Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Commemorating Oh Deok-soo, a Director who Became a “Zainichi Director”

Jan 16, 2016
Shota T. Ogawa

Film director Oh Deok-soo passed away from lung cancer on Sunday. He was 74. Oh is known for his feature-length documentary films on Zainichi Koreans (Resident Koreans in Japan) including Against Fingerprinting (1984) and The Story of Koreans in Postwar Japan: Zainichi (1997).

I met Oh late in his life. In 2010, when I first interviewed him for my doctoral project, I was surprised to learn that he had as many questions for me as I did for him. In the years following, it became my habit to pay him a visit when I was back in Japan not only to seek advice on my dissertation, but to report on my life in the U.S., for he was always interested in hearing about the different and diverse ways in which Zainichi Koreans live today. While I cannot write a personal tribute informed by intimate familiarity, I want to offer a brief summary of his resume in the way I believe he would have liked to see it told.    

Born in 1941 in Kazuno City, Akita Prefecture, Oh first entered the film world as an assistant to Nagisa Oshima, working on Violence at Noon (1966) and Sing a Song of Sex (1967), before working for Daiei and Toei in their film divisions through the late 1960s and the 1970s. Some of the better known television productions he worked on include The Guardsman (starring Ken Utsui, Daiei/TBS, 1965-1971), A Lone Wolf (starring Shigeru Amachi, Toei/NTV, 1967-1968), and Key Hunter (starring Tetsuro Tamba and Sonny Chiba, Toei/TBS, 1968-1973).    

Oh was a familiar presence in local film festivals and public symposia, particularly since completing his lifework, The Story of Koreans in Postwar Japan, in 1997 which involved working closely with grassroots groups across Japan that co-sponsored its production and realized a nation-wide tour of the film. In addition to making his own films, he was active in organizing screenings of others’ works that highlighted the historical presence of Koreans within Japanese cinema. In the screenings he organized for the History Museum of J-Koreans in Azabu, for example, he showcased the works of Zainichi Korean directors such as Sai Yoichi, Lee Sang-il, and Kim Su-gil alongside films made by Japanese directors that depicted Zainichi Koreans in interesting ways. Each screening was accompanied by a guest speaker who might be the director, a staff member, or a viewer with a special attachment to the title, and a post-screening discussion followed by a party gave the event a unique communal character.

In recent years, he had branched out into exhibiting his own photographs and probing the possibility of curating a museum exhibition of picture books and school textbooks written for Korean children in Occupied Japan. His multifaceted activity as a filmmaker, collector, curator, and cultural organizer stemmed from his work on the monumental documentary, The Story of Koreans in Postwar Japan, for which he had to condense a vast archive of music, photographs, home movies, newsreels, and material artifacts into its running time of four-and-a-half hours.

The unique ways in which Oh’s professional and artistic career developed around rather than fully within cinema were also a product of circumstances. In an interview with film scholar Takashi Monma in 2005, Oh recounts that most studios had stopped hiring assistant directors when he graduated from Waseda’s Theater Department in 1965. Even in Toei’s TV division (Toei Tokyo Production) where he received most of the training and rose to the rank of Chief Assistant Director, he was still on an irregular contract with limited benefits or job security. The second half of his time at Toei was thus spent on a prolonged strike that demanded improved labor conditions for contract employees. It was only by taking up freelance assignments to write screenplays for film, television, and manga, while collectively running a franchised noodle shop that Oh and his fellow strikers of Toei Production Company Labor Union were able to live through the 1970s.

It was paradoxically during the prolonged strike that Oh found the key to direct his own films. Through befriending the editors of the Zainichi Korean magazine Madan and later cofounding its informal successor Jansori, Oh became involved in the burgeoning movement of young Japan-born Zainichi Koreans that sought to build a public sphere that overcame the Cold War division. When the anti-fingerprinting protest broke out in 1980 and developed into a major social movement by 1985, he found himself ideally situated to document the movement from within, thanks to the significant overlap between the target audience of Jansori and the main actors of the protest movement. He founded his independent production company Oh Kikaku for the project which was completed and screened within a year while the protest was still ongoing.

