This story was originally published in Dazed and confused magazine.
I meet director Sayu Park at the very spot in Osaka, Japan, where a few months ago a 15-year-old girl threatened to massacre Korean immigrants on the street. Two days ago Park was protesting about subsidy cuts for North Korean schools outside Osaka City Hall. Today is no less of a confrontation — she is being interviewed for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s most extreme anti-immigration national newspaper. As we weave back to her meeting through Tsuruhashi market (the frenzied hub of the local Korean community), she keeps talking, mostly, it seems, to herself. “This Yomiuri thing, I’ve put it off and put it off. The reporter seems okay, but if they publish my photo I won’t be safe here.”
Ethnic Koreans in Japan are facing increased xenophobia from extreme sections of a Japanese public being pulled to the right by outlandish nationalist politics. Zainichi (Japan-resident) Koreans, who often lack citizenship or passports, have been second-class inhabitants of Osaka since they came in on boats in the 1920s during their country’s occupation by Japan, but these days they feel truly stranded. Abandoned by a US-backed South Korean government telling them to integrate as Japanese, and squeezed out by a Japan that allows hate speeches to enflame matters, the closest thing these people have to a homeland is North Korea, itself a human rights disaster. And what these people consider to be true Korean identity is fading quickly as kids ditch the Korean language and choose to take Japanese citizenship as a means of survival.
Park’s latest film, Six Hundred Thousand Tries, is a documentary about Japan’s most oppressed minority. The film follows North Koreans in Osaka and their fight for identity as their schools, accused of training spies, have their budgets cut to zero and anti-Korean hate speeches become strangely zeitgeist. Her film premiered unofficially at the Yamagata film festival in October in a side event, excluded from the official programme. Under the radar, like everything she does. Her philosophy is to move people’s thinking by telling stories of unseen conflicts and silent majorities creating change through acts of subtle resistance.
Park is brave. Originally from South Korea, she is wanted by her country’s National Intelligence Service (formerly the KCIA) on suspicion of being a North Korean spy, and since beginning the film in 2010 has fought her own personal battle against cancer. Yet she has irrepressible energy for her cause and a massive laugh that bursts out at times when it feels like there is nothing else she can do. “That’s their favourite spot!”, she shouts over the noise of the market, referring to right-wing activist gangs’ favoured intersection for hate speeches. “You can see it on YouTube: police stand by without doing a thing as schoolgirls shout into megaphones about committing genocide.” We turn down secret alleyways until we get back to the interview. Before entering the tearoom she adds, “We’ll talk properly later, not now.”
“Once a week, Midosuji is patrolled by blacked-out armoured cars with bullhorns blasting ‘fuck off Korean scum’. Blade Runner was shot here; it feels like the replicants are back”
A couple of days later I meet Park again in Namba, down Midosuji. The backbone of Osaka, this street is the main nerve of a city desensitised to racist extremism. A global recession has given the anti-immigration movement a kind of messed-up credibility. Once a week on Midosuji, this six-lane pressure point is patrolled by blacked-out armoured cars, their bullhorns blasting out “fuck off Korean scum” as weekend shoppers look on, sipping their Starbucks. Some of Blade Runner was shot on this street; at times it feels like the replicants are back.
This is why Park’s community stand outside City Hall every Tuesday shouting at Osaka mayor Tori Hashimoto’s aging concrete offices. They hand out flyers but no one is interested. When they petition for signatures, some people respond: “I kill you.” Park: “Our politicians’ minds are as outdated as the buildings at which we protest. The buildings don’t change, their thinking doesn’t change.” The community feels a direct hit from school funding cuts, which isolate the next generation from their culture and identity. It is only at their own schools that North Korean kids can be themselves without derision. Some visit Pyongyang every year to participate in the games at Arirang Festival. Park puts it simply: “Their ideology is their freedom.”
But this kind of talk has put her in serious danger. She says it was when filming started in 2010 that she got the call: “The Korean CIA were on the phone wanting me back in Seoul, saying they have some questions for me.” Simply hanging out with the North Koreans in Japan means that some people can’t go back to Seoul without being locked up for espionage. “I don’t know what my future in Seoul would look like,” Park says. “Kids in their 20s are being tortured until they can’t even walk.”
People working on Six Hundred Thousand Tries tended to drop out when they learned about the North Korea connection, but somehow the film got made. Even at Park’s very lowest point, when her journalist salary from Seoul was cut to zero and her cancer became unmanageable, the project was kept alive. Avant-garde noise turntablist composer Yoshihide Otomo, who lived in Fukushima as a child, was adamant about working on the score; something about the pain in this film resonated with his experiences of the great earthquake. And once people got to know about the story, Park was able to gain funds to finish the film. “That’s when I realised this message can really change things for the good!” she says.
When I ask what’s next, Park continues her positive flow. “The dream is to get into Busan.” The South Korean film festival would give the project a footing on the world stage, and, more importantly to Park, give the story a chance to resonate with Koreans back home. Despite her continued attempts to enter, however, the film has been unequivocally refused. “Let’s just say that political relations have fallen from grace.”
We’re in another tearoom now, and the filmmaker has a wry smile on her face as she pours us out some Genmaicha (brown rice tea). “People say I should take the film to Busan myself and get arrested by the KCIA down on the red carpet. It’d be amazing PR!” She bursts out laughing. It’s hard to tell if she’s joking. She slides me a cup of tea and adds: “It’s not about me, you know. There’s an entire culture at stake.”