Kim Sok Bom's "Kazanto"

A review by Kawamura Minato

Translation and notes by William Wetherall

A version of this translation appeared as
"Kim Sok Bom's Kazanto (Volcano island)" in
Japanese Literature Today, Number 23, 1998, pages 56-60

Kazanto (Volcano island) is a mammoth novel. It took about 20 years to write, during which it was serialized in Bungakukai, the monthly journal of literary arts. And it required over 11,000 pages of 400-character manuscript paper, which simply computed means about 4.4 million characters. It could be called an attempt at what Sartre labeled the "total novel" -- along with works like Noma Hiroshi's Seinen no Wa (Circle of youth), Onishi Kyojin's Shinsei Kigeki (Divine comedy), and Ooka Shohei's Reite Senki (Chronicle of the Battle of Leyte), limiting the list to postwar literature. When I saw the type on the closely printed two-row pages in the seven volumes of the published edition, I thought of (though the association may be somewhat wild) the clusters of script in the woodblocks of the 81,000-odd-page Koryo Taejanggyo (Korean Tripitaka, a Buddhist sutra collection produced during the Koryo period, 918-1392), which is stored in the Haeinsa temple in the Republic of Korea. The Koryo Taejanggyo, which is thought to be the largest woodblock publication in the world, was produced using these woodblocks, and it signifies the achievement of the ultimate work that can be done with script.

The author, Kim Sok Bom, is a Japan-resident Korean novelist. Japan-resident Koreans are an ethnic group consisting of Koreans in Japan who immigrated to the Japanese islands before 1945, in connection with Japan's colonial rule of the Korean peninsula, and their descendants. Most of these Koreans are citizens of the Republic of Korea, and they have permanent residence rights in Japan. And Kim Sok Bom is a "Japan-resident nisei" who was born to parents from Cheju island off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula who had moved to Osaka [n 1]. But Kim, who crossed to Cheju several times during his youth, has continued to embrace an attachment to and concern for Cheju as more his own spiritual "home" than the land his own parents were from. For he writes fiction in Japanese, and since his debut in the world of the literature of Japan, with a short story entitled Karasu no shi (The death of a crow), practically all of his stories are set on Cheju, his "home," in the republic of Korea, and they involve people who reside on Cheju, and live (and die) there. Besides this, many of the stories are of the shishosetsu or "I-novel" style, which he is thought to have modeled on himself, a Japan-resident Korean writer.

Among the works that Kim has set on Cheju island, Kazanto is the longest, and it is also a compilation of the "Cheju" fiction that he had written before it. Characters such as Denboujii and Mandogi, who appeared in Karasu no shi and Mandogi yurei kitan (Adventures of Mandogi's ghost), reappear in Kazanto, and they are active "intertextually" so to speak, though there are also some different points with respect to their character names. But more important than this is the fact that the theme of Kazanto is the "Cheju Island April 3rd Incident," which actually happened on Cheju island on April 3, 1948, and is the theme of Kim Sok Bom's other Cheju fiction to date. In other words, since his debut as a novelist, Kim has consistently made the explanation of the political and social incident called the "April 3rd Incident" his singular literary subject.

The "April 3rd Incident" is deeply and intimately related to the modern history of the Korean peninsula, and also to the international affairs of the "cold war" period. Korea, having gained liberation from the colonial rule of Japanese imperialism in August 1945 and burning with leanings toward independence, plunged into a crisis when the division of the peninsula into north and south at the 38th parallel of northern latitude was frozen by the speculations of the U.S. and Soviet superpowers. The "April 3rd Incident" was an armed uprising of left-wing influence, on Cheju island, in opposition to the independent elections held only in South Korea, when the Democratic People's Republic of Korea declared its establishment in the north, and the Republic of Korea established itself in the south. What became the curtain-raiser for the age of upheaval connected with the insurrections of the ROK army at Yosu and Sunchon, the partisan struggles at Chirisan, and the Korean War, was the so-called "incident" on Cheju island, the remote island on the periphery of the southern tip of the Korean peninsula.

Pyongyang was "militarily occupied" by the Soviet army, Seoul by the American army, and "puppet governments" with Kim Il Song (Kim Il Sung) and Yi Sung Man (Syngman Rhee) as their respective head of state were established in both the north and the south. The joy of liberation from Japanese imperialism was short-lived, however, as Korea came under the indirect "colonial rule" of the two superpowers. Out of opposition to the division of their fatherland, and to halt the holding of national elections only in the southern half, the people of Cheju island in unison staged an armed uprising on April 3, 1948, among other things attacking police stations on the island. Kazanto, centering on this very day, portrays as its main parts the events of just a few months before and after the "April 3rd Incident."

The two major protagonists are Yi Pang Gun, a non-activist intellectual imbued with nihilist ideas and the son of a local Cheju ethnic capitalist, and the activist Nam Sung Ji, who participated in a mountain guerrilla regiment. These two contrasting characters are the foci of an elliptical structure. The story about Yi Pang Gun's family takes the form of a drama of conflict and love involving his father Yi T'ae Su and his younger sister Yi Yu Won. Associated with Nam Sung Ji's guerrilla regiment are "comrades" like Kang Mon Gu, Yang Chun U, and Kim Tong Jin, the hostile Chong Se Yong, and the traitor Yu Tal Hyon, among many other characters making an appearance.

