Saturday, July 6, 2019

"Black Blood" (Part 2): The Fate of Japan's Last Good Man

This post covers the second part of the story "Black Blood: From a Japanese Reporter's Notebook" (흑혈: 한 일본인기자의 수기중에서) by Choe Su Bŏm, which appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in August 2018. Part One can be read here. The story is set in Tokyo, alternating between the present day and colonial era.

We pick up where we left off last month, as the narrator, a Japanese "progressive reporter" for Asahi Shimbun, has just read a section of his grandfather's diary describing atrocities perpetrated by Japanese against Koreans after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

Story Summary (continued)

Just as he sets down the diary, there's a knock on the door. It's the reporter's old friend, Ri Ra Song, a writer for Chosŏn Shinbo

Front page of Choson Shinbo, a pro-Pyongyang
newspaper published by Chongryon
Ri had been a key mentor and source, providing invaluable material evidence of collusion between colonial era war criminals and the Japanese Far Right. That article had vaulted him out of obscurity to become one of Japan’s most highly-regarded progressive reporters. Ri had also provided reliable evidence to counter the anti-Chongryon lobbying effort last March, helping cement the reporter’s reputation as an objective authority free from ideological and nationalist biases.

Without mentioning his earlier encounter with Ozawa, the reporter presses Ri for fresh scoops. Ri obligingly dishes that there's another plot in the works by the Japanese government and far-right groups to trump up yet more charges against Chongryon. Handing over a stack of documentary evidence, Ri says, “I know your pen won’t rest until you’ve seen this through to the end.”

“You can count on it,” the reporter replies. 

After Ri departs, the reporter examines the evidence with growing agitation. It makes it abundantly clear that Ozawa’s “evidence” was a pure fabrication. Still, something makes him hesitate to take up his pen.

He picks up his grandfather's diary again.

  ---Grandfather’s diary---
   It was just after the war’s end; Tokyo had been reduced to rubble by American bombs, and everyone was starving. We Japanese, who had once tramped over all of East Asia and the Pacific, had been transformed from “masters of the East” to human hyenas picking through the Americans’ trash. Our fangs, which had once chewed on the rich fat of “Greater East Asia,” now gnashed on American excrement, trailing thick ropy saliva. By the by, it’s a wonder how we islanders have survived with such messed-up teeth....
Having lost everything to the firebombs, the grandfather went in search of his son and only surviving child Suzuki (스즈끼), who'd been drafted into the war. He heard the boy had been stationed on a remote northern island, and so he traveled to a miserable little fishing port in Hokkaido where any returning troops would surely dock.

One day he spotted a ragged, skeletal pair coming up the rocky shoreline. Their uniforms hung in tatters like shrouds, and the taller one was all but carrying the shorter one. 
Japanese soldiers returning after WWII surrender

They begged him for food, but he had none. Crazed, the shorter one brandished his weapon and wailed "Give us something to eat, old man, or we’ll chew on you!” 

As he brandished his gun, the tall one held him back, saying “Stop, Suzuki, what are you doing?” At those words, the grandfather looked closer and recognized his son Suzuki. 

Father and son embraced, but Suzuki was still delirious and ranting about food. His companion, a peasant lad from Okinawa named Nomura, explained that they'd been adrift for days and were nearly dead from starvation.

Then Suzuki spotted a dog tied up outside the village chief's home across the street. After a brief struggle with his comrade, he lifted his gun and fired on the dog. Tragically, just at that moment, the village chief's 8-year-old son ran around from behind the house and into the line of fire. The bullet pierced the boy's heart and killed him instantly.

At the sound of the shot, an angry mob of villagers came boiling out. Suzuki tried to flee, but the villagers quickly surrounded both soldiers. With fire in his eyes, the village chief snatched up his katana. “Who did it? Who fired the shot?”

A quick-thinking Suzuki pointed the finger at his comrade Nomura. He got the villagers on his side by claiming that Nomura was "not a pure Yamato" but rather "a filthy Okinawan dog." In the end it came down to the only other eye-witness, the grandfather, who sided with his son and allowed the villagers to butcher the hapless Nomura.

