For two teens, falling in love is going to make a world of difference in this beautifully translated, bold, and endearing novel about love, loss, and the pain of racial discrimination.
As a Korean student in a Japanese high school, Sugihara has had to defend himself against all kinds of bullies. But nothing could have prepared him for the heartache he feels when he falls hopelessly in love with a Japanese girl named Sakurai. Immersed in their shared love for classical music and foreign movies, the two gradually grow closer and closer.
One night, after being hit by personal tragedy, Sugihara reveals to Sakurai that he is not Japanese—as his name might indicate.
Torn between a chance at self-discovery that he’s ready to seize and the prejudices of others that he can’t control, Sugihara must decide who he wants to be and where he wants to go next. Will Sakurai be able to confront her own bias and accompany him on his journey?
“Two young lovers… one little secret.”
So reads the book jacket for Go, a contemporary love story set in Tokyo, Japan. But as with many star-crossed lovers, if teenagers Sugihara (sue-GHEE-HA-ra) and Sakurai (sah-KOO-RYE) are to be together, they must first overcome many intractable socio-cultural obstacles. Although Sakurai doesn’t know it, her boyfriend Sugihara is actually Korean-Japanese, a member of an ethnic minority in Japan that has a long history of cultural exclusion and discrimination.
Relations between Japan and Korea before 1945
Korea and Japan’s cultural ties date back before the Common Era, but the modern relationship began in the late sixteenth century. In 1592, the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (toy-YO-TOE-me | hee-DAY-YO-she) ordered his troops to invade Korea, commanding them to “mow down everyone universally, without discriminating between young and old, men and women, clergy and the laity—high ranking soldiers on the battlefield, that goes without saying, but also the hill folk, down to the poorest and meanest—and send the heads to Japan.” Historians estimate that Japanese troops killed approximately 200,000 Koreans in this punitive expedition.
Fortunately, relations improved dramatically over the next three centuries, as Japan and Korea became significant trading partners. Using the island of Tsushima (sue-SHE-ma) as a trading port, both Korean as well as Japanese traders crossed the Korean straits. By the end of the nineteenth century, Japanese political leaders came to see Korea as crucial to their own nation’s survival.
When European imperialists began establishing a significant presence in Northeast Asia, Japan decided it was necessary to seize direct control over Korea. After militarily defeating the Chinese and the Russians, and after engaging in tense diplomatic conflicts with France and Germany, Tokyo declared Korea to be a Japanese colony in 1910. For the next 35 years, Japan and Korea became increasingly and inextricably linked together, including socially, politically, economically, and culturally. Of course, this relationship was never seen as existing between two equals. As the dominant colonizers, Japan used its superior military and economic might to control Korea and extract its valuable resources. As part of the so-called “Yen Bloc,” financial planners in Tokyo sought to integrate Korea’s economy into Japan’s and eventually 53% of Korea’s arable land was owned by Japanese investors. Koreans were not passive victims within this relationship. In 1919, for instance, they rose up in rebellion, but Japanese troops suppressed them violently. Facing difficult economic prospects at home, many Koreans determined to look elsewhere for economic security. Between 1910 and 1945, approximately 1,000,000 Koreans emigrated to Japan.
With the beginning of World War II, Japan became even more dependent on Korea for raw materials and labor. Nearly 2,000,000 Koreans were conscripted to serve in war-related industries, most of which were located in the Japanese home islands. Many of these laborers worked in munitions factories, in mines, or in the construction industry. All of them faced institutionalized discrimination and often worked in terrible and dangerous conditions. After the war ended in 1945, most repatriated to Korea, but perhaps 700,000 remained in Japan and became known as the “Zainichi在日” (za-E-KNEE-chee).
Post-World War II Zainichi
For those Koreans who remained in Japan following the war, their political status was very ambiguous. No longer were they subjects within the Japanese empire, nor were they accepted as Japanese citizens. To complicate matters, the United Nations had cut the Korean peninsula along the 39th Parallel, effectively creating two independent states. Japan’s Koreans were, in effect, stateless individuals. Stuck in this ambiguous limbo, they became known simply as Zainichi 在日, which translates as “existing in Japan.” In the Japanese government’s eyes, they were foreigners, required to carry an identification card and be fingerprinted, conditions similar to those required of criminals.
