2nd Quarterly, 2006 No.140


A Sprout Has Appeared From an Abandoned Rush-Mat

by KIM Yang-gum

I was born on December 11, 1925, in a small village located somewhere between Pusan and Masang in Cholla-nam-do, South Korea. I remember the tranquility of my village, which was surrounded by forested mountains and the sea upon which floated many small islands. Some of our neighbors in this peaceful village were Japanese. They usually occupied the more favorable land, but as a small child I was ignorant of this. My father's land had been taken away and food was scarce. Our family was leading a difficult life when I was born.

My mother married when she was twenty years old and gave birth to four children. There was my brother who was twenty years my senior, my sister who was fifteen years older than me, another brother who lead me by five years, and myself. My father was often drunk, but my mother was a hard worker and brought us up with strict discipline. Every day she went to other people's houses as a domestic worker, and brought us back small cobs of corn and wheat that she had been given. In the evening, she went to the sea to collect shells and seaweed. She often spoke about our heavy debt, which was due to my father having signed as a guarantor for loans taken our by his acquaintances. Even after we moved to Japan, women dressed in kimono would come to our house to collect money from my father.

When I grew up, my elder cousin said to me, "A sprout has appeared from an abandoned rush-mat." My mother told me she had once abandoned me in a cowshed because I was a girl and there was not enough food available to feed our whole family. However, she eventually returned to the cowshed to find me lying there with my eyes open wide. There was nothing she could do but to take me back home. That was how I grew up. After learning I had once been abandoned, I finally understood what my elder cousin meant when he quoted the old Korean saying.

When I turned seven, my oldest brother went to Japan to work and started to send money back to help our family. My mother would hang a paper bag containing the money from the ceiling and weep on her knees before it every morning and evening. Seeing my mother do this made me cry as well. My brother worked in a knitting mill in Osaka city. He worked for 14 or 15 hours a day in a very dusty environment, which eventually caused him to develop a lung disease. Our cousin also went to Kyoto to work in a weaving mill and sent money back to his family.

Some time later, my brother came home for his marriage ceremony. When he again left for Japan with his wife, my elder sister followed them to live and work in a machine factory. Eventually, when my brother and his wife had a baby, my mother went to Japan and left me in Korea. I was lonely and longed every day to go to Japan.

My father had difficulty managing with no women at home, so said, "Let's go to Japan." My father, my second-oldest brother and I then left our village and our empty house. I was nine years old. After we disembarked from the boat and transferred onto the train, my father bought us some bananas and said to us, "This is Japan." I had never seen bananas before any my pulse raced simply to see them. With the first bite I was amazed that Japan had such delicious food. It has now been more than 60 years, but whenever I see bananas, I vividly remember how I felt experiencing them for the first time.

When we arrived at the place where my mother was staying in Fukushima, Osaka, she was very surprised as we had not informed her we were coming. After having been separated from my mother for a year, I was so overcome with emotion upon seeing her that I rushed out to meet her. The children in the neighborhood stared after me and shouted out, "Chosong, Chosong!" They looked at me as if I were a dirty servant. However, I did not understand Japanese, so I immediately went home and asked my elder brother, "What does Chosong mean?" He did not answer to me, but instead took pair of scissors and cut off my long hair. I later realized that most girls in Japan at that time had short hair, so he had cut my hair to help me blend in. The incident, however, made me afraid of going outside, so I stayed home to care for my brother's baby and help with household chores. My excitement to be in Japan did not last long. All I could see of the country was through a gap in the front door.

After becoming accustomed to my new life in Japan, I developed a desire to go to school. My elder brother asked the school administrator if I could attend class, but he answered, "We cannot accept a student who does not understand Japanese." Despite this, I earnestly wanted to learn how to read and write Japanese, so I asked my family to buy a first grade textbook for me. It was very difficult to master Japanese. I read the text over and over, "Saita saita, sakura-ga saita (Blooming, blooming, cherry trees are blooming)." I was not ashamed to read the text out loud. I studied hard. I still remember the entire text to this day. It took about three years for me to learn Japanese. We rented a room in a house owned by a distant relative of my mother and the landlord's family practiced a new religion called "Tenri-kyo," so fellow believers would often visit their house and I naturally overheard their conversations. I also often sang Japanese songs with my brother's children. Thus, I slowly learned Japanese even though I never attended school.

My childhood was not bright. Since I could speak Japanese, I found a job when I turned thirteen. I worked at a knitting mill and sewed knitted undershirts with a machine. Sewing with that machine required various different skills such as the ability to sew with two or three needles. I learned and mastered all the techniques. Our boss was only able to sew with three needles, so he was very surprised when I mastered that. Whenever he was busy, he would ask me to take over his sewing work for him. My right forefinger became worn and changed shape due to the work pressing the thick rubber.

When I was nineteen years old, an acquaintance of my father's introduced me to a 27-year-old man who worked at an iron factory. I married him despite not being altogether willing to do so since my mind was fully occupied with my duties at work. My parents convinced me to marry by saying that young men were going to war, and even women could be sent to the battlefield if they were single.

My new life with my husband started in Mikuni, Yodogawa Ward, where we lived together with my brother and his wife. I did not know how to cock rice, so it sometimes turned out very hard, and sometimes too soft. When my husband complained, "What kid of rice is this?" my brother spoke up, "I like soft rice, so she makes it that way on purpose." How kind my brother was.

