3rd Quarterly, 2006 No.141


A Sprout Has Appeared From an Abandoned Rush-Mat ? Part 2

by Kim Yang-gum

While I was awaiting the return of my husband, the situation drastically changed. Some Koreans went home immediately after the war, while others like my elder brothers did not have enough money to return, nor relatives with whom to take refuge. They worked hard to earn money by making transmissions. After a year or so, my eldest brother and his wife made it back home on a blockade runner. I did not know of their return until his children and my mother also went back. I wanted to go with them, but could not since I would have become completely dependant on them for survival. I could not stop crying after seeing my mother off at Osaka Station. After separating from her, I stayed for two years in the house of my brother-in-law who made a living by collecting scrap iron. My eldest brother, who had returned to Korea, started a public bath in a town close to our hometown. Those who went back to Korea with money found empty stores in which they were able to start small businesses without the permission of the owners. Those who went back without money were called “Japanese beggars.” My eldest brother ran out of money after two years, and came back to Japan to solicit financial help from his younger brothers.

The days passed quickly. My husband did not return from the war. While I was seeking for some means to live by, my eldest brother suggested I open a beauty shop on the upper floor of a public bath he had found in Korea. Wanting to live with my mother in Korea, I started to work towards this goal by taking up an apprenticeship in a beauty shop called Utena in Nishiyodagawa-ku. Utena ran a beauty school upstairs from their shop. Upon starting work, however, I discovered it was not easy to acquire the necessary skills. I also had difficulty reading and writing. I almost gave up a number of times, but an acquaintance advised me, “If you acquire the skills, you will be able to raise one or two children without worrying about money.” At that time, I thought I could simply become a beautician if I acquired the necessary skills, but I later discovered I would also have to pass a state examination. As I was illiterate, I wanted to give up on taking the exam, but my acquaintance encouraged me to persevere. This was not the first time I had faced problems due to illiteracy. Sometimes I made excuses by saying, “I am awfully short-sighted so am unable to write.” I told my acquaintance that I was not able to write, but she encouraged me by saying, “Just write as much as you can. You cannot submit a blank exam sheet, otherwise they cannot grade you.” I could only read Japanese phonetic symbols, though not in a satisfactory manner, but I finally decided to take the exam. I was 23 years old at the time. The exam preparation class was held every evening from 6 to 9 pm for two months. The trainers wrote on the blackboard and read what they had written out loud. I would only just finish reading the first line of what they had written before they would erase everything and start writing again. I realized how painful it was to be illiterate. It wrenched my heart and I wanted to cry. One day, one of the other people in the class who sat next to me gave me a notebook that contained many exercises on the difficult Chinese characters with the readings of the characters written in simple phonetic symbols above them. I think the person’s name was something like Ms. Yoneda. I kept that notebook with me even when I went to the restroom or rode the train and learned the characters by heart. She had written the exercises in a very simple way that even I could understand.

Finally, the exam day came. I was very nervous. When the examination paper was passed to me, my mind went blank and I almost forgot where I was. The questions were read out several times each by the examiner and I did my best answer them on the test paper. My answers were all in written in phonetic symbols.

A month later, the results of the examination were announced. I went to the Osaka Prefectural Government to see them with my small child, anticipating I had not passed. I could not believe it when I saw my number on the bulletin board. I looked at the board again and again in disbelief, wondering if I was dreaming. I went back home asking myself, “Can it be true?” As soon as I arrived home, I checked my number on the examination admission card. It was the same number. I tightly embraced my child in joy and was too excited to sleep. Without the help of Ms. Yoneda, who had gone to so much trouble in making the notebook for me, I would have never become a beautician. After that I was busy every day, and missed the opportunity to express my deep gratitude to Ms. Yoneda. The more time passed, the more strongly I regretted not having thanked her.

After I began working as a beautician, I became interested in running my own beauty shop. I had no money to start one, but a friend of my brother kindly offered me a space in his house to use. His house stood on a busy street across from a rice shop and a vegetable store. The location was good so I accepted his offer. He kindly lent me money to purchase equipment on the condition that we equally share the profits between two of us.

Things went well as my customers gradually increased in number, but one night upon returning to the shop I saw the equipment and furniture had all been thrown outside. It was raining and everything was wet. I was so distressed that I could not do anything but cry. It had been the work of the man who owned the house. Since I was single, he had approached me several times, but I always rejected him because he had a wife and children. He had therefore held a grudge against me. After the incident, I worried about my child, wondering how I would feed her, and spent days doing nothing. Gradually, I decided I would marry anybody as long as he owned a house and I could use some space within it to run a beauty shop.

One day, my elder brother introduced me to a 41 year old man as a possible husband. He lived in Umeda. I told my brother I did not want to marry him unless I could have my own shop, so the man borrowed a house in which I could run one and I decided to marry him. I was 25 years old. He had lost his wife, and his children had returned to Korea. He was gentle and did not drink, but smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. His hobby was Japanese chess. We rented a house at the back of the Hanshin Department Store near Osaka Station. It was in the black market area that developed in the post-war chaos. Old clothes and other such things were sold there. People on the street wore dirty clothes, but they only cared about finding food. We were always hungry. People would line up in front of restaurants for an hour or so only to be told that the restaurant had sold out of food. My beauty shop stood on this type of street. Serried stalls for foods and clothing stood in the narrow alleys. Canteens sold cow offal and fermented liquor. Most stalls were owned by Koreans and Chinese. A storage barn housing several barrels stood behind our house. One day, I absent-mindedly looked into one of the barrels and saw several dead rats floating inside. To my surprise, their eyes were glittering. Looking out from our upper story window, I saw a man injecting something into his arm and bleeding dark red blood. I eventually realized it was illegal drugs. It was chaos outside. People died in the street, shot or stabbed. I witnessed many horrific events.