By the 1950s the Zainichi had established many of their own organizations and structures to protect their interests. Two main groups emerged. The first, known as “Mindan민단,” (min-dan) was generally more closely associated with the South Korean government. The Mindan published Korean-language newspapers, operated Korean-language schools, and advocated for the rights of the Zainichi. Approximately 65% of the non-naturalized Koreans in Japan identified with the Mindan organization. The second group was known as “Chongryon총련” (chong-ron). Like Mindan, Chongryon also published newspapers and established schools. It too provided legal, financial, and social support to its members. With backing from the North Korean government, Chongryon was much more active in advocating for Korean interests, especially as they overlapped with the interests of the North Korean government. Chongryon schools not only taught Korean history and culture, they also taught Marxism and instilled loyalty toward the North Korean communist regime.
Zainichi from both organizations were the frequent targets of discrimination within Japan. They often worked in the so-called “3D” occupations, those that were dirty, dangerous, and demeaning. These included restaurants, construction companies, and pachinko parlors. At the same time, they suffered from housing discrimination, as unofficial housing practices kept them from living in desirable neighborhoods and pushed them instead into so-called Koreatowns. Tokyo’s Koreatown was home to 80,000 individuals. Osaka’s held 90,000. Zainichi also had lower education levels, in part a function of the inferior Korean-language schools which failed to prepare their students for the highly competitive college entrance exams. In popular culture, the Zainichi have frequently been portrayed as culturally backward and often as criminals. Not surprisingly, there are occasional large and vocal anti-Zainichi protests that erupt in Japanese cities, many times organized by ultra-nationalist political groups demanding the repatriation of all Korean-Japanese. Consequently, many Zainichi attempted to assimilate into Japanese society or minimize their Korean identity. Some adopted Japanese names, some chose to attend Japanese schools, and some became naturalized Japanese citizens.
In 1993 the government in Tokyo granted the Zainichi “Special Permanent Resident,” meaning they no longer needed to be fingerprinted. Since then, relations between the Zainichi and the Japanese have improved significantly. More and more Zainichi are choosing to become naturalized Japanese citizens, taking Japanese names, and surrendering their Korean identity. At the same time, Korean culture is increasingly seen as chic and desirable as K-Pop has swept across Japan. Today, many of the most beloved actors, performers, and artists in Japan are Korean or Korean-Japanese.
Nevertheless, anti-Korean sentiment continues to lurk beneath the surface. Liberal-minded Japanese are embarrassed by their ultra-nationalist fellow citizens and would never consider participating in their anti-Korean protests. Nonetheless, many of these still harbor feelings of superiority relative to the Zainichi. For them, intermarriage or even romantic assignations between Japanese and Koreans are repugnant. Such individuals would forbid their child from dating a Zainichi and some would even hire private investigators to verify a potential son- or daughter-in-law’s family background. Ranging from micro-aggressions to unlawful violence, the Zainichi continue to suffer innumerable indignities at the hands of their Japanese neighbors. As right-wing nationalist movements have grown in popularity in the U.S., the Philippines, the UK and elsewhere, Japan has also witnessed the resurgence of racist organizations. Consequently, relations between the Japanese and their Zainichi neighbors remain problematic and potentially volatile.
 Toyotomi Hideyoshi as quoted in Samuel Hawley, The Imjin War: Japan’s Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China (Royal Asiatic Society-Korea Branch: 2005), 465-466.
