To Assimilate or Not To, That is the Question!

Episode 38 of July 17, 2019, in the serialization of The Polyglot: Union of Korea and Japan,, in the New York Ilbo Daily, attached below, is the scene where Seiji Oda, 25, a top-ranking Japanese official in the Government General, Korea, a colony of Japan (1910-45), is having lunch with Dr. Ina Yoon, 25, a brilliant ER resident at Seoul Imperial University Medical Center, who thinks Seiji a rich and influential fellow countryman with good connections to the Government General and capable of securing the release of her fiance, poet laureate of Korea, held on charges of sedition for inspiring the independence uprising of March 1, 1919, with his stirring verses.   

Epitomized is the terrible conflict Koreans must have faced over the issue of Japanese name adoption (창씨), somewhat reminiscent of what most Americans or immigrant groups worldwide must experience, at least in the first or second generation: whether to assimilate to the mainstream or preserve their distinctive identity and heritage, a matter of pride but also a cause for marginalization.

The dilemma gives us pause about the simplistic denunciation of 친일파 chinilpa, pro-Japanese toadies, by some vocal Korean patriotic groups shortly after liberation from Japan in 1945.

One laudable thing Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president (1948-60), does is massive employment and advancement of the chinilpa. Not because he is wise or magnanimous but because otherwise the country would have come to a screeching halt. Not only the educated and professional but the whole Korean population was chinil if they went to school, looked for good jobs, strove for success.

The predicament recurs throughout the novel, as it tracks the Korean diaspora to Siberia, Central Asia, Japan, and America.

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         “On the contrary we feel preordained. Our marriage will bring about their reconciliation,” she said with finality and confidence. “Enough said about me and Jongnay. It’s time you told me who you are. Why on a Sunday don’t you stay home and eat the food your wife cooks?”

         “반대로 우리는 그렇게 운명지여 졌다고 봅니다. 단 우리의 결혼은 두 집안을 화해 시킬 것입니다” 하고 그녀는 단호하게 자신 만만한 어조로 말했다. “나와 종내에 대하여는 할만큼 얘기를 많이 했습니다. 이제 선생님이 누구인지 말해줄 차례가 되였습니다. 왜 오늘같은 일요일 날 집에 계시며 부인이 차려 주는 음식을 들지 않으십니까?”

         “I have no wife,” Seiji said. “I’ve never been married.”

         “나는 처가 없습니다” 세이지가 말했다. “한번도 결혼한 적이 없습니다.”

         “I am sorry. I assumed….” Ina suddenly felt irritated. “Who are you?”

         “죄송합니다. 그런줄 모르고…” 인아는 갑자기 신경질이 났다. “도대체 누구 십니까?”

         At first Seiji considered evasion with a joke but thought better of it after one glance at her intense gaze, demanding a straight answer. 

         처음에는 농으로 넘겨보려 했으나 솔직한 답을 요구하는 그녀의 강한 응시를 보고 마음을 바꿨다.

         “I have a Japanese name.”

         “나는 일본 이름을 가졌습니다.”

         “Oh, your family has adopted a Japanese name, too,” she said, well aware that adoption of Japanese names, to be made compulsory in a few more years under the stepped-up policy of Japanization, was still only voluntary, though strongly encouraged with various incentives like employment and advancement. As a result many Korean families had taken Japanese names, either completely or alongside their Korean names.

         “아, 당신 집안에서도 일본 이름을 채택하셨군요”하고 그녀는 일본 이름 채택이 수년 후면 강화된 일본화 정책하에 강제되나 고용 승진 면에서 여러 가지 혜택으로 강력하게 권장되고 있으나 아직은 자의에 맡겨져 있음을 알면서 말했다. 결과적으로 많은 조선인 가족들이 일본 이름을 완전히 또는 조선 이름과 병행하여 쓰고 있었다.

         “Hasn’t your father considered it?”

         “댁의 아버님은 이걸 고려하지 않으셨습니까?”

         “He has but hesitates, for fear our ancestors might turn over in their graves. So what is your Japanese name?”

         “고려했지만 우리 조상들이 무덤에서 놀라 뒤틀릴까 봐 주저하십니다. 그럼 댁의 일본 이름이 뭡니까?”

         “Seiji Oda.”

         “세이지 오다.”

         “Do you still use your Korean name along with your Japanese?”

         “일본 이름에 병행해서 조선 이름도 계속 쓰십니까?”

         “I don’t have any Korean name,” Seiji said after a beat.

         “조선 이름은 없습니다” 하고 잠간 지체후 세이지가 말했다.

         “What do you mean?” she asked, puzzled. “You mean you have made a clean break with your Korean heritage?”

         “무슨 뜻입니까?” 하고 그녀는 어리둥절하여 물었다. “조선의 전통과는 깨끗이 인연을 끊으셨다는 의미입니까?”

         “I have no Korean heritage,” Seiji said.

         “내게는 조선의 전통은 없습니다” 하고 세이지가 말했다.

         “You mean figuratively, of course.”

         “물론 비유적인 의미에서요.”

         “No, literally. I am Japanese.”

         “아니요. 문자 그대로 입니다. 나는 일본 사람입니다.”

         “By birth?”




         “Mr. Oda, are you by any chance related to Katsuo Oda, Minister of the Treasury and leader of the Liberal Party?” She had read about the Odas of Osaka, descended from Nobunaga Oda, the first man to almost unify Japan. The family had controlling interests in the Bank of Japan, Hinomaru Shipping, Shimizu Gumi Construction, among others.

         “오다씨, 혹 대장성 장관이며 자유당 지도자 가쓰오 오다와 인척 관계가 되십니까?” 그녀는 일본을 처음으로 거의 통일한 노부나가 오다로부터 내려온 오사가의 오다 가문에 대하여 읽은 바가 있었다. 그 집안이 일본 은행, 히노마루 해운, 시미즈 구미 건축 기타 많은 업체의 지배 이권을 장악하고 있었다.

         “He is my father,” Seiji admitted.

         “그 분이 제 아버지입니다” 하고 세이지가 실토했다.

         “What are you doing in the backwater of Korea?” Ina asked with an effort at nonchalance, disguising her alarm and bewilderment. She could not figure out why he had undertaken to be Jongnay’s champion. Had it been some kind of trap?

         “조선같은 벽지에서 뭘 하고 계십니까?” 하고 그녀의 놀람과 당혹을 감추고 태연 자약을 노력하며 물었다. 왜 이자가 종내의 옹호자로 나섰는지 알 수가 없었다. 이 모든 것이 하나의 덫이였던가?

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