Volume 35.1
Spring 2004

featured essay


Kidong Kang:
The Haiku Autobiography of a Korean Japanese

Ikuyo Yoshimura


Shin-se-ta-ryong, Kidong Kang’s collection of 200 haiku centered on the experiences of the Zainichi (Korean residents in Japan), was published in October 1997 by the Sekifu-sha publishing company. Kang’s work reveals the sad circumstances that Zainichi face.

Kidong Kang, a South Korean citizen but a second-generation Korean resident of Japan, was born in Kôchi prefecture, Japan, in 1937. He was a member of Shûson Katô’s Kanrai “Winter Thunder” haiku group for twenty-five years. After Katô’s death, Kang quit Kanrai and became a member of the Machi “Town” haiku group and the Gendai Haiku Kyôkai “Modern Haiku Association”. A man who has worn many hats, Kang currently runs Art Nature Co., Ltd., the top-ranking hairpiece manufacturing company in Japan, as well as several other companies. He lives with his Japanese wife in Fukuoka prefecture.

Kang’s Shin-se-ta-ryong is unique in that it is an autobiography written as a collection of haiku. Kang himself states in the postscript,

This book is not your ordinary haiku collection. This book is the autobiography of a Zainichi Korean, the record of a man called Pan-chokpal [a disparaging word for Zainichi that means “half-Japanese” in Korean], and his resistance to the prejudice, discrimination, poverty, and inequality that he experienced as a Zainichi, using haiku as a medium. On reflection, it is not natural for me as a Korean to think, speak, and write in Japanese. Unnatural or not, this is who I am, what my haiku is about.

Kang explains that Shin-se-ta-ryong, the title of the collection, means a personal history in Korean. “In it, with singing and crying, I tell endlessly of misery,” he explains. Shin-se-ta-ryong is the story of a resilient man who uses the unfortunate inheritance of his descent as a springboard for his haiku.

There is a style of writing in haiku that uses the events of daily life rather than the beauties of nature as material for composition. While haiku inspired by nature focus mainly on aesthetics and beauty, poems inspired by everyday life do not shy away from gritty realities, such as poverty, sickness, disability, old age, and the death of a family member or the complex emotions that come with such realities. The eminent haiku poet and editor Hakyô Ishida once said, “haiku is an ‘I’ novel,” one that not only narrates personal experiences but also reveals the inner emotions and thoughts of the author. Kang’s haiku, which are based on his life story, fit Ishida’s criterion.

The use of yûki teikei “season words and fixed form” and the old kana orthography are some of the features of Kang’s haiku. We can see him as a second-generation Korean resident educated in Japan who got his hands on haiku, one of the traditional Japanese literatures. The themes of his haiku are Zainichi, sôshi-kaimei “adoption of Japanese for Korean names”, pan-chokpal, and kika “naturalization”, which we will introduce through Kang’s haiku and notes.

First, however, it is important to understand the meaning of Zainichi. According to December 1998 statistics, approximately 640,000 South and North Korean nationals reside in Japan. The population of Japan is 126,930,000 (per the 2000 census), so ethnic Koreans comprise about 0.5% of the population. These people are called Zainichi. The authoritative Kôjien dictionary defines Zainichi as “Koreans who settled in Japan as a result of Japan’s colonial rule over Korea before World War II or were forcibly brought to Japan as labor during the war and who remained in Japan involuntarily after the war because of the postwar division of Korea and the restrictions against carrying back personal property, as well as their descendants.” Kang explains the word Zainichi in the notes to Shin-se-ta-ryong, “The number of Koreans who were obliged to migrate to Japan or were forcibly brought to Japan as a labor force during the Pacific War exceeds 1,190,000. Even after Japan was defeated in World War II and Korea was liberated from Japan, the Koreans who were forced to stay in Japan because of the division and occupation of South and North Korea by the United States and the Soviet Union, and the outbreak of the Korean War, and their descendants are called Zainichi.” Comparing the definitions of Zainichi in Kôjien, which describes the general situation, and the note in Shin-se-ta-ryong based on Kang’s personal experiences we see that the latter description is more concrete.

The following haiku deal with the theme of Zainichi:

nokoru en zainichi ware wo kasume tobu

swallow left behind
makes me want to fly
Zainichi me

Nokoru en (“settled swallow”) is an autumn season word. In March the swallow comes flying over the sea from southern countries to Japan, where it makes a nest in the eaves and on the beams of a house. Later in the year it returns to the south with its fledglings. This haiku compares Kang’s circumstances to those of a swallow that cannot return home for some reason. We can nonetheless see the author’s positive attitude and strong-mindedness through the swallow that continues to fly, even if it cannot return home.

en kaeru zainichi ware wa sentô e

swallows go home
we Zainichi go
to a public bath

En kaeru (“swallow returns”) is a season word of autumn. In autumn the swallow returns to the south, but, I, a Zainichi, do not have a place to return to. Kang’s present feeling, that he will make a living as a Zainichi no matter how it will be, is condensed into the phrase of “go to a public bath.”

harakara ni aitaki hi ari fuyu no mozu

wanting to meet
a fellow exile—
winter shrike

Harakara means a compatriot who lives in a foreign country. The shrike is a bird that breeds in Japan and northern China. From autumn to winter a shrike screeches in the high treetops in order to expand its territory. The author probably wants to meet a Zainichi in the same unfortunate circumstances as himself. The shrike refers to the author himself.

