Some Literary and Political Considerations of Ri Kai Sei
October 11, 2000 / 18.30
Elise E. Foxworth, The University of Melbourne
When writer Ri Kai Sei (Lee Hoe Sung) (b. 1935) won the 1972 Akutagawa Prize for Literature for his novella Kinuta wo Utsu Onna (The Cloth Fuller), he immediately became well known in Japan, even outside the literary establishment, as the first Japan-based (zainichi) Korean winner of the esteemed prize. A graduate of Waseda University, Ri was influenced by the Silver Birch Literary Society, Shiga Naoya and hence the Japanese literary tradition of the shishōsetsu or ‘I’ novel. Like other post war writers in Japan Ri relentlessly questioned the meaning of existence in his literature and characteristically took up the common modern themes of the father-son relationship and man’s relationship to society at large.
Ri Kai Sei’s literature, however, exclusively stands out for a number of reasons, which I consider in this paper. Firstly, though Ri took up many of the same themes as his Japanese literary contemporaries, his depictions of life were clearly specific to zainichi Korean family life in the early post war era. Ri was thus the first zainichi Korean writer able to articulate the experiences and struggles of zainichi Koreans to a wide Japanese audience. His works, such as Shonin no inai kokei, Matafutatabi no michi, Kayako no tameni and others, thus demonstrated to the Japanese reader that zainichi Korean Emperor-centered fanaticism, the zainichi Korean father-son relationship or the struggle for a subjective identity were all informed by the historical trauma Koreans experienced as a result of colonialism and oppression within Japanese society.
Secondly, Ri’s literature stood apart from the ‘zainichi Korean’ literature of his predecessors. Ri eloquently took up the specific experiences and concerns of second-generation zainichi Koreans of his age bracket. He was widely acclaimed amongst his contemporaries as their first real spokesperson. Ri’s paradigmatic sketch of the process of identity formation: Japanese to half Korean to Korean, was hailed by many of his second-generation Korean peers as a refreshingly accurate description of their process of self-determination.
Though a literary romantic at heart, in the early stages of his career Ri Kai Sei reluctantly found himself almost forced to assume a political stature as a result of media attention. However, later he would be criticized for gratuitously flaunting certain ‘divisive’ political views and found himself embroiled in political controversy, particularly when he adopted South Korean nationality in 1998. Finally I would like to bring Ri Kai Sei’s political views into the discussion and evaluate how they have informed his more recent writings and his standing amongst Japanese, zainichi Korean and Korean intellectuals.