On a number of occasions, Oh raised objection to the label “Zainichi Korean film director” which he found constricting. But no other director has so consistently explored the interrelation between Zainichi and film, or to rephrase in his preferred expression: what it means to be Zainichi Koreans living at a time when we have access to historical film documents. If it is apt to call him a representative Zainichi Korean film director, it is not because his interest was limited to Zainichi Korean issues, but because he took up the challenge of weaving Zainichi Koreans’ social concerns into the fabric of cinema. It is in this spirit that we can appreciate the opening scene of his maiden film, Against Fingerprinting, that shows an alien registration card set on fire. This was, he told the audience at a screening, a visual homage paid to Kei Kumai’s Nihon retto (1965) that featured a visually striking shot of ants engulfed in flame against the backdrop of the map of Japan. With Oh’s documentaries, we can learn about Chesa (a Korean ceremony of ancestor worship) to a-ha’s “Take On Me,” or make unexpected connections between Zainichi Korean history and Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters or with Yoshio Tabata’s postwar hit, Kaeribune (Repatriation Boat). He made Zainichi Korean history cinematic.

At a time when Directors Guild of Japan is chaired by Sai Yoichi and Eiren (Motion Picture Producer Association of Japan) have nominated works by Sai, Lee Sang-il, and Yang Yong-hi to compete for the Foreign Language Oscar in the Academy Awards, it appears all but certain that Zainichi Koreans have gained citizenship in the world of cinema. Oh’s legacy might be understood in the reverse term. Instead of making it in the film business, he made cinema relevant to as many Zainichi Koreans as he could.
Shota T. Ogawa is Assistant Professor of Japanese at University of North Carolina at Charlotte who is writing a book manuscript tentatively titled Visualizing Zainichi: A Cinematic Counter-History of Koreans in postwar Japan.  

Friday, January 8, 2016


Eclipse Rising
US-Based Zainichi Coreans for Decolonization, Reunification and Zainichi Community Development

On December 28, 2015, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Japan jointly announced that they had reached a “final and irreversible” settlement agreement on the long-standing issue of the Korean “Comfort Women.” The “Comfort Women” system (1932-1945), or Japanese military sexual slavery, was a widespread and systematic racist, colonial violence against women. Its central feature was the rationalized procurement, imprisonment, rape, abuse, torture, and brutalization of an estimated 200,000 women and girls. One of the largest organized systems of exploiting and trafficking of women in the 20th century, the violence resulted in mutilation, death, or eventual suicide of victims.

This latest so-called agreement is nothing more than Japan’s attempt at permanent erasure of an extraordinary human rights atrocity that continued for over a decade with impunity. As such, it amounts to an unjust silencing of the victims and their principled demands for apology and atonement, and turns its back on the fundamental understanding of women’s rights as human rights.

Eclipse Rising stands in solidarity with the victims in rejecting the “agreement” for its failure to restore their dignity and human rights. While this “agreement” was ostensibly hailed as settling the “Comfort Women” issue, none of the victims were consulted. In fact, it leaves out other “Comfort Women” from other parts of Asia: 11 countries in all. It also prohibits South Korea from ever raising the issue in any other international body, including the United Nations, leaving Korean victims without a governmental advocate.

Despite the gravity of the offenses, no actual written agreement was ever produced; rather, the two governments issued separate national statements summarizing the negotiations. Furthermore, in this “agreement,” Japan refused to accept the term “coercion” to describe the “Comfort Women” system, constituting a dubious regression from the 1993 Kono Statement (made by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono that acknowledged Japan’s role in the coercion of girls in the “Comfort Women” system).

Despite the fact that the Allied Forces had full knowledge about the existence of this heinous institution, the United States, Japan, and South Korea colluded to silence and erase this history for over forty years since World War II. Under escalating militarization and wars in post-WWII Asia, US military presence and bases grew. Doubly victimized, many former “Comfort Women” continued to suffer sexual exploitation in camp town prostitution long after they were “freed” from Japanese sexual slavery.

