Interviewed by Manabu Noda[1]

Chong Wishing
Chong Wishing

In a world that is becoming ever more multi-cultural, the voice of the Other, the whole notion of what is referred to as Alterity, becomes an important part of culture generally and an important aspect of theatre in particular. In the west, multi-culturalism has become almost a norm. In other parts of the world, however, it is still unusual. Among the most fascinating of such “othered” artists working in theatre is the Korean-Japanese dramatist-director Chong Wishing (also known as Jung Euishin and even Chong Wishin depending on who is addressing him and where they are from). Never seen by those around him as fully Japanese and yet also not accepted as fully Korean, this important artist speaks in the following interview of his career in Japan as writer-provocateur and director as well as cultural outsider. The interview was conducted for this issue on Theatre and Exile by Japanese critic Manabu Noda during October 2011 in Korea where Chong was then working.

Q: What brought your family from Korea to Japan originally?

Chong: The first generation of what is called Zainichi Koreans (Koreans resident in Japan) came for many different and complicated reasons. Some were forced to come during the colonial period; others came to escape poverty. My father’s case was different. He came to Japan by choice when he was 15, before World War II started. He wanted a Japanese education. So, unlike the so-called “newcomer” Koreans who are predominant in the Korea Town area of Tokyo today, I am one of the descendants of this earlier generation.

Q: So do you consider yourself Korean or Japanese or some blend of the two?

Chong: I am a Zainichi Korean, a Korean who lives in Japan. But the fact is I was educated in Japan, I write in Japanese and I write on Japanese matters. In that sense I consider myself a Japanese playwright. But being a Zainichi Korean makes my work a little different. My plays are written from a minority point of view.

Q: Did you ever go to a Korean school?

Chong: No, my education was thoroughly Japanese, from kindergarten to university. Everybody knew that my family were Zainichi Koreans. My father dealt in scrap iron. There was no hiding the fact who I was.

Q: Was there discrimination?

Chong: I myself was not openly discriminated against in any way, though I did hear of discrimination against Zainichi…. My father always wanted me to get trained in some marketable professional skill, to major in science. I was the fourth of five brothers….They all followed our father’s educational policy and acquired scientific qualifications, but I just didn’t have the brains for science.

Q: How did your parents raise you when you were little?

Chong: During the 60s, my parents were too busy running the scrap-iron business to raise five boys, so I was sent to live with my grandmother in a different Korean community until I was old enough to go to elementary school. That was an all-Korean settlement and one perhaps left behind by the times. In spite of the rapid economic growth around it, most of those who lived there still raised pigs and tilled fields. My grandmother was someone who would say, “I want to die,” or “I want to go back home” quite often, so I came to have an outlook on life like, “Well, it’s all about dying after all.” In a sense, living with my grandmother alone when I was very little may have formed an attitude within me as a playwright. It definitely shaped my personality.

My father, too, led quite a unique life as a Zainichi Korean. There weren’t many Koreans who had chosen of their own will to come to Japan for Japanese education when they were fifteen. Back then, I suppose, Japan was an El Dorado for him, and he must have been brimming with the expectation that he could be more successful with a Japanese education than a Korean one. So he came to Japan. But then the war started. He was a student, and was soon mobilized into the military. Years later, I accompanied my mother to see his family in Korea for the first time. I realized at that time that he himself did not want to go back home because he knew that he would then be seen as an outcast, as someone who had sided with the Japanese. In this respect, my family is quite an unusual example of the Zainichi Korean.

Q: In your plays, you often portray the diversity of the Zainichi Korean community and you keep a certain distance from them. Has that been because of the uniqueness of your family within the Korean community in Japan?

Chong: Yes, being a minority within a minority has made me a rather distanced observer.

Q: After dropping out of university, you attended the Yokohama School of Broadcasting and Cinema (present the Japan Academy of Moving Images), and then got a job as an art assistant at the Shochiku Studio. It was at this time, in the early 80s, that you joined the Black Tent, a theatre company founded in 1968 by Makoto Satō, Kaitarō Tsuno, Kiyokazu Yamamoto and others. That company put an emphasis on touring in their huge black tent and became one of the country’s leading counter-culture companies. How did you connect with Black Tent?

Chong: I was attending drama school. When I graduated, a Zainichi Korean friend of mine who was a Black Tent member asked me casually to join him. The Black Tent was running its Red Classroom project back then with the credo: “Theatre is open to everybody.” The company was diversifying its activities into many branches to open up theatre, and people of all ages and from all walks of life were joining. Old. Young.