The name of my saloon was “Kiss-me.” It was taken from the name of a cosmetic company. I had many different kinds of customers including many Japanese women who had married Koreans, Chinese or Taiwanese men. Women who did business with American soldiers paid 1,000 or 2,000 yen for services that normally only cost 300 yen. Many prostitutes also frequented my shop. A woman who was a pimp told me that some prostitutes had 20 customers a night. Perms, which had been banned during the war, became fashionable and my customers grew in number.

I had another child in November of the same year I opened my shop. It was a girl. The shop kept me very busy, so the midwife asked me if I needed any help. She introduced me to a Japanese woman named Sugimoto who was 40 years old. Her husband indulged in gambling, so she had left him and her four children (two boys and two girls). Three of her children had been placed in an orphanage so it was difficult for her to visit them. She helped me for more than 20 years until she moved to live with her daughter, who had grown up in the orphanage. Ms. Sugimoto helped me raise my own two children. It was thanks to her support that I was able to concentrate on my work. She is now 85 years old and still visits me.

Around 1954-55, four or five years after I opened my shop, the streets surrounding my shop changed. The district filled with fabric wholesale businesses run by Japanese wholesalers, who made a lot of money. People at this time were directing their attention to clothing rather than food, which was no longer so scarce. The streets were constantly crowded with people who came to buy clothes, which always quickly sold out. My shop flourished with many customers even queuing outside daily. I expanded and employed 20 people at the peak of my business. We all worked very hard. Among our customers were night clubs hostesses and department store clerks. The fee for a perm at that time was about 1,000 yen, and the wages for my employees ranged from 30,000 to 70,000 yen per month, depending on their skills. I still struggled with writing and reading, especially when I paid my employees’ wages. I was very careful not to make mistakes when putting money into the wage envelopes, on which my employees’ names were written. Ms. Sugimoto took good care of my two children, who each had different fathers. My husband and I rarely conversed. Although he could read and write Japanese, he would forget to bring back the beautician operating license when going to the city health center to register my shop, and he would make mistakes in his wholesale business. But it was good that he did not waste money. Whenever I gave him money and told him to go somewhere to have fun, he was reluctant to do so. Even if he went out with money, he would not spend it. I became frustrated with my husband and ran away from home several times when I felt I could not stand him anymore, but I always returned after a short while upon remembering the reason I had decided to marry him. It was enough for me to have a house and to be able to run a shop. Sometimes, I was so occupied with my work that I would forget I had a husband, so was surprised when I suddenly became aware of his presence.

Despite his failings, he longed for his home country of Korea. He would always say that he did not like the Japanese because of how they had afflicted us. Whenever a boxing match between a Japanese boxer and a Korean boxer was scheduled to be aired on radio, he would write down the name of Korean boxer and pray for his victory. He was raised in Korea until he was 15 years old. He and his family may have suffered a lot after they came to Japan from the troubles and difficulties caused by the Japanese, but we were now better off thanks to Japan. I did not like his attitude towards Japan. When I came to Japan at the age of nine, my eldest brother who had arrived earlier had a Japanese air about him. He dressed like and behaved like Japanese. Around that time, I was called by the Japanese name ‘Miyoko.’ After I married I became ‘Shizuyo,’ which is also a Japanese name. In Korea, my mother called me by my real name, ‘Youngma.’ Every time my name was changed, I accepted it thinking that this was normal, but as I grew older, I gradually understood why it had been changed. I felt I fitted in with Japanese life. Sometimes, people saw my husband as Korean and me as Japanese. Because of this, I did not hang the license for the beauty shop on wall as my name was written on it as ‘Kim Youngma.’ I was unhappy that the authorities used my real name only when formally required, but that we were otherwise forced to use Japanese names.

As the business continued to go well and my children grew up, we moved to Mikuni, separating our home from the shop. Eventually I went to Korea to see my mother. More than ten years had passed since I had parted tearfully from her at Osaka Station when I was 20 years old. My mother was already in her 70s. I cannot explain why, but neither of us cried when we were reunited. Instead, we looked at each other in silence. We did not dare tell each other of the hardships and sufferings we had met with while we were apart. I knew that I had not had time to cry for the past ten years. I simply had to work and overcome difficulties. It made me strong and confident. My eldest brother’s public bath business did not go well. He also became involved in the operation of a roller-skate stadium without success, and his debts increased. I brought some money to Korea. He said that it was not safe for me to carry around such a large amount, so I let him hold onto it for safekeeping, but he never gave it back. I told myself that I could earn the money back. After that, I went to Korea many times to see my mother and invited her to Japan. When passing my home town in Korea, I was shown where our house used to stand. Our home town had not changed except for a new road. There were many snakes in the area and I recalled how, when I was small, I would often go to the nearby hill with my brothers to play with them, and would chase them out of my shoes in the morning. <to be continued>

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

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