Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei; Guilt, Nostalgia, and Victimhood: Korea in the Japanese Theatrical Imagination

Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei (UCLA) (in association with The Japan Foundation)

Thursday 1st December 2011, at the Japan Foundation, 10-12 Russell Square, London, WC1B 5EH

Guilt, Nostalgia, and Victimhood: Korea in the Japanese Theatrical Imagination

Carol began her talk by acknowledging the sensitivity of her topic vis-à-vis historical records of Japanese atrocities committed during the Nanjing Massacre and the conscription of comfort women during World War II.  Against this backdrop, she situated her lecture as an exploration of the dialectical tussle between the denial of history and the right to free speech.

As Carol understands, Japanese theatre productions have provided new ways of viewing the nation’s imperialistic past, dealing for example with unsavoury aspects of relations with minority groups in meaningful ways. These artistic and theatrical practices have, in turn, also created new spins on current relationships with Korea and people of Korean ethnicity. Here, Carol also highlighted the importance of the concept of Hogan biiki, or sympathy for losers. A concept dating back to the 11th century, it facilitates – as she argues – the transformation of feelings of guilt into feelings of nostalgia by the ‘noble oppressor’ for the ‘noble victim.’

Carol then spoke about how Korea has been historically viewed by Japan sometimes as culturally superior, and other times as inferior. In the 14th century, Noh aesthetician Zeami had tweaked his genealogy to suggest Korean descent, whereas from the late 19th century onwards, the position of Koreans – particularly, Koreans living in Japan from the 1910s known as Zainichi – became more ambiguous. During the Kanto Earthquake of 1923, Koreans were presented as thugs poisoning wells. For a period of time Zainichi Koreans hid their identity and attempted to integrate anonymously into Japanese society. However, with the rise of the Korean wave via popular music and TV dramas in the 2000s, Zainichi Koreans have come out of the woodwork, and begun to identify themselves publicly and proudly.

Carol referred to six different plays as case studies of her thesis on the historical and theatrical remaking of Japanese guilt into different forms of nostalgia. The first case study, Satoh Makoto’s My Beatles, was a meta-theatrical meditation on guilt and self-hatred. Satoh’s work was based on the Komatsugao incident, which involved the rape and murder of a Japanese girl by a Zainichi Korean. Using the format of a play within a play, Satoh depicts the story of a Japanese man and his Zainichi girlfriend, who each have different ways of coming to terms with the Korean ‘issue.’ The man devises a play to help him enact – and one imagines, pay penance for – his nation’s imperialistic past; his girlfriend fantasizes about the Beatles arriving in Japan to rescue her and whisk her off to the ‘true’ Korea. The Beatles eventually arrive but turn out to be sinister agents who punish and murder the man, who they see as arrogantly appropriating the identity of Koreans. Written in 1967 at the crux of Japan’s transition into a full-fledged democracy, the play explores the concept of the noble victim, and of the victor as a sympathiser-turned-eventual co-victim.

Korean-Japanese playwright Chong Wishing’s A Legend of Mermaids was the second play Carol examined. Featuring characters with composite identities (mirroring members of the Zainichi community), the play is told through the eyes of a poet. Returning to his childhood fishing village, the poet recalls a cruel deed committed in his past involving a lie about mermaid called Goldfish, who had lived in the margins of the seaside town. The poet’s earlier, malicious deed had eventually led to the disintegration of his own family and the death of Goldfish. In the present day he reminisces and regrets his error, asking for penance from an old woman. He is told: ‘I forgive you, that’s all past and gone now… dreams are just dreams.’  The old woman’s response is the playwright’s metaphor for the larger anaesthetisation of the Korean issue both by the Japanese and by Zainichi Koreans: everything, conveniently, becomes a ‘dream.’ As Carol argues, the play’s audience is left unsure about Japan’s relationship to its past; nostalgia is deflated.

