A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa

35404398Nonfiction – Kindle edition. Translated from the Japanese by Risa Kobayashi and Martin Brown. Amazon Crossing, 2018. 174 pgs. Free download from Amazon.

Subtitled “One Man’s Escape from North Korea”, Ishikawa’s memoir is quite short – five chapters plus an epilogue – but it comprises one of the more moving and informative first-hand accounts of life in North Korea that I’ve encountered. I want to highlight the label of Informative because this the only book I’ve encountered that looks at the Japanese-North Korean relationship during the founding of North Korea and the “repatriation” of Japanese-born and half-Japanese citizens to a country they had never lived in.

A Korean living in Japan, Ishikawa’s father was encouraged in the 1960s to move to North Korea in order to experience a better life for himself, his Japanese wife, and their children. The North Koreans promised free education, steady employment and, most importantly, the respect that Ishikawa’s father felt he never received from Japanese society.

“For most displaced Koreans living in Japan at the time, the key point was a much simpler promise: “If you come back to your homeland, the government will guarantee you a stable life and a first-class education for your children.” For the countless Koreans who were unemployed, underpaid, and laboring away at whatever odd jobs they could get, the abstract promises of socialism held far less sway than the hope for a stable life and a bright future for their children.”

To the Japanese, he went willingly. But, as Ishikawa explains, it is hard to say this decision was willing when the only information was propaganda and when Koreans in Japan were subjected to systemic racism and bias. According to Ishikawa, the Japanese government was also encouraging these citizens and residents (some who came to Japan as forced labor during World War II) to leave because they want to crack down on social unrest.

“During the period of the Japanese Empire, thousands upon thousands of Koreans had been brought to Japan against their will to serve as slave laborers and, later, cannon fodder. Now, the government was afraid that these Koreans and their families, discriminated against and poverty-stricken in the postwar years, might become a source of social unrest. Sending them back to Korea was a solution to a problem. Nothing more.”

This piece of information makes Ishikawa’s escape via China with the aid of the Japanese government all the more remarkable. Possibly all the more unbelievable where it not for the fact that Ishikawa’s explanation of how the government and society of North Korea operates jives with the other nonfiction books I’ve read.

“When I lived in Japan, I never really pondered my life. But after I moved to North Korea, the thing that preoccupied me most was the sheer magnitude of the difference between my old life and my new one. I became obsessed with all the things I had taken for granted before, and all the hardships that marked my life now. But that didn’t last long. I soon learned that thought was not free in North Korea. A free thought could get you killed if it slipped out.”

And Ishikawa doesn’t shy away from sharing some of the more gruesome and bleak facts of life in North Korea, especially during the widespread famine in the 1990s. At one point, he describes how inedible food compacted his bowels requiring manual removal and then immediately apologies for sharing this antidote.

Yet he immediately retracts that antidote because the repression of truth allows the rest of the world to turn a blind eye to the reality of life for the North Koreans. Or, as Ishikawa learned at a young age, the absence of truth allows people to be tricked into living under a repressive regime. Which is such a poignant reminder for our current times.


    • I would have missed it, too, had a friend of mine not repeatedly reminded me to take advantage of Amazon’s free books for World Book Day deal.

      Have you read Barbara Demick’s ‘Nothing to Envy’? That’s the one I always recommend to people looking for a book on North Korea.


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