This feels like an ambitious poem. For me, that is. I doubt actual poets would feel anything like as intimidated by it as I did. In fact, such was the level of ambition and intimidation, it was a poem that I almost didn’t even take on. But in the end, it was a subject matter that interested me so much that I just thought I’d like to write a poem about it.
So the poem is about the mass repatriation of Zainichi Koreans who were (and still are) ethnic Koreans living in Japan. Between 1959 and 1984 93,000 ethnic Koreans living in Japan were repatriated to North Korea, despite the fact that lots of them were of South Korean origin. Furthermore, among the 93,000 were over 1800 Japanese women who had married Korean men. Many of these women had previously faced the opposition and disapporval of their families, such was the ill feeling towards Korean immigrants in Japan at that time. Now they faced an uncertain future in a land where they knew nothing about.
The repatriation was disastrous for many as the promise of a new life and the optimism that brought just didn’t work out in a North Korea that was heavily damaged by war. Later, as North Korea became more and more closed off to the outside world, the women were denied the chance to visit family and ‘home’ in Japan. My poem is written from the point of view of one of these ‘trapped’ women.
Forbidden When we married, we dreamed of a future together in our home, like everybody does, I suppose. Something modest. Having fought for just each other, we didn't need the world. But it took only months to leave those dreams behind and look towards others on another shore that we imagined as home. Too young to know better, to argue, to question we boarded a ferry to our brave new world. Promised the dream of paradise, we told ourselves that we weren't being forced, that this was our decision, that our nerves would give way to delight at what our future could, would become. But our future wasn't bright at all. Instead it was the sombre tones of mines and factories where we made our lives, as had been their plan all along. Our utopia disappeared, in time becoming nothing but a prison where we shed tears for our loss, tears for our betrayal, tears for our home. I clung, steadfast, to memories, allowed my senses to take me home, closed my eyes to reality in order to see the acacia in full Spring bloom, allow the smell to envelop me, stay there for a time bathing in the warm air. In my mind I would walk pavements in parks with him, cherry blossom breaking over us like gentle April waves. But none of it would be real life anymore. When we were forbidden from visiting our parents' graves sadness turned to loathing. Those who frowned upon our youthful choices were now just ghosts of the past and we could not mourn the loss of our very beginning. Instead we were forced to mourn the loss of our very freedom, our existence, our souls, culture, identity and, given no reason why this should be we could only feel more detached than ever before, disillusionment disintegrating into numbness. We were driftwood, pushed along by the sea, forgotten by the land. Now, it feels like I have spent my life staring blind from this window scouring the landscape for the past that I can no longer see, searching through the coastal mist for a home no longer on the horizon, imagining one last glimpse, one last memory, one last conversation, while knowing all senses are lost like our identity. We are widows. Abandoned, forgotten, homeless, but never hopeless, yet cast adrift, a life not lived, forever seeking the answers to how and why.
I hope I’ve managed to do this topic justice. As I said earlier, it was something that I read about – and have read more about since – that just gripped me. For want of a much better way of putting it, I just felt such sympathy for the women that I read about. Some of them talked about how they married their Korean partner, despite pressure from their families and how despite not regretting their choices, they were forced to live with the eventual reality that they would never see their parents again. The stubbornness of youth leading a lifetime of feeling incomplete.
The stories possibly resonated with me because at the time of reading, in the middle of the Covid crisis, I had begun to wonder if I’d ever see my parents again. Their age combined with their vulnerability to the virus made for some very difficult times and although I wouldn’t dream of thinking I’d had it as bad as the Japanese women I read about it piqued my interest in their story.
I think I quite like what I’ve managed to write. I found it difficult to write as someone else, but I’m fairly sure I haven’t made a complete mess of it. I hope you like what I’ve written too. As ever, please feel free to leave a comment.