---End grandfather’s diary---

The reporter gets a call from Ozawa, asking if he's finished writing up the Chongryon mushroom story yet. He informs him that at dawn, the Joint Investigation Bureau plans to arrest two executives of Korean Foodstuffs Import Company Ltd.
   “That’s right! Let’s show them what this 'nation of laws' is all about. The order has already gone out to every newspaper and broadcaster. You can bet Asahi Shimbun won’t want to miss out on this scoop. Better write fast. ‘Chongryon Chairman’s Son Arrested!’ will make a nice splashy headline. Rip ‘em to shreds, Chongryon and the Republic both.”
The reporter hesitates, conflicted. Suddenly he recalls how Ri had stood up for him several years ago, when Ozawa was trying to silence him through blackmail. Ozawa's gang had fabricated photos showing him taking bribes from Chongryon's director and sleeping with prostitutes. They were going to publicly slander him as a sex addict who sold his pen for cash.

The two men had gone to face Ozawa together.

“So, you think to gamble with your lives?” Ozawa smirked, flanked left and right by yakuza thugs brandishing deadly weapons.

Ri shrugged. “You’re the ones who are into gambling. I have Chongryon and the Republic at my back. I have the power of truth and righteousness. Listen well. If you release these disgusting photos, I'll expose the connections between your Far Right forces and the yakuza." Ozawa had no choice but to abandon the plot.

Ri had saved his reputation; how can he now betray him?

But then in his mind's eye he sees the pile of money Ozawa had promised and remembers his threats. He agonizes for a long time, but ultimately decides that "No matter how I try to deny it, I was born Japanese; the black blood flows through my veins."

The story ends with him sitting down to type: “Chongryon Chairman’s Son Arrested! Chongryon a Criminal Org….”

Japan's Minorities

This story segment follows a longstanding North Korean tradition of zooming in on minority ill-treatment in foreign countries. For instance, as the grandfather's diary describes the northern fishing village where he awaited his son Suzuki's return, he makes a point of mentioning that "The Emishi people (Japanese aboriginals) who had once lived there had long ago been driven off by the Japanese."

The treatment of the "Okinawan peasant" Nomura  is even more illuminating. As the villagers surround the two soldiers and demand to know who fired the fatal shot:
   A peculiar smile crossed my son's face. “It wasn’t me! I didn’t shoot him! It was that son-of-a-bitch, that guy over there.” He waved his hands frantically. “He’s not a pure Yamato. He’s a filthy Okinawan dog!”
   Even I couldn’t help but feel taken aback by this spectacular delusion. Okinawa had been absorbed into Japan over a century ago. There was nobody, even among the Okinawans themselves, who still believed they were not Japanese. But Suzuki’s desperate words, spoken with the sword over his head, had a spectacular effect. Just as a son of a concubine is not a true son of the emperor, the Okinawans were not true-blooded descendants of Amaterasu Omikami but only a bastard offshoot.
   “The Okinawan dog killed a Japanese child,” he cried, pleading with the crowd. My son’s familiar features had twisted into the exact same fawning supplicant expression I’d seen so many years ago on Ishikawa’s face....
   The village chief seized Nomura by the collar. “Is it true? Are you a Ryukyu bastard? Did you kill my boy?”
   Nomura suddenly shouted. “That’s right, I’m Okinawan. And I’m a fool who believed I could be every bit as Japanese as you. I went off to war with you, boasting of the Yamato spirit, invading other lands, dragging blameless Koreans back for slave labor, burying them in secret mines on remote islands. My hands are covered in blood. And what do I get for it? I get to be Japanese when it’s useful, and when it’s not I’m just a Ryukyu dog. That’s the real Japanese spirit; jackals who don’t hesitate to gobble up your compatriots to save your own skin.”
   He turned his crazed eyes to me. “You, old man, you saw the whole thing, didn’t you? Speak up. Prove that some island folk have a shred of humanity.”
   I looked at him and thought about Chŏng Sam and Ishikawa; about the evil black blood flowing in my son’s body. I realized that he’d inherited it from me, as I’d inherited it from the long line of my ancestors. And suddenly it seemed appropriate that Nomura, who’d taken such pride in being Japanese but been betrayed by his impure blood, should meet his death on Japanese soil.
   His blood on the rocky shale looked almost black.
An Okinawan family in the 1900s.
Src: Taiwan News
In the past North Korean propaganda has often highlighted racial injustices in the West, particularly in America. These passages indicate an interest in Japan's minority policies as well. 

On top of the treatment of the hang-wae character Ishikawa in the earlier installment, this story puts together an image of minorities in Japan striving to fit in and prove their Japanese-ness, even as the pure-blooded Japanese disparage and mistreat them. The Japanese characters, by contrast, seem simultaneously proud of and disgusted by their own "black blood."

