Takami Nieda on Kaneshiro’s Zainichi Tour de Force “Go”

May GLLI Blog Series:  Japan in Translation, No. 29

Editor’s note:  Though it took 18 years from publication in Japan until translation and publication in English, Kazuki Kaneshiro’s Go: A Coming of Age Novel, just released in March by AmazonCrossing, is already eliciting superlative reviews. Go’s zainichi protagonist Sugihara is “one of the most memorable characters in modern Japanese literature,” trumpeted Japan Times reviewer Kris Kosaka. “I have never read anything quite like Go,” blogged Kathryn Hemmann over at Contemporary Japanese Literature (she contributed a piece on Outsider Stories in this series). Smithsonian BookDragon Terry Hong already penned a micro review of Go in her contribution to this series, citing “gratifying anglophone access to Kaneshiro’s searing ruminations.” It’s fitting, therefore, that we hear from Go translator Takami Nieda in the last installment of Japan-in-Translation.

Incidentally, the word “zainichi” (“resident of Japan”) is used to describe the more than 800,000 Korean residents of Japan, so called because they lack Japanese citizenship and legal protection, though most speak Japanese and have lived in Japan their entire lives. They are the descendants of Koreans forced to work in Japan during its brutal occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945.  

Go is Kazuki Kaneshiro’s semi-autobiographical story of a zainichi Korean teen looking for love and acceptance in a Japanese society that hasn’t always been kind to foreigners. In the months since the novel’s March release, some readers have noted the violence that pervades Sugihara’s young life. Indeed, Sugihara is never one to back down from a fight, charging headfirst into an inter-school battle royal; his best friend dies in a tragic hate crime; and his Korean teachers and parents engage in a physical brand of tough love. Even his girlfriend gets off a playful roundhouse kick or two. To me, they had all seemed to be authentic depictions of the brutal and unforgiving world that Sugihara inhabited, and the unspoken messages conveyed through these physical acts of “violence” fascinated me.

Sugihara is trained by his father, a former nationally ranked boxer, to fight and defend himself. “Boxing is the act of breaking through the circle with your own fists and taking something from outside it,” his father says. “Outside is crawling with tough guys. And while you’re trying get something, someone else might come inside and take something of yours. It hurts to hit and it hurts to get hit.” Boxing, of course, becomes a metaphor for the hardscrabble life that many zainichi Koreans have had to endure, and through the training sessions, Sugihara’s father teaches his son how to fight, to take a blow, and to scrap out a victory just as he has. Sugihara’s father is not your typical taciturn and emotionally absent Asian father; he is a constant, supportive, albeit occasionally antagonistic presence in his son’s life. He is there to bail his son out when he lapses into delinquency, and he is there when his best friend dies in a senseless stabbing; and contrary to his outward sarcasm and rebellious attitude, Sugihara adores his father for it. “Sometimes I’d think I didn’t need school as long as I had my mother and father in my life,” he confesses.

Ultimately Sugihara communicates his respect for his father the only way he knows how—by fighting him in an impromptu boxing match in the park. As in the training sessions, boxing represents an honest, direct conversation between father and son, as Sugihara attempts to both honor and surpass his father with every punch. In this way, fighting is oftentimes the language used to affirm brotherly bonds, establish hierarchies, and to navigate male adolescence.

In the opening pages of the novel, Sugihara declares, “First, let’s get one thing straight. The story that follows is a love story. My love story. And communism—or democratism, pacifism, otakuism, vegetarianism, or any other –ism for that matter—has got nothing to do with it. Just so you know.” In a YA literary landscape wonderfully populated by female protagonists, Go is that rare love story told from the male perspective. It is a love story about a Korean boy and Japanese girl, about male friendship, and about the unspoken, pugilistic bond between father and son.