Author: David Kenley, Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, Dakota State University
Suggested Readings and Resources
Hawley, Samuel. The Imjin War: Japan’s Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China. Royal Asiatic Society-Korea Branch, 2005
GO and Romeo and Juliet as companion texts
The author Kaneshiro (kah-NAY-SHE-row) invites the reader into Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with his epigraph, from Act 2, scene 2 of the play (“What’s in a Name?”); a few pages into the novel, Sugihara (sue-GHEE-HA-ra) compares the “feuding Montagues and Capulets” to “North and South Korea” and asks, “You know how Romeo and Juliet ended, right?” (pg. 3). For most students and adults, the names Romeo and Juliet evoke passionate, first-time love, love at first sight. Sugihara asks us to remember that there was more to the story of Romeo and Juliet: the violent feud between the wealthy families of Verona and the double suicide foretold in the prologue to Act I.
In Romeo and Juliet and GO, violence is woven into the culture of the backgrounds of the characters. Violent acts create crucial plot developments and allow readers to consider the role of violence thematically. Violence frames so many important scenes in Romeo and Juliet, starting with Capulet’s servants taunting Montague’s servants (“Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?”, Shakespeare, 1.1.59) and Old Caplet and Montague comically wanting to get into the fray. Later, in Act III, Mercutio fights with Tybalt to defend his friend’s honor, and Romeo kills Tybalt to avenge his friend Mercutio. Violence is necessary, expected, and especially when it comes to family loyalty and friendships, honorable.
Kaneshiro’s depictions of violence highlight Sugihara’s constant need to defend himself as he navigates the challenges of his life on the fringes as Zainichi (za-E-KNEE-chee). An outsider from mainstream Japanese ethnicity, he feels free to make his own rules about use of violence: “Like Malcolm X said, ‘I don’t call it violence when it’s self-defense’” (pg.12). In a classroom brawl Sugihara fights dirty, using an ashtray to smash a kid in the face; yet, in an act of compassion, offers the trembling kid a treatment for his wounds. Sugihara tells the reader, “In every altercation so far, not one of my challengers had made the first move” (pg.10). The best and most brutal fighter in the school, Sugihara must constantly defend his 23-0 fighting record.
When a troublemaker at a club party calls Sugihara “Chon. The nasty Japanese word for a Korean” (pg.89), Sugihara “drilled him in the face dead center with a straight punch” (pg.90). The kid, Kobayashi (koh-BYE-YAH-she), has a butterfly knife which Sugihara says would make stabbing him self-defense: “If you bring a knife to a fight, you’re asking to get cut by one” (pg.90).
Perhaps the most brutal and bloody scenes of violence are between Sugihara and his father, who trained his son in fighting and boxing techniques, giving him a way to defend himself and channel his anger. Sugihara both desires and dreads defeating his father. Jeong-il (jong eel), Sugihara’s best friend, points out that Korea is a Confucian country; vanquishing the father would show Sugihara’s lack of proper filial piety. The father ends up being Sugihara’s only defeat. These beatings are bloody and savage, more so than Sugihara’s fights with his challengers. In Sugihara’s last fight with his father, he recognizes that he can’t beat his old man, and he literally can’t get his blood out of him (Roh). He can change his name, but not his identity.
Both father and son suffer as a result of the formal and informal discriminatory practices of the Japanese against ethnic Koreans. Sugihara is an adept and eager fighter who eventually sees the limitations of violent acts in a culture that fails to accept him. Like his name, violence is a mask, a strategy to cloak his disappointment in a culture and country that fails to accept him.
Love at First Sight
“My only love sprung from my only hate” (Shakespeare, 1.5)
Romeo is the Petrarchan lover, long suffering, seeking a woman who is out of reach. Juliet is a Capulet, he’s a Montague; their families are enemies. This doesn’t stop them from marrying in secret thus creating their tragic fall. Likewise, Sugihara is Petrarchan: Sakurai (sah-KOO-RYE) is fully Japanese, and not on the menu of approachable, acceptable women in Japan. Sugihara is well aware of this and conceals his name and background from Sakurai.