In my second year with Black Tent, the company staged Taitanikku Chimbotsu (The Titanic Disaster) as part of a project which was launched to unearth young talent, and I was at that time one of two people chosen as playwrights from those members who had shown an interest in writing. I then wrote and directed my first play, Itoshi-no Medea (Beloved Medea) which was nominated for the Kishida Kunio Drama Award for promising playwrights. And here I am, still writing plays.

Q: Did you intend to be an actor initially?

Chong: I actually started backstage. I was mostly involved in lighting, technical work, then became an assistant director, and so on…. In fact, I was really struggling to find something I could commit myself to, but still unsure about what it should be. After dropping out of university, I was constantly wondering about my future generally. As a Zainichi Korean, I was well aware that I would probably not be employed by most ordinary Japanese companies. Then I encountered some good films and thought I would like to go in that direction. I actually started to work in the film industry.

Q: When you left Black Tent, you helped to create the theatre company Shinjuku Ryōzanpaku which did many of your plays.  Among them, Sennen-no Kodoku (A Thousand Years’ Loneliness) and Ningyo Densetsu (The Mermaid Legend) both toured to Korea. You left the company in 1995, but your plays continued to be staged not only in Japan but also in Korea. Can you speak about those experiences?

Chong: We played The Mermaid Legend on the banks of the Han, the river that flows through the city of Seoul. Staging a performance there was actually against the law — – tent performances were regarded as a political meetings back then in Korea — but we managed to put the show on anyhow. It caused quite a stir. Apparently, pirate video recordings of the performances still circulate.

Q: You then were offered opportunities in Korea.

Chong: After I left Shinjuku Ryōzanpaku, I was commissioned to direct the Japanese staging of my Annindofu-no Kokoro (The Heart of an Almond Pudding) which premiered in 2000. In 2006, this play (in Japanese) was performed alongside a Korean version created by a Korean director and Korean actors. Later, The Winter Sunflower was performed by the National Drama Company of Korea and seemed to be very well received by Korean audiences. The Winter Sunflower is a play about being gay – not a big deal at all in Japan, but I had been warned before the show opened in Korea that Korean people would not find it acceptable. But after its performance in Korea, a lot of theatre and film began to pick up on gay themes.

Q: How much of your time do you spend these days in Korea?

Chong: About a third of each year. My plays are now regularly being staged and published in Korea. Yakiniku Dragon has been a hit of sorts and I guess I have become something of a popular writer, more popular than I would have ever thought. Now I’m working on a new piece at the Michoo Theatre Company in Korea.

Yakiniku Dragon, written and directed by Chong Wishing at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, 2011 © Yako Masahiko
Yakiniku Dragon, written and directed by Chong Wishing at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, 2011 © Yako Masahiko

Q: Since 2007, the New National Theatre (NNT) in Tokyo has been staging a series of your plays based on the history and memories of Zainichi Koreans. Like a Little Wild Flower (2007) and Yakiniku Dragon (2008) have been staged, and in March 2012 they will stage Pāmaya Sumire (Sumire’s Beauty Parlor) which is about carbon monoxide poisoning in a coal mine. Like a Little Wild Flower was the second in a trilogy of Three Tragedies from Greek Myths. The play is set in Japan in 1951, when the Korean War was in progress. The Trojan War has become World War II, and the story of Andromache is revamped into a tragic love quadrangle. Then came your multi-awarded Yakiniku Dragon, which was a joint production between the NNT and the Seoul Arts Centre. In both Like a Little Wild Flowerand Yakiniku Dragon, I find the subject of wandering, as many Zainichi Koreans who appear in the plays cannot settle down at one place. I know that the theme of the vagrant (and often absent) father appears a lot in Korean literature. When you write, are you conscious of wandering and the lack of belongingness as themes in your plays?

Like a Little Wild Flower, written by Chong Wishing, directed by Suzuki Yumi at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, 2007 © Yako Masahiko
Like a Little Wild Flower, written by Chong Wishing, directed by Suzuki Yumi at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, 2007
© Yako Masahiko

Chong: My grandmother was a photo-bride who left Korea to meet her husband in Japan when she was fourteen. My father left Korea when he was fifteen. And I am always aware of the fact that I am not a Japanese citizen in Japan. Even in Korea, I know that I am not a native. I don’t even speak Korean properly. So my ambiguous identity is definitely reflected on the characters and stories that I create. Yes, the sense of wandering is in my writings. My family lineage may be characterized by wandering. I am still wandering between Japan and Korea. So it goes on.