The third play Carol looked at was Tsutsumi Harue’s Destination Japan, adapted from the true story of a Zainichi Korean pianist, Choi Soon-ae. Alongside pursuing a long and illustrious career in music, Choi actively resists being naturalised and fights to keep her Korean identity and name. At the same time, Choi also battles the legal system for her right to remain in Japan. Her journey leads to the epoch-making end of the policy of alien finger-printing in Japan. Here, Carol sees Tsutsumi as setting up an ambiguous stance on the Korean issue: the playwright is ostensibly against discrimination, but also condemns Choi’s decision not to assimilate.

Hirata Oriza’s Citizens of Seoul was Carol’s fourth case study. The play is set in the home of a Japanese family living in Seoul prior to Japan’s official annexing of Korea. It presents the Chekhovian image of Japanese oppressors who imagine themselves as acting in the interests of their Korean subjects’ welfare: servants are offered used clothing and share tea with their masters. However, little deeds of everyday life reveal the – ultimately – discriminatory and racist attitudes of the Japanese family. The mother professes her hatred of Korean food without having tried it, the daughter – who cannot speak Korean – suggests that the language does not offer any literary value. As Carol describes, the little ironies mirror modern-day Japanese superiority complexes.

The fifth example Carol mentioned was Kaneshita Tatsuo’s Ice Blossom, set in a prison during the Meiji era. It details the final days of Korean activist An Jung-geun, on death row for assassinating the Japanese prime minister Itoh Hirobumi. In the play, An develops a friendship with a Japanese doctor-interpreter, who becomes openly critical of official Japanese attitudes towards Korean captors, and speaks of the Korean activist’s ‘saintly murder… going to execution without fear.’ According to Carol, the play revises an otherwise hegemonic Japanese viewing of An as terrorist-assassin, re-presenting him as a freedom fighter. An is mythologised; he becomes doubly Other.

Miyagi Satoshi’s visually-stunning Medea, a play-within-a-play which re-imagines Greek tragedy through the eyes of a Korean shaman-turned-comfort woman, was Carol’s final case study. As Carol describes, the shaman, together with fellow comfort women, is asked to put on Euripedes’ play as entertainment for her Japanese masters. The shaman finds a way to mock the Japanese imperialists and take revenge, stripping her kimono off to reveal a hanbok underneath, and eventually tearing the hall down. Unlike Carol’s earlier examples, this particular play does not offer Japanese audiences guilt as nostalgia, but rather performance as outrage. However, while the victim is eventually portrayed as empowered – even vengeful and victorious – Carol argues that Korean women were still depicted in stereotype: as shamans, and as prostitutes.

Carol concluded the talk by emphasising that both the Japanese and Zainichi Koreans do wish to confront history in meaningful – if different – ways, and appear comfortable using the platforms, techniques and formats of theatrical performance to interrogate Korean issues. While some of these performances presented guilt somewhat ambiguously as nostalgia, other performances refocused the victim’s stance as performed outrage.

Apart from plays, Carol also discussed several non-standard performances, such as the 2000 Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal dealing with so-called comfort women. Here, Korean protestors at the event emphatically did not want to be seen as noble victims, but as active agents of historical memory, seeking Japan’s acknowledgement and retribution for crimes committed.

About the speaker

Professor Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei is a specialist in Japanese theatre and intercultural performance, as well as a playwright and director. Her bookUnspeakable Acts: The Avant-Garde Theatre of Terayama Shuji and Postwar Japan (University of Hawaii, 2005) analyzes the complex work of playwright/director/filmmaker Terayama in cultural/historical context, and includes translations of his plays and theory. She is co-author with Phillip Zarrilli, Bruce McConachie and Gary Jay Williams of Theatre Histories: An Introduction (Routledge, second edition 2010). Articles on Japanese performance, intercultural theater, and fusion theater as well as book and play reviews appear in  various journals, books and encyclopedias. Her translations from Japanese appear in Asian Theatre Journal and Half a Century of Japanese Theatre. She has presented over one hundred papers at conferences throughout the world, and has written fifteen original plays include the award-winning Medea: A Noh Cycle Based on the Greek Myth.

Summary by Shzr Ee Tan, Royal Holloway, University of London

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