Indeed, survivors had been forgotten and abandoned by local, national, and international communities for too long. This is the backdrop to the impassioned indignation displayed by a former “Comfort Woman” Lee Yongsoo halmoni, as she learned of the news and confronted the Korean Vice Foreign Minister: “Why are you trying to kill us twice?”

We deny the assertion by the governments of the United States, South Korea, and Japan that this so-called agreement is a step in the “right direction.” To the contrary, we assert that it takes us several steps backwards. The settlement cannot be said to be official government action, as it lacks either cabinet approval or parliamentary endorsement in either the Korean or Japanese legislatures.

We note, also, that to date, the Japanese legislature has never passed a resolution of acknowledging state responsibility for the “Comfort Women” system or other atrocities committed by the Japanese military during WWII. Thus, this and all prior statements remain subject to equivocation.

Japan’s payment of $8.3 million into a settlement fund is widely recognized as compensation to the victims. Is it not then peculiar that Foreign Minister Kishida has repeatedly claimed this payment does not at all constitute “reparation,” but rather, a part of “a Korea-Japan joint venture”? Thus, he rejects any suggestion that Japan admits culpability. Billed as “humanitarian support,” this payment constitutes mere charity and hush money from the Japanese government.

The “final and irrevocable” nature of this settlement also leaves out any requirement on the part of Japan for ongoing documentation and education of Japan’s responsibility for the “Comfort Women” system. In fact, Prime Minister Abe has led the way towards denial and erasure of not only the victims but the facts of history inconvenient for its PR objective to “improve Japan’s image.”

In 2015, Japan tripled its public relations budget to $500 million, part of which is dedicated to an elaborate global campaign to deny or dilute its role in WWII, most aggressively with regard to the “Comfort Women” system, and other atrocities, such as the Nanjing Massacre. In fact, the latest history textbook omits such facts, while glorifying its militaristic past. Such history education renders a whole post-WWII generation of Japanese citizens vulnerable to national amnesia, if not denial, about Japan’s own history. The Japanese government’s demand to remove the “Comfort Women” memorial erected near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul undermines any belief that Japan has engaged earnestly and in good faith, as is expected in diplomatic negotiations.

Furthermore, this “agreement” runs counter to the 2014 Recommendations to the United Nations Human Rights Bodies on the Issue of Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery (Comfort Women). Various UN treaty bodies, including the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), as well as the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, have repeatedly urged Japan to make reparations to the victims, officially acknowledge legal liability, conduct investigations and prosecutions of those responsible, and educate the public about the atrocities — so that it is not repeated again. And yet, this “final and irrevocable” settlement does absolutely none of these things. Rather, it permanently banishes the very existence of the victims and their principled demands into an irrelevant past where they are forgotten and abandoned — again. 

The UN Special Rapporteur on Systematic Rape, Sexual Slavery and Slavery-like Practices During Armed Conflict has established that in totality, the “Comfort Women” system constitutes crime against humanity, to which statutory limitations do not apply, and that Japan does indeed bear legal liability. Navi Pillay, former High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations has stated that this “is a current issue, as human rights violations against these women continue to occur as long as their rights to justice and reparation are not realized.”

Thus, we must urgently take collective action to resist and condemn this historical erasure and denialism masquerading as a just, permanent, solution. As the first city in the country to ratify CEDAW, and as people of conscience, we call upon all San Franciscans to stand with the grandmothers, and build upon the unanimously passed Comfort Women Memorial Resolution here in San Francisco — and urgently support the building of the Comfort Women Memorial.

Eclipse Rising will not relent in seeking justice for all “Comfort Women” through education and memorialization so that we can one day create a world in which the fundamental rights of all girls and women take primacy over political expediency, national interests and regional “security” —  and eliminate the use of rape and violence against women as a central strategy of war.

We honor the grandmothers for galvanizing a global movement against military sexual violence, and making a tremendous contribution to the establishment of this violence as a crime against humanity. Their efforts have helped overturn one of the most widely-accepted, unjust “norms” of humankind, and leave all women and girls a legacy of hope.

January 08, 2016