Like a Little Wild Flower, written by Chong Wishing, directed by Suzuki Yumi at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, 2007 © Yako Masahiko
Like a Little Wild Flower, written by Chong Wishing, directed by Suzuki Yumi at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, 2007
© Yako Masahiko

Q: Tragedy and comedy also alternate constantly in your plays. One moment there is a romantic and tragic scene; the next moment it snaps into a scene bursting with laughter. It seems to me that this rhythm is also closely connected to your depiction of love affairs. Quite Brechtian, but idiosyncratically yours. Do you think there is a connection between this style of yours and your being a Zainichi Korean using Japanese as your language?

Chong: Over the years I have come to commit myself as a writer to the kind of theatre that chronicles as well as examines the times. When I heard some time back that Zainichi Korean residents were all to be evicted from their homes near the Osaka International Airport in Itami, I went to interview them for my Yakiniku Dragon. This ghetto – that’s really what it was — was started by construction workers and their families when they were building a new runway for the Osaka Expo. Most had originally worked in coal mines in Kyūshu. They told me how they had to migrate within Japan looking for jobs when the mines were abandoned. That was an eye-opener for me. I was seeing history from the perspective of the oppressed, from the standpoint of those who are neglected by our history books. The oppressed and downtrodden are not necessarily innocent and beautiful at heart; they have their ugly sides, too. But I was seeing their stories. As for style, I guess I do always think that life is double-sided with comedy and tragedy being played out together. You may find something tragic, but if you take another look from afar it may appear to be hilarious. That’s Life as I see it, Life with a capital L. My own experiences and my personal view of life inevitably find their way into my plays.

Q: I saw Yakiniku Dragon twice in its 2011 revivals: one in Tokyo and the other in Seoul. I found that generally the Korean audience was more prone to laughter than the Japanese. But there is one scene in which the audience in Seoul went all quiet: that was when one second-generation Zainichi Korean snaps at a new-comer Korean saying that his sort of people cannot truly appreciate Zainichi Koreans’ feelings. Didn’t bringing Yakiniku Dragon to Korea require a lot of courage?

Chong: From the start of that Japan-Korea joint production, I was intent on writing about Zainichi Koreans. That was essential to me because the Zainichi Koreans have been abandoned and neglected both in Japan and Korea – especially in Korea. People don’t understand Zainichi Koreans.

Q: In Korea?

Chong: Yes, even in Korea. They don’t know about us. There’s no mention in their history textbooks. And their typical image of Zainichi Koreans is polarized between the rich and the poor. No diversity or gradation. They don’t know how Zainichi Koreans have lived, or their historical backgrounds.

Yakiniku Dragon, written and directed by Chong Wishing at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, 2011 © Yako Masahiko
Yakiniku Dragon, written and directed by Chong Wishing at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, 2011 © Yako Masahiko

When I came to Korea for the premiere of Yakiniku Dragon, one Korean journalist didn’t mince words with me when he said, “Koreans are even more ignorant about Zainichi Koreans than Japanese, so I don’t know how this play will be received in Korea.” Well, I had already suspected that, so I was convinced that staging a play about Zainichi Koreans in the national theatres of Japan and Korea would really be meaningful. I wanted both national theatres to do my play about these abandoned people. So, when I was asked what I would write about, I said that I would write about Zainichi Koreans, whatever the reception might be. I guess that throwing stones at both countries was pretty much in my mind from the beginning. It was a pleasant surprise that the play was appreciated in both places.

Another pleasant surprise for me was that the Japanese audience did not restrict the scope of the story to the particularity of the historical background of the Kim family but saw in them something they could associate themselves with, something that is quite connected to their own picture of family. I wondered why so many people in the audience were so deeply touched, tears running down their cheeks, by this story of a Zainichi Korean family. Then I thought that they were moved because they saw images of themselves in the past, what they used to be like, what was lost in that age of rapid economic growth – family ties, the feelings of a small community.

Q: Kōhei Tsuka (1948-2010) was like you another Zainichi Korean playwright who caused quite a sensation during the 70s and 80s. When he visited Korea in 1999 with the Korean version of his Atami Murder Case it is reported that the cold response deeply disappointed him.

Chong: He said that he had come to loathe Korea because of that. A great shame.

Q: Cultural exchanges between the two countries have changed very much since then, but still I wonder if you did not fear the possibility that you might be disappointed in Korea in the same way?

