Friday, June 15, 2012

Hanto e, Futatabi (To The Peninsula, Again), by Kaoru Hasuike

Big breath, here goes, my first attempt at blogging. I'd like to dedicate this post to Lisa Hew, who gave me the idea for this many years ago.

I thought it fitting that my first post be about a book by somebody who is a blogger, a translator and a source of inspiration. If Kaoru Hasuike can get the hang of all this despite the long gap in his experience of computer technology, then surely I can too!

The author of Hanto e, Futatabi ([To the Peninsula Again] Shinchosha, 2009), Kaoru Hasuike, and his future wife were literally snatched off the beach in Japan by North Korean agents in 1978. They were held captive in North Korea for 24 years, during which time they married and raised a family, before being repatriated after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit there in 2002. Their two children were later able to join them.

I had long been fascinated by the story of the abductees; what their lives in North Korea had been like and how they had managed to adjust to life in Japan again after such an experience. After their return, however, they quite understandably revealed little in public for the most part, but I thought that one day someone would speak out. That person turned out to be Kaoru Hasuike, and he did so in order to keep the plight of the abductees still in North Korea in the public eye. Hanto e, Futatabi was published in 2009 and won the Shincho Documentary Award. It is not directly about life in North Korea as such, but it does contain many fascinating vignettes.

The book is basically in two parts. The first is a travel narrative, an account of a trip to Seoul he undertook in order to fill in the gaps in his experience. Hence the title: To The Peninsula, Again. After returning to Japan, Hasuike eventually found his niche as a teacher and translator of Korean. He had been a law student at the time of his abduction, and did actually complete the law course eventually, but found that his long absence from Japan made taking up a career in law difficult. Becoming a translator and teacher was a way for him to turn his experience into something positive; making the language of his captors into a weapon he could use to salvage the lost years. In Seoul he gets to meet some of the authors he has translated, visits a bookshop and scenes from novels. Every place he goes to see he has thoroughly researched in advance, and often it has poignant overtones, triggering memories of and comparisons with North Korea. One of the most moving passages was his description of the lights of Seoul, and the memory it precipitates of the lights of his hometown Kashiwazaki in Niigata, which was his last glimpse of Japan the night he was abducted.

The second part of the book is a compilation of his blogs. He recounts how he became a translator, how this work has enriched his life by providing opportunities to meet Koreans and Japanese from different walks of life, thus increasing his appreciation of literature and its power to bring people together—definitely a man after my own heart! He also writes amusingly of his Rip Van Winkle-like experience in returning to Japan to find everything changed; things like the advent of computers, the spread of manga culture, and—for some reason—the improbable improvement of dentists' chair-side manners.  There's also an amusing discourse on how junior high school baseball training was good preparation for life in North Korea.

Even when going into lengthy historical and cultural detail, Hasuike's writing is never dry. You get a very strong sense of his personality—his intelligence, curiosity, frankness, mischievous sense of humour and evident thirst for life—together with the clear sense of mission he feels in his chosen role as a bridge between Korean and Japanese cultures, and his deep sense of responsibility for the other victims of abduction still trapped in North Korea. Goodness knows, they need all the help they can get, because the Japanese government certainly isn't doing anything for them.

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