Romantically and sexually, Sugihara is a gentleman. He tells Sakurai about his ethnicity before they could have sex. Sugihara’s acceptance of himself and his identity is “predicated on the romantic acceptance by a “native” female character.” She reveals her first name, Tsubaki (sue-BAH-key), and he reveals his Zainichi identity (Roh). Kaneshiro doesn’t let the two consummate, unlike Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, who consummate their marriage right before Romeo begins his banishment to Mantua. Sakurai may represent a conquering achievement for Sugihara; if he sleeps with a prototypical Japanese girl, he has properly assimilated into Japanese society. Or perhaps Kaneshiro is showing us that this match isn’t right, the hero needs to keep searching for both an appropriate mate and his identity (Roh).
Kaneshiro uses two of Shakespeare’s techniques from Romeo and Juliet: love at first sight and the imagery of light. At Capulet’s party the lovers see each other at the same time, across a crowded room. Romeo talks of her beauty in terms of lights and darks:
“O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear—” (Shakespeare, 1.5)
“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.” (Shakespeare 2.2)
Romeo talks of her beauty in terms of light: torches, brightness, jewels, sun. Their attraction is physical beauty, as it is with Kaneshiro’s characters. At the party at Z, Sugihara sees “A guy with long black hair and an earring dangling from one ear” (pg. 22) who walks up to Sakurai. After a few moments, while seated at a table, “The light in her eyes seemed to dim a little” (pg. 22). Approaching his table, “Her eyes brightened again….I kept glaring at her.” And finally, as she sits, Sakurai skirt blew up “…giving me a glimpse of her thighs and panties. Both white” (pg. 23). Juliet and Sakurai are brightness and shine, blocking out the darkness around them.
A comparison of first touches between the lovers reveals more parallel moments between the texts. First touch is hands, then lips:
Romeo (taking Juliet’s hand):
“If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.”
“You kiss by th’ book.”
Romeo reaches out for hands, then asks for lips as well.
In GO, it is Sakurai who reaches out for the first touch, “After seeing me nod, she put her hands over the backs of mine resting on the table…Her forefingers slid gently over the backs of my hands” (pg.24). Later, “she…pressed her lips against mine. What soft lips” (pg.31).
What’s in a Name?
On her balcony Juliet says, “What’s in a name?” and reveals that she loves Romeo and that if they both “refuse their names” their love would be possible. The space for this love that they create on Juliet’s balcony can’t be sustained because they are bound by birth to their families.
At their first meeting, Sakurai keeps her first name a secret, “I don’t want to say. I hate my first name.” Sugihara replies, “We don’t need to bother with names” (pg.30). Both have reasons for keeping their names secret, which they reveal later in the story. Sakurai conceals her first name in order to hide her too potent Japanese identity: “My given name is Tsubaki. A name that has the kanji characters for cherry blossom and camellia sounds so Japanese that I didn’t want you to know.” Sugihara, conceals his name to keep his Korean heritage a secret, but reveals it right before he and Sakurai consummate their relationship: “My real name is Lee. Like Bruce Lee” (pg. 121).
Sakurai has a visceral reaction to Sugihara’s truth; her rejection not only reveals her prejudice, but also represents yet another way that Sugihara is rendered outside conventional Japanese cultural identity. He’s unable to achieve the sexual conquest of a “real” Japanese woman (Roh). By denying their names, the two can exist in a third space, neither Japanese nor Korean; but knowing their true identities exposes the prejudice Sakurai has for Zainichi Koreans. They are forced to grow and change and accept each other, or not. In the last words of the novel, Sakurai says with “white as snow breath”: “Let’s go”; the two seem to choose to stay together and confront the difficulties of their love.
Author: Michele Beauchamp, Manheim Township High School, Pennsylvania
Amster-Burton, Matthew. “A conversation with the English translator of the bestselling novel Go by Kazuki Kaneshiro.” International Examiner (Seattle), Feb. 14, 2019. www.iexaminer.org/a-conversation-with-the-english-translator-of-the-bestselling-novel-go-by-kazuki-kaneshiro/.
Roh, David S. “Kaneshiro Kazuki’s GO and the American Racializing of Zainichi Koreans.” Verge: Studies in Global Asias 2, no. 2 (2016): pp. 163–187. Accessed 29 Apr. 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/vergstudglobasia.2.2.0163.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet