joined a circle of Korean writers in Osaka who published a poetry magazine. Before long, though, that circle was closed down by order of Chongryon (the [pro-Pyongyang] General Association of Korean Residents in Japan).
Next off, Yang started his own printing business in Osaka, but when that failed he became a cafe manager far to the north in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. That job, though, didn't earn him nearly enough to pay off his large debts, so he moved again, to Tokyo, where he worked as a taxi driver from the early 1970s into the '80s.
Based on that experience, he wrote his first novel, "Takushi Kyosokyoku" ("Taxi Crazy Rhapsody"), which was published in 1981, when he was 45. The book sold well from the start, and so Yang decided to become a full-time novelist. Then in 1993 the work was made into a film, titled "Tsuki wa Docchi ni Deteiru" ("All Under the Moon"), which won 53 awards in Japan.
The following year, he was back courting major awards again, with a novel titled "Yoru o Kakete" ("Through the Night") about the tough world of Koreans in Osaka collecting and selling scrap metal from a former arms factory and their troubles with the police around 1960. That work was a finalist for 1994's Naoki Prize, the most prestigious award for entertaining literature in Japanese.
Staying with the subject of Koreans in Japan, Yang finally struck it lucky awards-wise with "Chi to Hone" ("Blood and Bones"), a book based on the dramatic, shady world his father inhabited, which won the renowned Yamamoto Shugoro Prize in 1998. In 2004, the novel was made into a movie of the same name, with celebrity tough-guy actor Beat Takeshi in the main role.
But Yang's novels aren't all set close to home, and he spent time researching in Thailand for his 2004 novel about child prostitution there titled "Yami no Kodomotachi" ("Children of the Dark"). In 2008, that work was made into a controversial hit movie of the same name, with popular actress Aoi Miyazaki playing the heroine, a Japanese staffer at a Thai NGO rescuing sexually abused children.
As well, Yang had also been in New York researching prior to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 — an experience that resulted in his 2006 book "Nyu Yoku Chika Kyowakoku" ("New York Underground Republic") about the chaos there during and after those events.
As busy as his schedule continues to be, on Nov. 24, 2010 — the day after North Korea bombarded the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong and killed four South Koreans — the 74-year-old novelist met The Japan Times at his house in Tokyo's Suginami Ward.
What brought your parents to Japan?
My father was kind of a gangster and would hang around gambling dens in Korea and then Japan after he came here in his late 20s. My mother had been forced by her yang ban (upper-class) parents to marry a 10-year-old boy when she was 18. She didn't like her husband and so she escaped to Japan.
What did she do when she got to Japan?
She worked at a cotton-spinning factory in Sakai, Osaka, for three years. Around that time, industries in the so-called Hanshin Industrial Belt were prospering and the factories there needed laborers. Most of the laborers were women from Okinawa or Korea.
How did she meet your father?
She fell in love with a Korean manager at the factory and got pregnant. But the man abandoned her. He told her he was going back to Jeju for a while and never returned. She couldn't continue her job and moved to Nakamichi in Higashinari Ward in Osaka. She gave birth to a daughter, my half-sister, who is 12 years older than me. Then she opened a bar and sold Korean liquor, shochu and pork. My father was one of her customers.
I heard your mother supported your family. Is that true?
Yes. My father was usually not at home because he was gambling or living with other women. He was notorious for his violence, too.
Was he a yakuza?
He was not, though he could have become one. Korean yakuza groups were formed after the war when black marketeers were fighting over their territories.
You wrote about your father in your novel "Chi to Hone" ("Blood and Bones"), which was made into a film starring Beat Takeshi. That character was violent and attached to money and sex. Is that how your father was?
Yes. He was very mean, too. Although he once started a business producing fish cakes and made a lot of money, he never spent on his family.
In your essays you have said you began writing poems when you were in high school. Was that the first writing you did?
I didn't have a special turning point, but even in elementary school I had liked writing. Then in junior high school student I was really into reading, and I began writing poems when I entered high school.
When did you start making your poems public?
I was 18 years old and in the second grade of a night high school. One day one of my friends was hospitalized because of appendicitis and I went to see him. At that time the Korean poet Kim Shi Jung was also in the hospital, and my friend introduced me to him. He was a pioneering Korean-Japanese poet, and a leading figure in the Japanese poetry world. He was also active in the Chongryon. He said, "I am a member of a group of poets. Why don't you come and visit us?" The group was called Jin Dal Rae.
Did you present your poems in the circle?
Yes. The circle's members were publishing a magazine and I wrote for it.
How long had the magazine been going?
I am not sure, but the circle published 20 issues. Chongryon had asked Kim to organize the circle by rounding up young Koreans in Japan. Chongryon wanted them to write poems that supported the organization and its policies — but such poems were not interesting at all. Then Kim wrote an essay in the magazine criticizing Chongryon. The organization was upset and branded our circle as being "anti-Kim Il Sung."
Eventually, Kim Shi Jung disbanded the organization and killed off its magazine. Out of about 50 poets in the circle, only three of us stayed together, and (in 1959) we tried to publish a new magazine. But that didn't work out and we all stopped writing for it.
What did you do then?
I married a (Korean) woman and had children. To support my family, I became reconciled with my father after years of confrontation. People close to my father persuaded him to get along with me. Then my family moved to a house in a single-story row my father owned. I started a printing company for labels and posters at the site of my father's former fish-cake factory.
How did your business go?
It went well at the beginning.
How long did you continue?
For one year. At my factory I had old machines that could only print such simple things as flyers. However, to have more orders and earn more, my staff and I decided to get new printing machines. We asked one of my cousins to let us rent part of his land, which he used as a pig farm in Nishinari. I built a new office and a factory there.
How much did all that cost?
It cost about ¥20 million.
How did you raise the money?
I borrowed it all. I was so good at borrowing money. (Laughs) I borrowed from banks and I also borrowed ¥3 million from my father. It was around 46 years ago and ¥3 million then was ¥10 million now.
How did you pay back the money?
I couldn't. I built the three-story building on the 90 tsubo (297 sq. meter) plot. Four new printing machines were on the first floor and a dormitory for staff was on the second. I lived on the third floor. But the business wasn't going well, so I hired a new person as factory chief and managing director. I'd heard he was a veteran businessman but he was not good, so I started visiting major companies without an appointment and asking them to give me orders. It was tough. I was always in debt and cash-strapped. Banks refused to lend me money and I borrowed from consumer-loan firms and black-market lenders. The black-market lenders loaned money at 10 percent interest for 10 days, though it was actually seven days because it took three days to send money to business partners or make payment through banks.