With the tremendous success of Pachinko (a finalist for the National Book Award), Min Jin Lee’s excellent multi-generational story of a Korean family in Japan, I hope readers will be encouraged to seek out more books about the zainichi experience, especially those written by zainichi writers. Park Exit by Miri Yu (trans. Morgan Giles) is expected from Tilted Axis Press in April 2019. I am now working on a translation of Ginny’s Puzzle, the debut novel by zainichi writer Che Sil. The synopsis goes something like this:

Oregon, 2004. President Bush just sent more troops into Iraq, Michael Jackson just got arrested on child molestation charges, and Ginny Park is about to be expelled from high school. Again. Ginny lives with Stephanie, who took her in after her last failed attempt at finding a home. As far as host mothers go, Stephanie is as saintly as they come; still Ginny can’t bring herself to open up to her or anyone about what prompted her to bolt from her native Japan. Together they live in a house littered with scraps of paper and drawings for the children’s stories Stephanie’s been writing. One day Ginny finds a mysterious scrawl, which reads: “If the sky started to fall, where would you go?” In search of an answer and a home, Ginny sets off alone on a road trip. Writing in her journal along the way, Ginny begins to reflect upon her growing up zainichi Korean in Japan and the circumstances that eventually forced her to leave five years ago.

Ginny’s Puzzle is currently seeking an English-language publisher. In the meantime, I hope readers will enjoy Go.

Takami NiedaTakami Nieda has translated Hiroshi Yamamoto’s The Stories of Ibis, Sayuri Ueda’s The Cage of Zeus, and Asa Nonami’s Body and has received numerous grants in support of her work including the PEN/Heim Translation Fund for the translation of Kazuki Kaneshiro’s GO. Formerly an assistant professor of translation at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan, Nieda teaches writing and literature at Seattle Central College in Washington state.

10339360_10203703467893736_1000817698243960595_oDavid Jacobson organized this series on Japanese literature in translation. He is author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, a 2017 NCTE notable poetry book. A longtime journalist, David has written news articles and TV scripts that have appeared in the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times and on CNN and Japan’s NHK. Since 2008, he has worked with Seattle book publisher Chin Music Press. An experienced Japanese translator, he is on the board of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.

Following is a listing of all the contributions to our “Japan-in-Translation” month blog series.

May 1:  Roger Pulvers on Ishikawa Takuboku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 1)
May 2:  Kathryn Hemmann on outsider stories in contemporary literature (Japan-in-Translation, No. 2)
May 3:  Deborah Iwabuchi on memorable translations (Japan-in-Translation, No. 3)
May 4:  Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 4)
May 5:  Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 5)
May 7:  Translator roundtable on Shiba Ryōtarō’s Ryōma!, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 6)
May 8: Translator roundtable on Shiba Ryōtarō’s Ryōma!, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 7)
May 9: Librarian Ash Brown on manga in translation (Japan-in-Translation, No. 8)
May 10: Excerpt from Mori Eto’s Dive!! (Japan-in-Translation, No. 9)
May 11: Tony Malone on translations of Natsume Sōseki (Japan-in-Translation, No. 10)
May 12: Poet Michael Dylan Welch on translating haiku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 11)
May 14: Smithsonian BookDragon’s Favorites, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 12)
May 15: Smithsonian BookDragon’s Favorites, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 13)
May 16: Sally Ito on Misuzu Kaneko’s Compassionate Imagination (Japan-in-Translation, No. 14)
May 17: Frederik Schodt on The Four Immigrants Manga (Japan-in-Translation, No. 15)
May 18: Stone Bridge Press Publisher Peter Goodman (Japan-in-Translation, No. 16)
May 19: Melek Ortabasi on Japanese Literature as World Literature (Japan-in-Translation, No. 17)
May 20: Selected Japanese Picture Books by Andrew Wong (Japan-in-Translation, No. 18)
May 21: Murakami translator Jay Rubin (Japan-in-Translation, No. 19)
May 22: Zack Davisson on translating sound effects in comics (Japan-in-Translation, No. 20)
May 23: Translator showdown: where manga meets the novel (Japan-in-Translation, No. 21)
May 24: Kirkus YA Editor Laura Simeon on cultural messages in Japanese picture books (Japan-in-Translation, No. 22)
May 25: Q&A with Translator Cathy Hirano on Nahoko Uehashi’s The Beast Player (Japan-in-Translation, No. 23)
May 26: Strong women, soft power by Ginny Tapley Takemori (Japan-in-Translation, No. 24)
May 27: War in Japanese children’s literature by Sako Ikegami (Japan-in-Translation, No. 25)
May 28: Translating Kadono Eiko by Lynne E. Riggs (Japan-in-Translation, No. 26)
May 29: Roland Kelts on Monkey Business (Japan-in-Translation, No. 27)
May 30: Emily Balistrieri on light novels (Japan-in-Translation, No. 28)
May 31: Takami Nieda on Kazuki Kaneshiro’s Go (Japan-in-Translation, No. 29)


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