Reading Progress: 「在日」chapter 1

I thought it would be a good idea to post my reading progress for challenging books. It encourages me to go on reading!

I finished reading the first chapter of 「在日」by 姜尚中(カン・サンジュン). The first chapter was only 25 pages long, but it took me some time to go through it. I think that I understood most of it, but there are still two or three passages where I am not sure of what is implied.

I could not look up each and every unknown word (too many of them), so I dismissed some of them and did not always made a good choice in deciding whether to look up for a word or not. What would sometimes happen is that I go on reading a whole paragraph without really understanding it, just because I missed a keyword. This means that I had to go back to the beginning of the passage and look up more words.

What also happened a lot is a lack of understanding due to bad concentration. I would read a whole page and have a very blurred image of what was described. But if I re-read the same page with more attention and intention to understand, I was often surprised to see that I understood more than I thought I could.

Reading Notes

In this first chapter, Kang talks about how his parents came to immigrate to Japan. The story starts when his father immigrates at the age of 15, in 1931. Kang is born during the Korean War. He recalls his childhood first in a Korean settlement (集落) and then in the little propriety that his family was finally able to buy.

This chapter was absolutely captivating. The anecdotes that Kang relates allow us to grasp, in only a few pages, the bitter situation of the 在日, the discrimination and injustice they had to face.

I have also learned a lot of things through this chapter… Among the things that struck me, I would like to go through two of them: 北朝鮮への帰還運動 and らい予防法.


  • 帰還・きかん: return home, rapatriation

Among the Koreans who immigrated to Japan during Japanese rule in Korea, many saw their dream of return broken by the Korean War. In 1959, North Korea launched a repatriation movement to which Japan actively participated. The first boat to North Korea left Japan the same year. Overall, around 90,000 在日 (including their family) “returned home” to North Korea. The movement went on until 1984, though it lost a lot of its draining force when the situation of the North started to be known among the Koreans in Japan.

I was shocked to learn it, but as Kang explains, it was not surprising. The situation in North Korea was little known at the time and for many Koreans in Japan, even if the majority of them was coming from the South, “North Korea” was still 祖国・そこく the home country.

I found some bitterness in Kang’s narrative. Particularly because Japan government encouraged the “return” to North Korea by giving a positive image of Pyeongyang in the news. He cites an article by Asahi that appeals to the homesickness of Koreans with cheap reference to kimchi.

At the same time, the South was ruled by Syngman Rhee (李承晩, イ・スンマン) who established the Syngman Rhee Line 李ライン, a geographical line that defines maritime sovereignty and includes Dokdo or, in Japanese, Takeshima. Korea seized any Japanese fishing ship that crossed the line, thus contributing to the degrading image of South Korea in Japan.

It is certainly hard to imagine today, but in the 1950’s South Korea was seen negatively in Japan, while North Korea had a positive image.

Kang’s family did not “return” to North Korea, but they saw others departing like the teeth of a broken comb falling one after the other: “一九五九年から、北へ北へと、くしの歯が抜けるように人がいなくなり” (p.34)

Further reading: I found an interesting and thorough article on the subject on Los Angeles Times.


  • らい or ハンセン病: leprosy, Hansen’s disease
  • 予防法・よぼうほう: a preventive measure, a method of prevention

Japan had a leprosy prevention law that required segregation of patients in sanitariums and lasted until 1996 (!).

Persons with leprosy were segregated in sanitariums which included forced hospitalisation. This resulted in a strong social stigma towards persons with leprosy as well as their family. Kang evokes the 恵楓園・けいふうえん which is one of the 13 public sanitoriums of the country. It was founded in 1909, two years after the promulgation of the first leprosy prevention law.

Even after the repeal of this law, social stigma is still a reality, as Kang regrets in his book: “らい予防法は廃止され、国も謝罪をした。しかし人々の心に巣食う偏見と先入観は今もしぶとく生き続けている”. (p.47)

  • 巣食う・すくう: build a nest, lurk in one’s heart

Further Reading: Leprosy segregation is only evoked in Kang’s book, so I have searched for more articles on the subject. Many came out in 2016, to mark the anniversary of the end of the leprosy prevention law. This one by the Guardian reveals a reality much more dreadful than what is in Kang’s book.


This was just a small insight into the first chapter of 「在日」and there are a lot more themes, memories and anecdotes in it. In only 25 pages, Kang Sang-jung shows us various aspects of the time. It goes from the poor and miserable settlements of Koreans in Japan to the common and typical fate of many immigrants of the first generation. Through these stories, however, we are allowed to glimpse at the Japanese society of the time and the political relationships in Asia. All of these is punctuated with some striking memories that marked Kang as a child.