Feb '04 [Home]


"Tokyo" (Tong'gyông)
by Yi Sang (1937)

Translated by Michael D. Shin [*]

. . .

I had imagined that the "Marunouchi Building"—better known as Marubiru—would be at least four times bigger than this "Marubiru," something impressive. If I went to "Broadway" in New York, I might feel the same disappointment—anyway, my first impression of Tokyo was:  "This city reeks of 'gasoline'!"

People like us, without robust lungs, are not qualified to live in this city. Whether our mouths are open or shut, we can't avoid the taste of "gasoline" no matter what we eat because its smell saturates the air. That is why the body odor of Tokyo's denizens is similar to an automobile.

In the neighborhood of the "Marunouchi Building," there are no residents except for the "buildings." Cars work as shoes. The only people walking around are sacred philosophers scorning the end of the century and modern capitalism—everyone else barely manages to put on their cars and scurry around.

But for about five minutes I walked absurdly around the neighborhood. The only alternative was to get wise and catch a "taxi"…

In the "taxi," I did research on the topic of the 20th century. Outside the window now passing the Imperial Palace moat—innumerable cars make a commotion, trying to sustain the 20th century. My morality, giving off its musty 19th-century scent, cannot comprehend why there are so many cars, so, in the end, it just tries to act terribly dignified.

Shinjuku has a character like its characters:  "New Lodging." A luxury like walking on thin ice—in "French Mansion," we drink a cup of coffee served with the milk already stirred in, and when we each pay 10 sen, for some reason, five rin seems greater than nine sen, five rin.

"Eruteru" —The citizens of Tokyo write "France" as HURANSU. I recall that ERUTERU is the name of the man who experienced the most delicious love in the world, but "Eruteru" is not one bit melancholy.

Shinjukuz—like a ghostly fire this prosperity 3rd chóme —over on that side are a wooden fence, unsold lots, and a sign saying "Do Not Urinate Here," and there are also, of course, some houses.

Though I am dead with fatigue, Mr. C takes me to the Tsukiji Theater. At the moment, the theater is closed. Plastered with all kinds of posters, this center of the Japanese New Theater Movement looks, to my eyes, like a clumsily designed tea house. However, even if I miss a movie costing only loose change, I belong to the elite among lovers of the stage since I occasionally attend this small theater.

Quite the opposite of Mr. C, who says theater is more interesting than life, Mr. H is a skeptic. "Apar-t-men-t." Mr. H's room costs 16 yen in winter, 14 yen in summer, and 15 yen in the spring and fall; this calculation that changes like a mountain pigeon deepens his skepticism and brings a cynical smile to his face. Because I am so forgetful, I wanted a room whose merits do not change with the seasons, and so a servant girl comforted me by saying that, considering that I am from the countryside and have come a long way on my own, I too must have many talents. I in turn comfort her by saying that the mole dangling off the left slope of her nose symbolizes her happiness. Then I add that if just once I could have clearly seen Mt. Fuji, I would have nothing more to wish for.

The next morning, at seven o'clock, there was an earthquake. When I opened the window and looked upon the shaking metropolis of Tokyo, the light outside was yellow. The servant girl urged me to look over where the sky was clear and watch Mt. Fuji, pitiful like a toy cookie, shaking its grizzled hair.

The Ginza is just a book of vanity. If you don't walk around here, it seems you lose your right to vote. When women buy new shoes, they have to come and walk on the Ginza's sidewalks before boarding a car.

The Ginza in the daytime is more than a little ugly because it is the skeleton for the Ginza at night. The twisted, poker-like iron that forms the frame of the winding "neon sign" saying "Salon Spring" is disheveled like the "permanent wave" of a bar girl who has been up all night. However, I cannot spit because the police has put out notices saying "Don't spit on the sidewalks."

According to my estimate, the 8th chóme of the Ginza is about two-and-a-half cha! Why? Because one can meet a "modern" damsel with chaotic red hair two-and-a-half times in thirty minutes. It appears that these honorable young ladies have come out to consume the most beautiful time of the day, but this insipid "promenade" of mine is nothing more than a kind of rumination.

While I made a simple bowel movement in the underground public bathroom next to Kyóbashi, I tried reciting the names of various friends who had bragged so about going to Tokyo.

Shiwasu probably means "last month of the year." On corner after corner of the Ginza's streets, the charity kettles of the Salvation Army hang as if from stacked infantry rifles. One sen—with only one sen, I would have enough gas to cook a whole pot of rice. I cannot throw such a precious sen into the charity kettle. A word of thanks does not improve our lives as much as one sen of gas; moreover, since it sometimes ruins a refreshing stroll, it may not even be rude of "boys" and "girls" to look coldly askance at the merciful gourd. The young Salvation Army maiden in the flower of her youth—the fact that she had some pimples on her face is a flaw, but since she effused a youthful charm, I wanted to say "It's not too late to join even if you are past menopause," and politely persuade her to convert.

Mitsukoshi, Matsuzakaya, Itoya, Shirakiya, Matsuya. These seven-storey houses don't sleep at night these days. However, we must not go inside.

Why? Not only are the interiors not seven but one-storey high, but also it is easy to get lost because of all the piled-up goods and teeming "shop girls."

Bargain goods, sale goods, discount goods:  which shall I choose? No matter what, these terms are not in the dictionary. There is nothing cheaper than bargain-, sale-, and discount-goods. Since, as expected, there is no cheap jewelry or leather goods, the prominent slogan that understands so well the type of customer psychology that scorns cheap goods actually flashes before my eyes.

With nightfall, just "Ginza," without the definite article, makes its appearance. Tea from "Corombang" and a book from Kinokuniya are what cultivates the people here. However, I go with more dignity to "Brazil" and drink a "straight." It was unfortunate that the girls who bring tea all wore outfits in the colors of autumn foliage because, in my eyes, they looked like patterns of venereal disease. In "Brazil," it is said that coffee can be used instead of coal as fuel for trains, but even if I swallow some strong coal, no passion sparks and ascends.

After an "ad balloon" has landed, the stars in Ginza's sky try to shine according to God's wisdom, but the descendents of "Cain" have long since forgotten about the stars. Educated to fear poison gas more than "Noah's" flood, these citizens openly choose to walk back home by subway. O moon of Li Po! Wouldn't it have been better for you indeed to have passed away together with the 19th century?

Michael D. Shin has taught Korean literature and history at Cornell University since 2001. He specializes in the cultural and intellectual history of the colonial period (1910-1945).

~ . ~ . ~

1] Mr. Shin would like to thank Chisato Hotta, Ann Lee, and Walter K. Lew for their assistance on this translation. "Tong'gyông" first appeared in the May 1939 issue of Munjang two years after Yi Sang's death. The present translation is based on both the original publication and the annotated version in Kim Yun-shik, ed. Yi Sang munhak chônjip 3, Sup'il (Seoul:  Munhak Sasang sa, 1993). This translation was previously published in a special issue of the journal Muae 1 (1995) devoted to Yi Sang's works.

2] One sen equals .01 yen, while one rin equals .10 sen.

3] "Eruteru" refers to the title character of Goethe's novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, apparently also the name of a café in Tokyo.

4] Chôme is a Japanese term referring to an area roughly the size of a street block.

5] A cha is a Korean unit of length, approximately equal to a foot.

6] Mitsukoshi, Matsuzakaya, Itoya, Shirakiya, and Matsuya are all names of well-known department stores in Tokyo.