The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Portraying the tough but humor-filled lives of an ethnic minority   An interview with the Japan-resident Korean writer Chong Wishing
Fuyu no Himawari
Premiere: 1999
Produced by Bungaku-za
The play takes place in the early afternoon of December 30. The setting is the Kamome-so a guest house where the sound of the sea and the cries of the seagulls are heard. The people staying at the guest house in this off season all appear to have a past. There are an abandoned woman, a man who loves men, and the play presents the stories of these lonely, self-seeking people with a comic touch.

Ro wa Robot no Ro (Teto the Robot)
Premiere: 2001
Produced by the Opera Theater Konnyaku-za
As the stage lights come on, robots appear from every direction with grinding, clanking sounds. The scene is Westland. Teto, a bread-making robot, has lost the ability to make good bread, so he sets out on a journey to Eastland to ask his maker, Dr. Dolittle, to repair him.... This is an opera with a nostalgic air that has eight actors in 30 or more roles performing to the music of a single piano.

An-nin-dofu no Kokoro
Premiere: 2002
Produced by Umi no Circus
The play takes place on Christmas Eve. It is about the breakup of a middle-aged married couple. The woman had been doing a good job running a chindon'ya (street musicians who perform for advertising purposes) business inherited from her father, and the man had been acting as househusband because he is out of work. They decide to separate when the chindon'ya business is closed down. As the two clown around, and play, and laugh together, the feelings they had never been able to fully express to each other begin to overflow, and the truth is revealed. This was performed as a one-night-only performance at Christmas in 2000, but with audience backing it has become part of the Umi no Circus repertory, and is performed every year.
From the darkness of the movie theater to the light of the stage

After leaving Doshisha University you enrolled in film school Japan Academy Of Moving Images in Yokohama.
The more movies I watches the more I wanted see the world behind the screen. I thought it would be good if I could make a life working in filmmaking. I went to the film school for two years and then I went to work for the film studio Shochiku as an assistant in set decoration. At that time, I was invited by a Japan-resident Korean in the “Black Tent” theater company to take part in the “Red Classroom” workshops they were doing. Their slogan was “Anyone can do theater” and there were a lot of housewives and men who were theater amateurs attending, and I thought what they were doing was interesting. Kiyokazu Yamamoto directed the Red Classroom graduation performance and for some reason I was given the lead role. I couldn’t do well at all and I got a lot of direct criticism from Yamamoto. “You talk like a machine (not a human being),” he told me. I still remember his exact words so clearly. After that performance, Yamamoto said to me, “You’ll be joining the Black Tent now, won’t you.” And I found myself answering, “Yes.” You see what I mean when I say I’m the type who has always gone with the flow (laughs).
In Black Tent, I was impressed by the actress Kim Kumija. When I saw their performance of Saiyuki she was the only one not wearing a mask, and I remember thinking how beautiful she was. Like me, she was Japan-resident Korean. It is sad that she passed away in 2004.

Had you seen Black Tent performances before that?
When I was in high school there had been a performance of Abe Sada no Inu (Sada Abe’s Dog) in Himeji. I went to see it alone and was I was very excited during the last scene when they opened the black tent to the outside world. I think that in the case of theater your first experience is important, and for me it was not Juro Kara’s Red Tent but Makoto Sato and Kiyokazu Yamamoto’s Black Tent. By the way, the first Red Tent performance I saw was Onna Cyrano (The Woman Cyrano).

Shortly after joining Black Tent you wrote your first play, Beloved Medea (’86).
C: There was a Black Tent program to encourage the careers new members called the Titanic Project and for some reason I was chosen to write the script. Then I was told be some of my seniors in the company, “Since you wrote the play, you should direct it.” It was really tough, because I originally had no intention of directing anything, and it meant that I had to put together a staff to do the production.