The two central characters, Yi Pang Gun, an anti-Japanese constituent during the period of Japanese imperialism who later "turned," and the younger Nam Sung Ji, are mutually bound by respect and friendship, and Yi Pang Gun's younger sister Yu Won and Nam Sung Ji have secretly given their hearts to one another. Yang Chun U, who was intellectually influenced by Yi Pang Gun when sharing a cell with him in jail, and the junior Nam Sung Ji were at a gathering of Cheju students in Seoul, where they became acquainted with Yi Yu Won. Yi Pang Gun went to Seoul to take custody of Yu Won, who had been arrested by police for putting up bills, and there they greeted August 15, 1948, the day of the founding of the Republic of Korea. But on Cheju island, the armed guerrillas were still revolting, and bloody battles were continuing both with the police, who were trying to suppress and oppress this and indiscriminately slaughtering residents and destroying villages and homes, and with the "Sobok [Northwest] Youth Association," a private anti-communist terrorist group of reactionary elements who had escaped from North Korea.

The confrontation between the guerrilla regiment, and the army/police and the rightwing violence group called Sobok, continued to move back and forth. At the time, Yi Pang Gun had some trouble with Sobok members in Cheju city, where they rampaged around as though they owned the place. But the "face," money, and mediation of his father Yi T'ae Su and relative Chong Se Yong brought the matter to an end without further incident. The youth around him went into the mountains to join with the partisans and guerrillas. However Pang Gun, who was pursuing a passionate existence with a maid servant named "Buogi," was leading a decadent life abandoned to liquor and women, while embracing the rebels with sympathy.

The soldiers of the government army in Yosu and Sunchon on what could be called the shore opposite Cheju island, caused an insurrection by refusing orders sending them to Cheju as reinforcements for guerrilla punitive forces. However the insurrection troops were suppressed, the guerrillas holed up in the mountainous regions of Cheju were also gradually driven into a corner, and a crisis of annihilation from shortages of food and internecine massacres approached. In the villages, the police, army and Sobok continued to massacre and maltreat families and villagers, who were seen as sympathizers with the guerrillas, in the name of gruesome "roast outs" and executions. Even islanders who had nothing to do with the guerrillas were indiscriminately killed as guerrillas or their sympathizers, and the death toll of the "April 3rd Incident," including these unfortunate islanders, is said to have climbed to 80,000 in a year and a half.

Yi Pang Gun takes part in an operation in which he obtains fishing boats and helps participants in the guerrilla struggle to secretly escape to Japan. An incident occurs in which Yu Tal Hyon, a spy for the authorities, boards the boat, draws the rage of the crew, is lashed to the mast, and dies. Yi Pang Gun, abandoning his heretofore non-activist, spectator position, himself takes the role of executing Chong Se Yong, who had been taken captive by the guerrilla unit. He also rescues Nam Sung Ji, who had been captured by the government army, forcefully puts the protesting Nam on a boat to Japan to be with Yi Yu Won, who has exchanged favors with him, and then kills himself with a pistol.

Kim Sok Bom's wraps up his long novel, which compresses into seven volumes this modern history of the Korean peninsula, with Nam Sung Ji's secret passage to Japan and Yi Pang Gun's taking his own life. But it portrays more than just an historical incident and facts, or a tragic fictional tale about Yi Pang Gun, Nam Sung Ji, and other characters. By roundly depicting the very milieu of "Cheju island," which forms the backdrop for the political and historical incident called the Cheju Island April 3rd Incident, and the lives and mentalities of the people living there, it also tenaciously pursues the causes and reasons for the occurrence on Cheju island of the April 3rd Incident, which is somehow symbolic and representative of the tragedy of the modern history of Korea. Naturally there are the accumulated years of the "discrimination" structure by which Cheju, separated from the mainland of the Korean peninsula, was discriminated against. There was the seafaring character, the trans-border cultural milieu in which residents crossed the borderless seas for Tsushima and Japan, and regionality (regional rivalry). There were also the intentions of the South Korean Labor Party that led and conducted the guerrilla struggle, and the battle for hegemony within the party. The provocation, support, and spectatorship of the U.S. military, the Yi Sung Man administration, and the Kim Il Song administration that opposed them at the 38th parallel. Within the government army and police, as well, sympathy for the guerrillas was mixed with loathing and fear. Due to a variety of elements and diverse key factors, Cheju became an "island of tragedy" that washed blood with blood.

But it is not just this that makes Kazanto a "total novel." The rituals and the manners and mores of the shinban shaman practices peculiar to Cheju island. A genesis myth celebrated both in the samsonghyol (a hole from which it is said that ancestors possessing three family names came to the surface of the earth), and in the stone images called halman gods. Foods and folk songs peculiar to that locale. Characters that well from the ground of Cheju, characters of the lower strata who say nothing, like Denboujii and Buogi, are portrayed, and the vibrant activities of these people support from the bottom the "total novel" that expresses this single "world" or "universe" called Cheju. While it is a great achievement of Japan-resident Korean literature, Kazanto should also be called one of the monuments of Japanese postwar literature.


1. Kawamura uses Chosen as a generic label embracing both pre-1945 "Korea" and post-1945 Republic of Korea (ROK) and Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and Chosenjin as a tag for all "Koreans" on the peninsula and in Japan before and after August 1945.


Tei Taikin (A), a friend, once brought Kawamura Minato (쑺) to my home in Abiko. Tei and Kawamura had just teamed in a 1985 book on images of Japan and Japanese in the Republic of Korea. Kawamura has written extensively on various issues related to Koreans in Japan, including nationality, names, and racioethnic mixture in literature. I have often referred to his work on this website. See my reviews of Tei Taikin's work, including his collaboration with Kawamura, at Tei Taikin on nationalism and Koreans in Japan.