Yi Sang (1910–1937) was a painter, architect, poet, and writer in early-twentieth-century Korea, when the Korean peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule. Yi Sang wrote and published in both Korean and Japanese until his early death from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-seven, after imprisonment by Japanese police for thought crimes in Tokyo. His work shows innovative engagement with European Modernism, especially that of surrealism and Dada. He is considered one of the most experimental writers of Korean Modernism. The following essay, published after Yi Sang’s death and translated into English by Jack Jung for Yi Sang: Selected Works, details his impressions of Tokyo.
The Shinjuku district of Tokyo, ca. 1933. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Before I saw the real Marunouchi Building, nicknamed Marubiru, it was at least four times bigger and far more amazing in my mind. Will I also be disillusioned like this when I see New York’s Broadway? Anyways, my first impression of Tokyo: “This city reeks of gasoline!”
People with barely functioning lungs like myself have no right to live in this city. The smell of gasoline seeps into my body though I keep my mouth closed; I taste it whenever I try to eat something. The citizens of Tokyo will all eventually smell like automobiles.
No one lives around the Marunouchi Building except other buildings. Automobiles are pedestrians’ shoes. The few who force themselves to walk in this city are the holy philosophers, contemptuously glaring at capitalism and the ending of a century. Everybody else simply puts on their automobiles to go out for a walk.
Ridiculously enough, I had already walked in this neighborhood for five minutes when I wised up and got a taxi—inside the taxi, I studied the title of the twentieth century. The moat of the imperial palace passed outside the taxi’s window, and innumerable automobiles busily tried to maintain the twentieth century’s profitability. My personal ethos smells of the stale nineteenth century, and it is a very dignified thing: it cannot comprehend how there can be so many automobiles.
Shinjuku is very much a Shinjuku. Luxury is on thin ice there. At Huranseu Yasikki, my companions and I drank coffee with milk already added in, but I felt like I was paying a bit more than I should have, like paying ten jeon for a cup of coffee when I should only be paying nine jeon and five ri.
Eruteru. [Translator’s note: Yi Sang is mimicking Japanese pronunciation of Werther, the name of the main character in Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther.] The people of Tokyo write France as “Huransu.” My memory tells me that Werther is the name of the person who had the juiciest romance in the world, but Eruteru does not sound as sorrowful as Werther.
Shinjuku—three districts that have prospered like demon flame—beyond its vicinity there is a wooden fence and unsold land and signs that say DO NOT URINATE. Still, I am sure there are some houses, too.
Though I needed more sleep, Mr. C guided me to Tsukiji Little Theater. The theater was closed when we got there. It was the birthplace of Japan’s New Theater movement. There were many different posters on the walls, but to my eyes the theater looked like a badly built café. Even though I missed out on cheap movies, I returned to this theater a few times afterward, which, I think, makes me a theater lover of the highest quality.
Mr. C argued that “Theater is more entertaining than life itself.” Whereas Mr. H remained skeptical. Mr. H’s rent changed all the time like the feathers of a mountain dove: sixteen yen for winter, fourteen yen for summer, and fifteen yen for spring and autumn. This in turn made him more cynical, and he often mocked himself. Because I am very forgetful, I asked if I could get a room that did not trick one with rents that changed their prices every season. As an answer, my landlord’s servant girl consoled me by telling me that I must be smarter than I look, since a country boy like me has managed to come alone all the way to Tokyo. In turn, I consoled the girl by telling her that the wart hanging on the left hillside of her nose symbolizes happiness. Additionally, I let her know that there was nothing I wished for more than to have a clear view of Mount Fuji from my apartment.
The day after, at seven o’clock, there was an earthquake. I opened my window and watched great Tokyo shudder, filled with yellow lights. The servant girl encouraged me to look at Mount Fuji beyond the city at that moment as it reared its gray-haired head, which stood there like a children’s cookie underneath a clear sky.
The Ginza was an introductory text for illusions. If one does not walk its streets, one might as well lose their voting rights. They say when women buy new shoes, they must walk on the pavements of the Ginza before they get inside an automobile.
The Ginza of daytime is the skeleton of Ginza of nighttime, which is Ginza without “the.” The Ginza of daytime is ugly. Like furnace pokers, the twisted steel frames form the curvy neon sign of Salon Haru. The sign is as shabby as the wavy perm of a working girl who has just finished her shift. However, the city hall has posted signs: DO NOT SPIT ON THE STREETS. So, I have no choice but to swallow mine.
The eight districts of the Ginza, according to my estimate, should just be two districts. Why? I could meet a rich girl with wild hair dyed red twice in half an hour, because she would have come out to enjoy the most beautiful time of the day. As for me, this joyless and dry promenade was nothing more than a cow’s rumination. I went to an underground public toilet by a bridge, and while excreting, I recited all the names of my friends who bragged about visiting Tokyo.
Shiwatsu—means the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. In the corners of the Ginza, Salvation Army’s kettle pots are set up like gun rests for infantry rifles. One jeon. One jeon can get someone enough gas to boil up a bowl of soup. However, I cannot throw away valuable money into their kettle pots. Anything they might say in gratitude does not benefit my life any more than one jeon worth of gas. Their gratitude could ruin my nice walk. Thus, when modern boys and girls coldly pass by the kettle pots, they are not being unreasonable. A young girl in the Salvation Army uniform, whose only flaw was some pimples on her face, was filled to the brim with her youthful attractiveness. I wanted to urge her to change her mind and tell her, “You can join the Salvation Army after menopause!”
These days, the seven-floored buildings of Mitsukoshi, Matsuzakaya, Itoya, Shirokiya, and Matsuya no longer sleep at night. However, we are not to go in there.
Why? Their insides do not have seven floors. It is all one floor, and there are so many goods and countless shopgirls that it is too easy to get lost in there.
Bargains, deals, sales, which one will we ever pick? Whatever we end up doing, those words can’t even be found in a dictionary. There is nothing cheaper than bargains, deals, or sales. And jewels or furs are not supposed to be “cheap,” so these smart advertisements understand very well the type of customers who would never consider buying anything “cheap.”
When night comes, Ginza without “the” finally appears. The tea at Korombang Café and the books at Kinokuniya bookstore are what pass for refined culture in Tokyo. However, people who are even more refined go to the café Beuraeuzil and have a straight shot of espresso. The waitresses are all dressed in uniforms with patterns of autumn leaves, but to my eyes those leaf shapes look like germs of venereal diseases. In Brazil, I heard that the trains do not use coal, but use coffee beans as fuel instead. Here in Tokyo I try to swallow as much coal as I can, but my passion doesn’t catch fire.
After an ad balloon lands at night, the sky of Ginza should be filling up with sparkling stars according to the will of God, but the last descendants of Cain have forgotten the stars a long time ago. The citizens of Ginza have been taught to fear the poisonous gas more than Noah’s flood, and naively take the subway instead of walking home. O dear Moon, Li Bai once composed verses about you! How much better would it have been if you had also shared the fate of the nineteenth century?
—Translated from the Korean by Jack Jung
Jack Jung is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. He was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States. He received his B.A. in English from Harvard and M.A. in Korean language and literature from Seoul National University.
From Yi Sang: Selected Works, by Yi Sang. Translation copyright 2020 by Jack Jung. Used with permission of the translator and Wave Books.
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