But the fact that you were chosen to write was certainly because you had something special. And after entering the theater world through Black Tent, you formed the Shinjuku Ryozanpaku with Kim Kumija, whom we mentioned earlier, and Kim Sujin of the Jokyo Gekijo company in 1987 after leaving Black Tent. And after writing a number of outstanding works for that company such as Sennen no Kodoku (1988), Eizo Toshi (Cinecitta) (1990) and Ningyo Densetsu (1995), you went on to an independent career that has included wide-ranging work in small theater and even musicals. What seems to run through all of your works is the feeling that, “Yes, there are people like that,” and, “Yes, there are places like that,” and “Yes, there was a time like that.” It seems to me that the reflection in of your upbringing and the vivid backdrop of your native Himeji brings a unique “reality” to these feelings.
I used to think that my upbringing, stories about Japan-resident Koreans and writing about the people around me were things that I had to work into my writing as very unique interludes in order for them to be accepted. But, after the 1993 success of the movie Tsuki wa Docchi ni Deteiru (Where Has the Moon Come Out?), for which I was asked to do the screenplay based on the novel by Yan Sogil, it became quite common for Koreans, from both the North and South, to appear in Japanese movies. Now we have had the “Korean TV drama boom” also. The times have changed so that now it is completely natural for Koreans to appear in movies and plays and it doesn’t take any special effort on the part of the audience to accept them as characters.
Of course there is no need to feel humble about your being a minority, but there is also no need to emphasize it either. So, now I feel that it is OK if I just present these people naturally as life-size characters in my writing. It seems that many people think my playwriting has changed a lot since my Ryozanpaku days. But, I think that, although the pictures I portray may have changed somewhat, my own fundamental core hasn’t changed.

Being a “Zainichi Korean” writer

Is your nationality [citizenship] South Korean?
Originally my nationality is “Chosen” [now North Korean], but I changed it to “Kankoku” [South Korean] when our play Sennen no Kodoku (A Thousand Years of Solitude) was performed in South Korea. After that my whole family changed to South Korean citizenship. My father has been though a lot of changes in his own life, and he decided to change to South Korean citizenship because he wants to be buried there when he dies. I think a lot of Japanese misunderstand, but the fact that many Japan-resident Koreans have North Korean citizenship doesn’t mean they are North Koreans. When Japan’s foreign resident registration law went into effect in 1947 all Korean nationals were registered as Chosen citizens, and after South Korea was established as a country in 1948, an increasing number of people changed to Kankoku citizenship. A lot of people still have Chosen citizenship just because they never made the effort to change to Kankoku citizenship. My family was originally from an area called Ch’ungch’ongnamdo not far to the south of Seoul. And, I believe that most of the Japan-resident Koreans who have Chosen citizenship were originally from what is now South Korea geographically.

Among the early generation of Japan-resident Korean playwrights, Kohei Tsuka is well know. Has Tsuka ever been a writer that you were particularly conscious of?
Actually, right now I am doing a play (Boku to Kare to Musume no Iru Basho) with Kenjiro Ishimaru, who used to belong to Tsuka’s theater company, but the only Tsuka plays I have ever seen are Netorare Sosuke (1982) that Ishimaru starred in and maybe one other. For me, “Zainichi Korean” theater was [not Tsuka but] always Black Tent and Jokyo Gekijo.

With your play Musume ni Kataru Sokoku (1990) Tsuka made his coming-out, admitting that he was Japan-resident Korean, but I heard that he had a painful experience in South Korea when his Atami Satsujin Jiken (Atami Murder Incident) was performed there and people found out that he couldn’t speak Korean.
I can’t speak Korean either, and the times have really changed, because I was received quite warmly [in South Korea].
It happens that a collection of my plays is being published in South Korea for the first time this December (2007), and it begins with the work Asian Sweets that I wrote for Kim Kumija and contains a number subsequent works like Ningyo Densetsu, Niju Seki Shonen, Shojo Shokashu (Collected Song for Boys and Girls), Fuyu no Saboten (Winter Cactus) and Aki no Hotaru (Autumn Firefly), which gives it a lot of variety in terms of style. And there have been a number of performances of my works in Korea too, such as Sennen no Kodoku and Ningyo Densetsu from my Shinjuku Ryozanpaku period. I was particularly surprised at the performance of Ningyo Densetsu which was held in a tent that seated only about 300, but 700 or 800 people showed up to see it. Also, Niju Seki Shonen, Shojo Shokashu was very well received in a production directed by Yuko Matsumoto of the Bungaku-za theater company using Korean actors. Lately there have been performances [of my plays] every year in South Korea, including Annindofu no Kokoro, the Konyaku-za company’s production of Ro wa Robot no Ro (Teto the Robot) and the Warabi-za company’s production of Hibiki. This year there is the National Theater of Korea production of Fuyu no Himawari (Winter Sunflower) planned. Times have changed and we are finally in an era when Japanese contemporary culture can be introduced freely in South Korea.
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