60만번의 트라이 (or ‘600,000th Try’) is an independent Korean documentary film about the rugby team of Osaka Chosun High School, one of 140 schools in Japan to offer a Korean ethnocentric education for the country’s Korean-ethnic population. On the surface, it’s got all the trappings of a successful sports film; a ragtag yet charismatic group of players, underdog status, surprise injuries, the occasional butting of heads, and (most importantly) a deep-rooted cause to play for. What makes this movie so great though is that in this case, the cause that fuels their fire is triumphing against the years of material and social discrimination that Korean ethnic Japanese have faced (and continue to face even now). On September 24th, 2014, I was able to attend a free screening of the film through the ISC’s relationship with 북녘어린이영양빵공장사업본부, a social enterprise that partners funders in South Korea to a factory in North Korea that manufactures bread for North Korean schoolchildren (a program that, sadly, has not been able to continue since the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations came to power). Since they have been unable to continue their original enterprise, the organization has focused instead on educational and awareness initiative, including film screenings such as this one.
I connected instantly to the movie on a surface level because the film’s main focus, the spirited group of boys making up Chosun High’s rugby team, reminded me of my own high school students last year. From screaming into a pillow over a pretty girl to practically killing each other via an intense game of chicken-fight during school sports day and offering the director a jacket to keep warm, I kept flashing back to countless similar interactions I’d had with my own students last year(both heartwarming and blood-boiling) . Yet the film manages to capture much more than just the natural charisma of its adolescent stars. Through rugby, director 박사유 is able to widen the audience’s perspective upon the conditions of 재일동포 in Japan as a whole, and the difficulties they face not only in gaining support as Koreans from Japan, but recognition from South Koreans as well.
Historically, the majority of Koreans emigrated to Japan in the period of 1930-1945 either as a result of Japanese occupation or to escape political suppression in South Korea (particularly due to the Jeju Massacre in 1948). While they were considered Japanese nationals until 1945 due to Japan’s attempt to completely absorb Korea, by 1948, North and South Korea had both been established, leaving Japanese residents, whom had left their homeland as a unified nation, in somewhat of a no-man’s land. Some elected to obtain South Korean citizenship, but for those who did not, they retained Chosun (or pre-divided) Korean citizenship, which, since South Korea barred those with Chosun citizenship from entering, by default meant closer ties with North Korea.
As the film was screened with Korean subtitles (and occasionally had Japanese audio), I was unable to entirely understand everything; yet I was nevertheless surprised by the amount I was able to understand, as well as the complex feelings it evoked in me as a fellow member of the transnational Korean diaspora currently grappling with my own understanding of the division of Korea. At one point during the film, a student recounts how, during an international rugby competition, he had told a New Zealand player that he was Korean, only to be rebuffed by one of the South Korean rugby players, who insisted that he was Japanese. When asked which one he identifies with, he replies resolutely that “I’m real Korean.” As a third-generation Korean American, it was somewhat startling to see other Korean foreign nationals whose paths diverged from Korea around the same time (or even earlier, in the case of fourth-generation 제일동포s) but under wildly different circumstances, and with wildly different results. The difference between their experiences and that of a typical Korean American is even built into the language used to identify the two; for example, whereas Korean Americans are usually referred to/usually refer to themselves at 재미교포 (je-mi-kyo-po), the individuals in the film all referred to themselves as 재일동포 (je-il-dong-po). While the first two characters, 재 (je) and 미/일 (me/il) merely serve to mark one’s location (미/”mi” for America and 일/”il” for Japan, respectively), the difference is that “교포” (kyopo) has a more ‘neutral,’ and thus a distanced connotation, while “동포” (dongpo) has connotations of compatriatism. In referring to themselves as “동포,” the individuals in the film were making a clear statement of ownership of their Korean identity. The distinction comes at an interesting time for me as I attempt to explore my own identity and relationship to Korea. Previously unaware of this distinction, I had always referred to myself as a “재미교포,” but after talking with Daehan, a fellow transnational Korean who resettled in Korea with the express purpose of engaging in shared struggle despite some of the difficulties, I can see how the practice of automatically referring to “재미”s as “교포”s discounts his identity, his presence in Korea, and the work he is committed to doing. I’m honestly not sure where I stand on the issue. Not having seven years of commitment here to claim like Daehan, and with my own complexes about being Korean, is “동포” something I can claim? Is it something I want to claim?
Perhaps what struck me most as I watched was the tight-knit sense of community amongst those in the film. Something that I found interesting was that the individuals in the film were by no means representative of the majority of the Korean ethnic Japanese population in Japan; most 재일동포 have attempted to assimilate into Japanese society, preferring to think of themselves as Japanese, attend Japanese school, and even pass as ethnic Japanese. In one poignant scene, some of the Osaka Chosun students bike around the neighborhood attempting to contact old friends who used to attend their school but have transferred to Japanese schools, asking them to attend a bonfire; at the end, they bike home alone. Yet, 박사유 also shows the vitality of the community through the many gatherings the community holds (which somehow always seem to end in a shirtless competition, a familiar sight based on my own outings in Korea). Through community, we endure and gain the strength to continue the struggle.