A Korean Worker’s Take on Korea, Japan, & China

Four or five years ago I was asked by one work site manager to make the “direct commute” (as we day laborers say) to a job that I had originally obtained through the Center. I did this for about ten days running. Two Koreans, one about fifty and the other in his mid twenties, were working there, and they would chat with me in their broken Japanese during rest periods and the noon break. I couldn’t figure out their relationship. That they were not parent and child was obvious I enough. I decided that they were two men of differing ages who just happened to be getting work, illegally (or so I surmised), with the same firm. That peculiar rule in Korean society of deference by the junior party to the senior (something I learned from my reading), which would have applied had they been acquaintances from the same village and come to work in Japan together, was not in effect between them. If the older man were indeed fifty, he would have been just a couple of years older than I, yet he had a commanding presence that made him seem for all the world like my father. When I got to talking with him, I realized that he was a fervent patriot. Somehow I was not surprised. He said his name was Shin.

“We go ahead of Japan. This I am sure. Less than ten years.” These are the kinds of things he liked to say. The younger Korean appeared to be uninterested in talk of this sort and simply wolfed down his boxed lunch. For ten days I teamed up with this Korean duo and took orders along with them from the site manager. The older Korean assumed the role of team leader and told us what to do. He was far more proficient at Japanese than his young compatriot, and it was possible to carry on an extensive conversation with him.

“I am not man who works like this. I was company president. Do you understand? My company closed. I was forced to come to Japan and earn money.” As he spoke, Kim, the younger Korean, would look on with an ironic smile without really listening. (He rarely spoke a word; indeed, it’s possible that he understood no Japanese.) Kim did not have the face of an educated person—that much was certain.

“I have three children,” Shin said. “Oldest one in college. ——— University. You know it?” When I shook my head, he continued, “Good school. He join elite. Give orders. We three here take orders. This is difficult thing.”

Shin may have had a problem with Japanese at the level of nuance, not being able to inflect his emotions correctly, but his very direct and open manner of expressing his desire to advance in the world definitely got my attention.

Shin asked me how old I was and learned that I was a bachelor and living alone. “You have no family at your age?” he proclaimed haughtily. “That shameful! You should not tell it to others. I feel sorry for you.”

Sometimes I would get into arguments with Shin.

“Japan not apologize for things they did to us. This no good. One day maybe we attack Japan. But we not do to you what you do to us. We are moral people. We are most moral and most superior people in Asia. This I am sure.” …

“Japan number one in Asia now, Korea number two. some day Korea number one.” The hierarchy featured in these pronouncements appeared to have nothing to do with morality, however, and everything to do with economic and political power in the global pecking order.

“That’s not true at all,” I countered. “China’s number one in Asia now, if you ask me.

Shin immediately shook his head. “No, very wrong—very wrong!” he snapped, curling his lips in contempt of China. “Look at Chinese. They fall behind. Long ago they were teacher. Now they are backward country. Their income less than one tenth of Koreans. That country is lowest country. It is dirty country.” …

And so I learned that not only was Shin a stalwart anticommunist, he also had no love, as I’d heard most Koreans had, for China, the country that Korea once recognized as its master.

SOURCE: A Man with No Talents: Memoirs of a Tokyo Day Laborer, by Ōyama Shirō, trans. by Edward Fowler (Cornell U. Press, 2005), pp. 92-95

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Filed under China, Japan, Korea, labor

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