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A River In Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa — hunger for freedom

Cover of A River In Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa, a memoir of one man's attempt to escape the butal regime of North Korea

Masaji Ishikawa’s memoir opens on a night when he stands at the edge of the Yalu river, waiting for the moment when it will be safe for him to cross.

Behind him is North Korea, the country its leader has told him is “paradise on Earth” but which Ishikawa knows, from personal experience, is a hell hole. Across the river lies China and freedom. If he evades the guard patrols, and crosses the river, he will be one closer to returning to Japan, the land of his birth. But he will leave behind his family, uncertain if he will see them again.

A River In Darkness is a terrifying account of how an ordinary man became an unwitting victim of a con trick. And then attempted an extraordinary journey to escape a brutal dictatorship.

Masaji Ishikawa was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Korean father who’d effectively been kidnapped when Korea was annexed by Japan. Boyed up by stories of how the, now independent state of North Korea, was a land of opportunity, Ishikawa’s father decided in 1960 to return to his motherland, taking his family with him.

North Korea was nothing like they imagined. The promised free house, free education, good job and plentiful food never materialised. As Japan returnees they were viewed as the “lowest of the low,” in a society where an individual’s status determined their food allocation and where they could work and study.

Ishigawa gets an early introduction to what will become the reality of his life. He throws himself into his studies to overcome the “Japanese bastard” abuse thrown at him by other pupils. But his ambition to go to university to study physics is dismissed as laughable.

Academic achievements had nothing to do with it., no matter how excellent they were. Your whole life was determined by which caste you’d been assigned to. If you were deemed core, a rosy future awaited you. But if you were deemed hostile you were the lowest of the low and would remain so for life. No career path. No chance of bettering yourself. No way out. … I was told I’d been deemed hostile, and that was that.

For decades the Ishigawa family leave a precarious existence. They live in pitifully inadequate housing, and his father ekes out an existence as a farm labourer. They are always cold and always hungry. But they dare not complain: “thought was not free,” and one injudicious word could get you killed.

In a linear narrative, Ishigawa combines details of key episodes in his life with reflections on the challenges of living in a state ruled by one “invincible as steel” man Everyone in North Korea is brainwashed to believe Kim Il sung (and later his son Kim Jong il) know what’s best so they must follow their instructions even if the evidence indicates otherwise.

One telling illustration involves the order to use Juche farming principles (an intensive factory style system) but it means the rice plants are placed so close together they cannot possibly survive. The agricultural labourers know that, the officials directing their work know it. too. But none of them dare voice concern even though the result will be hunger later in the year when the harvest fails and the government issue of grain dwindles.

Hardship and hunger permeate this book. In the family’s first years in North Korea, Ishikawa’s mother climbed the mountain near their village to collect weeds for them to eat. In 1995 Ishigawa, now a married man, has to scavage for acorns, pine bark, weeds — anything that could be made edible. Even if the stuff tasted vile and created dreadful side effects, it was all that stood between them and death.

The sight of his wife and children slowly starving to death, proves the final straw for Ishigawa. He decides the only way out is for him to escape and, when safely in Japan, somehow send money to his family.

When you’re starving to death, you lose all the fat from your lips and nose. Once your lips disappear, your teeth are bared all the time, like a snarling dog. Your nose is reduced to a pair of nostrils.

A River In Darkness is the second memoir that relates the experience of an individual who risks their life to escape North Korea. Understandably it covers similar territory to In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park but it feels a more bleak perspective because even when Ishikawa does escape, he encounters unexpected obstacles to his hope of happiness.

I wish I could say that this memoir has a happy ending. But without spoiling things for other readers I’ll just mention that all we know of Ishikawa’s situation is that he lives in Japan and he doesn’t know whether any of his family members are still alive.

This is a frighteningly detailed account of mass brutality in the name of dogma and a lust for power. Reading it isn’t a comfortable experience but it’s certainly a thought-provoking one.

A River In Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa: Footnotes

This memoir was published in Japan in 2000 using the nom de plume of Shunsuke Miyazaki to protect Ishikawa’s family. The English translation by Risa Kobayashi and Martin Brown was issued in 2017, through the Amazon Crossing scheme. I’d not heard of this before but it’s apparently a platform to increase the availability of books in translation by using volunteer translators. There is an extract (relating Ishikawa’s river crossing) available at Literary Hub.

I chose this book to mark Novellas in November 2021 month, hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of BookishBeck. It’s book number 29 in my #21 in 21 project to read more books from the hundreds that lie unread in my bookshelves.

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