At the Junctures

Yumi Shimizu
OCHANOMIZU UNIVERSITY, TOKYO, JAPAN

Although Iwaki city is a small town, Iwaki City Library is a clean and modern facility. Numerous fascinating books fill two floors of the commercial building in front of Iwaki Station. When I was a high school student, I usually went to the city library twice a month to read novels. I really loved reading, and any novel would make me happy. One day, however, I found myself standing in front of the bookshelves for law books. I skimmed several puzzling books for minutes and finally found the book that I was looking for. I wanted to learn how to legally change my family name.

When I was a high school student, I thought justice and fairness were the most important things for humans. I thought that human beings can be the strongest when they are clean and just. While seeking the way to be a righteous human being, I thought that all I needed to do was show myself truthfully. As soon as I got this idea, I went to the city library because I decided that I needed to know how to get back my real name.

My parents arrived in Japan more than 20 years ago from their home country, South Korea. They came to Japan to get a better life. My father studied hard in Kyoto University graduate school, and my mother supported him. They were poor, but they had extreme youthful enthusiasm. Later on, my father got a job in a Japanese company and they started living in Japan permanently. When my sister entered preschool, my parents changed our family name, and we became naturalized Japanese citizens in 2001.

By having a normal Japanese name and Japanese nationality, I did not feel any different from the other children. On my first day of preschool, my mother, looking at me meanfully told me to be proud of being a Korean. At preschool, I was a normal kid. I enjoyed playing with the other kids every day. At that time, I understood neither the meaning nor the reason for her words.

At that time, being a Korean became a greater advantage than a disadvantage for me. I was a “special international person” in the small countryside town of Iwaki. I got several prizes when I wrote essays about my unique experiences as a Korean living in Japan. But sometimes classmates or neighbors laughed and taunted me saying, “Koreans eat bugs” or “Koreans smell bad because they eat kimchee.” At the same time, some Korean kids in Korea hated me because I was from Japan.

However, these adverse circumstances helped me become all the more special. Since I ate neither bugs nor kimchee, these words did not humiliate me at all. I was even as proud of myself as Sara Crewe was in A Little Princess by undergoing a “great” hardship. Having this unique advantage, I gradually became an outstanding student. I always got good grades at school, I played the piano in the music festival, I sang in the school chorus, I swam as a representative student, and I continuously got prizes for essays and drawing. Then I became superior not only because of my background, but also because of my achievements.

After I entered high school, searching the way to get back my real family name became my challenge as Sara Crewe. I believed it was another hardship that I had to overcome. I read several law-related books and found out that changing a family name is not a simple thing. It is a complicated process to accomplish and so I soon gave up. The important thing was, I thought, being special by taking some action that normal high school students in Japan would not do. However, at that time, I did not realize that I was the frog in the well that does not know the ocean.

Eventually I forgot about changing my name. I studied as hard as the other students, because the time for university entrance examination came. I wanted to be a lawyer and so I prepared to enter a law university. However, entering any law department in Japan is not easy. To be honest, my grades were not high enough to enter a public school’s law department. At that point, my high school homeroom teacher suggested that I submit an essay for an Admissions Office (AO) entrance examination. Since everyone is able to challenge the AO entrance examination, there was a possibility even for me. I jumped to get the chance and started writing the application form. At first, I just wrote about my passion to be a lawyer. However, the teacher who checked my application suggested that I write about my background instead. He said that such a unique background could be a big advantage for me. Since I knew this very well from my past experiences, I rewrote my application. Again, I wrote about how I overcame my hardship of being a Korean living in Japan. I also wrote about how strongly I want to help Korean people living in Japan by becoming a lawyer. The essay looked great to me.

After submitting my application for the AO test, I began to prepare for the interview which comes after the paper examinations. I needed to know more about Koreans and Japanese to answer the examiners’ possible questions about my motives. I started researching about law cases related to Koreans in Japan on the Internet. I surfed several sites, and I found some words. The more I surfed, the more I found. I could not believe my own eyes, and I felt like I sank into a bottomless swamp of hatred. There were a lot of words from Japanese people toward Koreans that I had never heard before. It seems they hate, despise, and loathe Koreans from the bottom of their hearts. I began to feel that I should not read them, but I could not stop myself from scrolling the screen. I clicked one link after another. Some people said that they would print any anti-Koreans handouts for free. Others said Koreans were planning to take over the Japanese government. I even learned that there were published comic books about why Koreans are hateful for Japanese people. My brain became numb as I read them. I finally shut down the computer after several hours. I did not want to think about anything.

Several days later, I checked the result of my AO examination, and I found out that I had failed the written examination. I thought that my score must have been not high enough. But, at the same time, I could not help but think that my background as a Korean could be the reason why I failed. I wondered if it was possible, because I now knew that there were numerous people in Japan who hate Koreans just for being Korean. I could not think properly, and many images came and went in my mind’s eye. My memory laughed and taunted me saying, “Koreans eat bugs” or “Koreans smell bad because they eat kimchee.” I became afraid of Japanese people and I was afraid of being a Korean.

At that time, I finally understood the meaning of my mother’s words when I entered preschool: Be proud of being a Korean because there is nothing wrong with being Korean. My brain echoed her words again and again. Until that moment, I had thought that nobody could look down on me as long as I was a good girl. I learned that I am too small to change the world. Some people would judge me as a “Korean” before knowing how good I am at studying, at swimming, and at playing the piano. And I learned that such people might also be in Iwaki, my hometown.

