That there are over 800,000 ethnic Koreans living permanently in Japan, including fourth and fifth generation Korean-Japanese, is not well known outside of Asia. The historical details of how the Koreans came to live in Japan is both fascinating and tragic, mainly because of the conscript labor forced on Koreans during Japanese occupation of the peninsula beginning over 100 years ago and ending with World War II. Even less well known is the discrimination the Korean-Japanese face in their adopted, officially or not, country. Known in Japan as Zainichi (“resident of Japan”), the ethnic Koreans have been largely relegated to marginal occupations as were other minority groups in Japan. That is changing, but discrimination and hate still exist.
In this background, author Kazuki Kaneshiro, who is Zainichi, sets his novel GO. The main character, Sugihara, is a teenaged-Zainichi boy. The storyline dramatizes his plight as he tries to understand the world he was born into, a world that defines him with a blurry label. As Sugihara rants toward the end of the book:
I swear sometimes I just want to kill all you Japanese! How can you call us Zainichi without so much as a second thought? We were born in this country and raised in the country? … Calling us Zainichi is the same as saying we’re foreigners who’ll eventually leave the country.
What got him to this point? Loads of discrimination, humiliation and, most of all, violence, on the receiving and giving ends. As he struggles to do what most other teenage boys do—go to school, hang out with friends, play sports, have a girlfriend—he is frequently under attack. When he finally gets into a Japanese high school (many Zainichi go to Korean schools), the Japanese students take turns trying to beat him up. Sugihara is well up to this competition, as his father forced on him boxing and martial arts skills, as well as just plain scrapping. School administrators and teachers aren’t above humiliating him. The vice-principal of his Korean junior high school said this to him:
What make you think you can get into a Japanese high school in the first place? When you come crying back to us, we won’t admit you to the high school. Keep that in mind as you study for exams.
The bullying also comes from other Zainichi. When Sugihara gets in the Japanese high school he is called a traitor and a sellout, punctuated with punches and kicks. Even within the Korean-Japanese community there is a division between Zainichi who have declared South Korea as their ethnic heritage and those who declare North Korea. Sugihara was initially with the communistic North Korean side and had a fair amount of indoctrination against Western ideals, which raises conflicts with those from the other side of the political line. When he visits South Korea with his parents, he is instantly targeted because of the prejudice of South Koreans against the Zainichi. Not only is his outside life peppered with violence, his home life comes with an occasional slap or a punch from mother or father, of course, for his own good.
I took three punches to the face. Boom. Boom. Boom. The first punch hit me like a hunk of concrete and made my spine creak… I was going to be sick. Someone stopped the earth from tilting. My father’s voice came down from above. The earth stopped. “What idiot lets down his guard?”
But, after all the violence, at the heart of GO is a love story. Sugihara says as much: “First, let’s get one thing straight. The story that follows is a love story.” He meets Sakurai at a friend’s party (despite all his conflicts, yes, he does have friends). She is Japanese, and he fails to mention he is Zainichi, instinctively withholding that information. He appreciates that they can have a sustained and intelligent conversation, as well as be comfortable not saying anything:
The girl and I walked in silence, but there wasn’t any awkwardness between us. Every so often, she would peer into my eyes, which made me crack an embarrassed grin, and she’d playfully ram her shoulder against me, like a hockey player, with all her might.
Their relationship progresses like most first loves, slowly, until he can no longer hide his ethnicity. Without giving her much of a chance to absorb the truth and respond, he leaves her. After their breakup, he throws himself into working and studying, until the ethnic and racial violence reach a peak. So much of his own life and beliefs come into focus, but will he learn enough to get back together with Sakurai? Will he be able to see through the brutality of his existence and rise above it? The book is definitely worth reading to find the answers to those questions. GO is searing and poignant, a brilliant look at the extremes of being human.