Chong: I think that Tsuka’s generation of Zainichi Koreans had to embrace a rather warped blend of inferiority and superiority complexes about Korea. Some of the characters in my Yakiniku Dragon are portrayed as Zainichi Koreans with the same feeling, which, I believe, is the bottom line for Tsuka’s plays. That feeling might have changed, though, if his plays had been more favourably received in Korea back in 1999.

Part of that failure, I suppose, was because of his kuchidate rehearsal method — he would not only change and add lines in the rehearsal room constantly but make his actors recite them on the spot in the manner of delivery by Tsuka himself. That technique enabled him to convey to Japanese actors the idiosyncratic rhythm of his own Japanese but it simply did not work with Korean actors. It is frustrating to have to communicate through an interpreter and he felt it as well. It is not easy to have a translator between you and your actors. This happens when I work with Korean actors.

Q: Did you write the Korean lines in Yakiniku Dragon yourself?

Chong: Only the basic outlines. The Korean nuances, I’m afraid, are totally beyond my command of the language, so I relied on the translation by a native Korean speaker in Japan for that.

Q: In your plays there are all sorts of Zainichi Koreans who are not necessarily on good terms with each other.

Chong: Yes. I wrote a play when I was in Korea about the Koreans who were convicted as B-class war criminals. Their honour was restored only recently (in 2006) in Korea, but until then they had been stigmatized as wartime collaborators with the Japanese. They were victims of history in a way, being conscripted by Japan and ordered to commit atrocities during the war. My own father was considered a wartime collaborator, too, working for Japan’s military police, so I can understand the suffering they must have gone through and the cruelty that assailed them.

Q: While pointing at the historical chasm between Japan and Korea, your Yakiniku Dragon, it seems to me, also gropes for points of cultural contact at the same time. The play has both Japanese and Korean songs. I had the impression that you foregrounded the moments of rapprochement between the two countries more tenderly than in previous works. You may have depicted Zainichi Korean and Japanese lovers in the past, but I don’t think you had any of them trying to show respect for the other through culturally encoded conduct. Am I right in detecting a change in your attitude?

Chong: I think I took that cue from changes in the relationship between Japan and Korea generally. The Korean TV serial drama Winter Sonata was a tremendous hit in Japan. It drastically changed attitudes toward Korea. The Korean wave initiated by this show was followed by the huge influx of Korean pop music into Japan. Such enthusiasm for things Korean by the Japanese would have been unthinkable ten years ago. The kind of Japanese who earlier would come to Korean barbecue restaurants – like those I presented in Yakiniku Dragon — were mostly working-class people. That was what it was like back in 1970. But nowadays lots of Japanese from all classes go to Korea Town and many of them talk about their favorite Korean food being this or that. So I think the Japanese attitude towards Korea has changed enormously.

Q: Do you feel more at home now in Korea?

Chong: Perhaps I have learned to take a more and more realistic view when working in Korea. I now simply consider myself a foreigner in Korea, someone being hired as a foreign theatre director. It’s probably normal. The fact is I do have to overcome a language barrier in creating a piece of theatre. When my vision seems different from that of my Korean actors, as a foreign director I have to stay cool and explain to the actors what it is that I want to do. And if that doesn’t go down well, well then, I really do have to stay cool and think about what kind of modifications I can make.

In the past, I felt the same thing Tsuka did – a strong sense of alienation about being treated as a Japanese – because I used to think “this is my homeland,” the same blood runs in me. I’ve also had some backbiting in Korea. You know, “What is this Japanese doing here.” That sort of disparagement. I can understand Tsuka’s resentment, his sadness. The irony, of course, is that in Japan as well I am not seen as a “genuine” Japanese. In this sense, I have no place I really belong to – although if asked where I’m from, I’d have to say Japan.

So working in Korea now, I tell myself not to expect too much. I can’t assume that people there will have any special in-depth understanding of my work. More and more, I feel I’ve got to be cooler in my approach, more realistic. Communication is vital in creating a play, and I keep striving to make it better, but what I realize these days is that it has to be based on a realistic appreciation of difference. I think I am finally becoming cooler and more realistic when I work in Korea. Yes. I think I am.

[1] Manabu Noda is Professor in the School of Arts and Letters, Meiji University, Tokyo, Japan. As a theatre critic and researcher, he has published books and essays on British and Japanese acting and theatre history. He is currently on the editorial board of Theatre Arts (IATC Japan), and Critical Stages (IATC web journal). This interview, originally conducted in Japanese, was translated into English by himself and was condensed from its original length for this issue.

Copyright © 2011 Manabu Noda
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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Through the Eyes of the Other: The Many Faces of Japan’s Chong Wishing/ Jung Euishin/Chong Wishin