Problematic Japanese Narrator

This story really illuminates a key shortcoming in socialist realism: that it cannot depict an unreliable or dishonest narrator. This helps explain why North Korean stories so rarely take a foreigner's point of view. Recall how Ryŏksa ui Taeha showed the Clintons expressing grudging admiration for their North Korean adversary and disgust with their own devious tactics. Similarly, Maehok took First Lady Rosalyn Carter's point of view and showed her honest disappointment in her husband's weakness as contrasted with the greatness of the Great Leader. 

In this story, you can sense how the author struggles to frame believable motivations for the two Japanese narrators, without exposing them as virtuous or good. The result is that both the reporter and his diarist grandfather appear to struggle but ultimately succumb to their own evil natures, simply because they cannot escape their genetic destiny.

For example, after reading of the shooting incident in the fishing village, the reporter/narrator closes his grandfather's diary and thinks:
   What an extraordinary story, told by a common Japanese.
   Or was it a common story, told by an extraordinary Japanese?
   I felt that my grandfather’s character – his capacity for remorse and self-awareness, for seeing faults as faults – was really unusual in this land whose folk praise betrayal and shamelessness as features of the national character. I had little doubt that incidents like those described in the diary occurred every day, every hour in our country.
   Was I, too, destined to stab generous and righteous people in the back, just like my father and grandfather and Ishikawa?
   I gathered Ri Ra Song’s materials and turned on my computer. No, I decided. For once I would not to take Ozawa’s bait. But then, why were my fingers frozen over the keys?
The narrators, though Japanese themselves, never miss a chance to take a shot at the physical features of the Japanese - their short stature, their bad teeth. In his diary, the grandfather lingers on a disparaging contrast between his two young boarders: Ishikawa is dark, short and ugly, with a sloped forehead and squinty eyes, while Chŏng Sam is tall and distinguished-looking, popular with girls.

In the later diary segment, he goes on a long tangent about how Japanese teeth resemble those of a hyena, being crooked and over-long. He repeatedly comments with loathing on Ishikawa's groveling, obsequious expression, and is distressed to see the same expression on his own son's face - and realize that he wears it himself.

In the present-day, the Asahi Shimbun reporter describes how he "scuttled to keep up with Ri Ra Song's long strides" when they marched off to confront Ozawa over the fabricated photos.

At the story's climax, as the narrator agonizes over whether to write Ozawa's fabricated Chongryon story or Ri's true story, he ponders his genetic destiny:
   It’s a truism that those who do not willingly embrace their odious fate are dragged into it nonetheless. No matter how I agonized, struggled and regretted, I could never escape the destiny of the Yamato folk.
   Just then fate knocked on my door, in the form of one of Ozawa’s yakuza thugs. He thrust a single sheet of paper at me; it read, “Preserve the Yamato spirit!”
    Ah, the black blood that twines through the people of Yamato like Laocoön’s snakes.
   Who was I to try and cure Japan of the poisonous mental illness of nationalism that had afflicted it throughout history?
   No matter how I try to deny it, I was born Japanese; the black blood flows through my veins. Oh, the wretched providence of Amaterasu Omikami, afflicting her people with the incurable disease of nationalism!
Amaterasu Omikami is the foundational kami spirit of Japan, from whom the imperial line was said to be descended. Koreans may think of her as analogous to Tan'gun
Screen depicting Amaterasu Oomikami
The story uses this and other outdated references to Japanese mysticism (e.g. Yamato spirit) to suggest that Japanese beliefs are essentially unchanged from pre-war times. A social anthropologist could have a field day with the ways that this story recycles elements of the same blood nationalist mythology of imperial Japan to make the case for a Japanese genetic predisposition to deceit and treachery.

Understanding of the Press

It is interesting that the narrator, described in the story as one of Japan's few "true progressive reporters," works for Asahi Shimbun, which is generally regarded as left of center but hardly the most progressive paper in Japan. The story seems to imply that subversive anti-government reporting does get published in major Japanese newspapers with no legal consequences, although the narrator does get threatened with blackmail by Ozawa and the Far Right. One wonders what a typical North Korean reader would make of this.

The narrator appears motivated to make a name for himself as a truth-telling progressive. He despises Ozawa but continues to use him as a source. But he also relies on Ri Ra Song, who gave him the source material for a ground-breaking exposé of the Japanese right-wing that launched his career. At one point, he recalls that he wrote the story "not out of any sense of justice but just to test the limits of my own power.

Choson Shinbo, the newspaper Ri Ra Song works for, is a Tokyo-based newspaper operated by Chongryon that publishes pro-Pyongyang stories in both Japanese and Korean. Its website tends to be more graphically advanced than the North Korea-based sites, and I have used its images as illustrations in several previous blog entries.