During the colonial period, Japan, using its military power, forced Koreans to assimilate Japanese culture and traditions completely. As a part of its assimilationist policy, Japan forced Koreans submit to sôshi-kaimei (adopting Japanese names in place of their Korean ones), a policy that was proclaimed in 1939. Sôshi-kaimei was intended to transform the Korean family system into that of the Japanese. The vast majority of Korean residents in Japan still use Japanese names instead of their Korean ones in their daily lives, not wanting to suffer discrimination.

Ôyama mo Kang mo waga na yo gajô kuru

to “Ôyama” and
to “Kang” the same name:
New Year’s greeting cards

This is the first haiku in Shin-se-ta-ryong. It is said that Kang used his Korean name after he was forty years old. Gajô means a New Year’s card. He receives two cards addressed to him with his two different names. Both names are his, and his history is apparent.

bîru kumu waga hon-myô wo tsugu bekika

pouring beer
my original name
should be confessed

He becomes friendly with someone while drinking. He is at a loss, however, whether or not to reveal his Korean name. Since many people shunned him after he admitted the fact that he was a Zainichi Korean, he equivocates and worries about what will happen if he owns up.
In Korean pan means “half” and chokpal means “foot of a pig.” When a Japanese wears geta (wooden clogs), his toes spread apart and resemble a cloven hoof. Chokpal is a derogatory name used by Koreans for Japanese. Thus, pan-chokpal means “half-Japanese”; a Zainichi is a Korean who has become chokpal (Japanese). The more a Zainichi develops his self-confidence as a Korean, the more a real contempt for the Japanese is borne in his heart.

tefu sarite pan-choppari wa mata hirune

butterfly gone
the pan-chokpal
again takes a nap

Mata hirune (“taking a nap again”) suggests repeated unemployment, as Kang explains in the notes, and the smart, refined surface impression of this haiku is changed completely. The image of the butterfly fluttering away hints at the immediate loss of one’s job because one is pan-chokpal. In this haiku the author expresses the severe and hopeless realities with smart and refined nuance. His resiliency stands out.

kokuhaku no ato no munashisa ao ringo

then emptiness
a green apple

In the notes to his haiku collection Pan-chokpal (1973) Kang declares that his being a Zainichi Korean may have been the cause of the lack of appreciation, mercy, concern, and regard he has experienced. His sense of futility and sadness are condensed into the phrase “a green apple.” There is no despair in this haiku, however. The image of freshness and youth symbolized by “green apple” is the author himself, a man who has not lost hope for the future.

The Kôjien dictionary defines the word kika as “to desire and acquire the nationality of other country and to become a citizen of that country.” Kang’s elderly parents strongly reject his thoughts of becoming a naturalized Japanese. His wife begs him to take Japanese citizenship in order to prevent any discrimination against their children. His distress over the quandary of naturalization is absolutely clear in the following haiku:

kika seyo to tsuma naku yoru no aobazuku

“become naturalized!”
my wife begs in tears
owl in the night

kika senu to haha no ittetsu higa kuruu

“refuse naturalization!”
with a mother’s obstinacy
a moth circles madly

fuyu dotû kika wa kuppuku to chichi no gen

surging winter waves
“naturalization is submission!”
is what father says

higurashi ya ko ni soine shite kika mayou

evening cicadas:
I lie by the baby,
uncertain over naturalization

Shin-se-ta-ryong is Kang’s autobiography as well as his family history. His elderly parents show a strong rejection of naturalization. His wife wants him to be naturalized for the sake of their children. As husband he must consider all of his family’s thoughts on naturalization. To the members of a Zainichi family the acquisition of Japanese nationality poses serious problems: what is Japanese? what is Korean? what is one’s own self? Kang also challenges Japanese to consider how they would cope with such problems.

kan no na wa waga dai made zo tamamatsuri

with my generation
the Korean name ends!
festival of souls

Kang’s children have acquired Japanese nationality. He decides to abandon his Korean name finally for this generation henceforth. The firmness of his resolution is emphasized by the final particle, zo ( . ).

mago areba Kaya to nazukemu hanamukuge

when a grandchild is born
name her “Kaya”—
rose of Sharon

Kang wants to name his granddaughter Kaya, which is the ancient name of Korea. The rose of Sharon, the Korean national flower, and a granddaughter named Kaya are a good match. This haiku inspires us with Kang’s deep love of his Korean homeland.


As a Japanese, I was deeply shocked by Kidong Kang’s haiku, which express so eloquently the Zainichi’s profound distress when faced with the prospect of a sort of self-mutilation of the soul. I hope many of my compatriots will read Shin-se-ta-ryong and other books about the history of Korean-Japanese relations. “To write down the real situation of the Zainichi in haiku is to thrust into the breast of the Japanese a knife called haiku,” Kang has said (Tôkyô shinbun, November 6, 1997). May many Japanese take the message of his haiku autobiography to heart.



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