I stopped doing anything and I just slept all day long. I put on my school uniform in the morning, but I kept on sleeping during the day. During the university examination period, we can go to school freely or not. I did not go to school, although I had already sent my applications to two other public universities. I could not think of anything and I was always sleepy. I felt like I could sleep forever. Since I did not study at all for a month, I failed the second entrance examination. I took the last examination and luckily I passed it. That was an essay exam, and I was good at writing essays. It was fortunate that the theme of the exam was “the Concept of Time” and not “Your Background.” During the previous two months I felt spiritless. I did not feel any emotion but fear. I always slept on my bed just below a window. From the window, warm sunshine wrapped me softly and I felt safest while in my room.

Shortly after that, I started thinking about how to be a part of Japanese society. I appreciated that my parents gave me Japanese nationality and a Japanese name then. I can be Japanese as long as I do not confess that I am a Korean by blood. Being Japanese was not difficult for me. It was even easier than being Korean. I know Japanese people and Japanese customs very well. I was very satisfied with this simple solution. If I am a normal Japanese, no Japanese person can hurt me. I thought that I could even confess to people that I am a Korean after I fully show them that I am a real Japanese-friendly Korean. Maybe some Japanese people would come to think that Koreans are not as bad as they thought by seeming me as an example. Thus, I began to feel that I did not have to be afraid of Japanese people and I had got a tranquil life in Japan as a university student.

However, of course, nobody can predict the future. The Tohoku Earthquake hit my hometown and Tokyo abruptly at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011. What made it even worse was the disaster that occurred when the Fukushima nuclear power plants exploded. My hometown is only thirty kilometers away from that power plant. Like other foreigners, my parents wanted me and my younger brother to evacuate from Japan. This was so soon after my efforts to become a good Japanese. But now, I had to be a foreigner. I resisted my parents’ suggestion with all my power. What would Japanese people think of me if I departed Japan in this emergency? It would just testify that I am a Korean and a foreigner. I needed to remain in Japan and help my friends and my hometown. At the same time, however, I knew that my hope would force my father to keep working in Fukushima. I really respected my father from the bottom of my heart, and I did not want him to be in danger. I also understood that their suggestion was for our sakes. In front of my mother’s tearful entreaty, I could not resist anymore. I finally evacuated from Japan and I left my Japanese friends behind.

For a month, I did not do anything because I did not have anything to do. I stayed in my aunt’s home in Korea with my younger brother. I spent time playing with my little cousins. I continued checking the Japanese news every day. One day I read an article about a Korean student in Sendai. He helped Japanese people with the rescue efforts and put off his plan to return to Korea. I screamed in my heart. “It should be me!  I should be the person that all the Japanese people would appreciate!” I knew that there was nothing I could do anymore. I ran away from Japan but he stayed. For me, that was the only and miserable fact.

After a month, my parents arranged for my brother and me to go to the Philippines to study English. It is cheaper to study in the Philippines than in the US, and our older cousin lives there. By that point, I had already decided not to regret the past. Since I cannot change the past, I wanted to make my future better with all my best efforts.

In the Philippines, my brother and I lived in a dormitory for Koreans. A lot of Koreans go to the Philippines these days to study English. By having a clear purpose, which was to study as hard as possible, my mind was serene and cool. But then I realized that that was the first time for me to live with other Koreans. There were several students who disliked us because we came from Japan. One student reproached me by saying I should return Dokdo Island to them. Another student blamed me for the historical problems, including the comfort women of WWII, between Japan and Korea. Their actions were unreasonable to me, but I was cool enough to ignore them after experiencing the Tohoku Earthquake.

What also made me surprised was that some Koreans were really kind toward me. They recognized my blood and treated me as one of them. I was confused, but at the same time, I felt something warm in my mind. I discovered that I had another home country. Until then, I had believed that everything related to Korea was troublesome for me because of my also being Japanese. I did not know the good characteristics of Koreans until then. In the Philippines, I found out many things about Koreans for the first time. I learned that although Koreans are often cold to strangers, they are extremely kind to their friends. They always spent their time listening to me whenever I remembered the dreadful scenes of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant accident. They always listen to their friends if they have any problems. There was a new hope in my mind that evolved by spending time with them. I found that I do not have to cling to Japan if I cannot live well in Japan. That hope was unbelievably bright and warm for me.

In the Philippines, I got another gift for nothing. It was my new name. I could use any English name at the language school, and I chose Lily Cho. Lily was suggested to me by my respectful mother, and Cho is my Korean family name. I chose Cho not because I wanted to get back my real name this time, but because it was easier for teachers to remember than my Japanese family name, Shimizu. With this new name, I introduced myself to the people around me. It was like drawing a new picture on a brand new sheet of white paper. They know Lily Cho as they see what I do. Deception will not work on them, but at the same time they do not have any preconception about me from my background. None of the people there know about my hometown, my university, my name in Japan, or my position in Japan. They just know me by how hard I study English, by how I communicate with others, and by what I speak and write.

After a year passed, I did not persist in many things, such as legally changing my real name, dealing with people’s prejudice, or dealing with the history between Japan and Korea. Some people really liked me in the Philippines, and I learned that I could live not for every person in the world, but for the several people who love me for being me. I learned that I do not have to worry about my responsibility as a Japanese or Korean too much from one of my Filipina friends. She told me we should be busy enough to think about things in the present.

After the one year moratorium, I decided to go back to Japan. Everyone in my family, besides me, moved to Germany with their acquaintances’ help. But I wanted to retry my life in Japan. I learned that I do not have to worry about others or countries too much as long as the people in front of me are kind. I discovered that suspicion produces nothing but fear. This time, I want to live my life without fear in Japan. I want to be strong enough to accept others’ kindness without doubting it. I want to help people and I want to laugh not because I need to, but because I want to. I just want to be able to say that I love both Japan and Korea from the bottom of my heart sometime in the near future.