My husband was a skilled worker and a good-humored person. He would sing loudly when he was in the lavatory, which made us laugh. When somebody approached him on the road, he would hide until the person was very close, and then suddenly jump out to surprise them. Two months after the marriage, my father died at the age of 70. Since arriving in Japan he had only spent his days drinking.

My married life lasted just seven months before my husband received an order for military service. We thought he would be able to avoid conscription because he worked in a military factory, but since everybody was being called to service, and since he did not get along well with my brother who did not like to work, he decided to accept in the belief that he would complete his service quickly. I was pregnant and my mother was worried about me because we had only just been married. My husband left home saying, "I will return soon." Five months after he left, in December of the year we married, I gave birth to a baby boy. My husband didn't write once. Looking at my baby's face, I could not help feeling pain, especially at twilight.

In February of the following year, a postcard arrived from my husband informing me that he was in Kyushu. I was so happy that I wondered if I was dreaming. I immediately left everything behind and set out towards Kyushu, carrying my baby on my shoulder and clasping his postcard firmly in my hand. The train was jam-packed and the passengers were like sardines. I was not even able to feed my baby or change his diapers. After 24 hours of traveling, the train arrived at its destination. My face was black with train smoke. When I arrived at the military camp gate and showed the guard the postcard, he replied coldly, "He left today." I asked, "Where has he gone?" "We cannot tell you," the guard answered unsympathetically. I was shocked and discouraged, and started to shake. I almost forgot that I had a baby on my back. The people around me were all too exhausted to care about anyone other than themselves or to speak words of comfort. After a while I regained control of myself and made my way back to the station. Many people were collapsing into tears and crying loudly around me, but I focused on walking, carrying my baby on the back, and forgot about crying. Once I saw people in the same plight as myself. They were crying and I could not stop myself from crying with them. My eyes streamed with tears. I do not remember how long I had to wait until a train came. I felt terribly afraid to think about life with just my baby and myself, so started to weep with great tears falling from my eyes. I will never forget the name of the station, "Saeki."

About two months later I received a postcard from my husband to say he was in Kure. I left to see him at once. By the time I arrived at Kure station it was already dark. My baby started to cry so I went to an inn near the station, but no rooms were available. I refused to leave, however, and pleaded for any space to shelter. The owner said, "You can stay in the barn if you like." The barn was where the old furniture was stored. I was scared and stayed up all night watching my baby's face. At dawn I went out into the street where I saw many military trucks carrying soldiers back and forth. Wondering if my husband was on one of the trucks, I desperately sought for him, but it was hopeless as they all wore the same uniform. I showed his postcard to people on the street and asked about the location of his camp. Finally I found my way there and showed the postcard to the receptionist who nodded twice. Seeing that gesture, I felt great relief and thought, "Now I can finally see him."

When I at last saw my husband I spent an hour talking with him. I told him about how I had gone to Kyushu to look for him. It turned out that our trains had passed by each other somewhere on the way. I discovered, to my dismay, he was training to go to Southeast Asia. He said that even the soldiers were not informed when they were to leave as it was confidential. He complained that he was always hungry and received little food.

I wanted to be as close to my husband as possible before he left for Southeast Asia so, after I returned to Osaka, I immediately went back to Kure to search for a place where my baby and I could stay. I found a horse stable on the street near the military barracks. An old woman, who lived in the house to which the horse stable belonged, appeared from the house just at that moment so I approached her and explained why I was there. After examining me and my baby for a while, she told me she had no vacant rooms, but that I could sleep with her if I did not mind. She ushered me in her house.

I asked for her advice about food that may be available since I wanted to buy some to give to my husband when I visited him the next day. She answered that rice may be available, but that soybean sauce was scarce. Soy sauce was rationed at that time so was very rare. As a substitute for soy sauce, people would make a sauce out of water and salt. I went to a nearby liquor shop and desperately pleaded with them for a small portion of soy sauce, but the shop owner could only repeat that, however much I asked, they had nothing to give. I stood there for a while not knowing what to do, but in the end the shop owner poured a little soy sauce into a small bottle and gave it to me. I was so very happy and cried out, "How much?" He replied, "Nothing, just take it." I hurried back to the house to show the old woman the bottle. She was delighted. The next morning her daughter came to visit and she told her the story. Her daughter rejoiced with us.

Twenty days later, the time came for my husband to leave for Southeast Asia. I went to see him off at the barracks, but strict controls meant the military police would not allow me to speak with him. I wanted my husband to at least pat our baby's head, but even this was not allowed. I cannot describe how much I hated and resented the war. I was so miserable.

During that time, there were frequent air raids over Osaka. I was therefore evacuated to my sister-in-law's house in Ikuno on the outskirts of Osaka City together with my brother-in-law's family. My mother was also evacuated to another location in Ibaraki City. The days passed with anxiety. The war finally ended, but I had not heard anything from my husband. I wanted to tell my husband the many difficult and sad stories I had experienced during the war upon his return, so I prayed for him to come back home, even if he had been injured. I heard that some soldiers who returned home alive would arrive back at their homes during the night. Expecting this to be the case, I waited up every night for my husband with the door to our house open for him. Sadly, I never heard from him, and he never came home. I was depressed and angry, but time just passed in vain.

The 25th Buraku Liberation Literature Award Winner (Literacy Division) - 1999
(to be continued)

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