Kazuki Kaneshiro’s Go, originally published in Japanese in 2000, caused a bit of a stink in the arts world due its portrayal of Zainichi Koreans living in Japan at the turn of this century. The novel won the prestigious Naoki Prize (previous winners include Keigo Higashino) and was subsequently adapted into a very well-received film starring Yosuke Kubozuka as protagonist Sugihara.

Translated into English, for the first time, by Takami Nieda, Go tells the story of Sugihara and his dysfunctional Zainichi family who have switched nationalities several times – from North Korean to South Korean and finally the contemplation of Japanese citizenship. Sugihara, trained by his ex-boxer father, is a self-confessed tough guy and regularly beats up his Japanese tormentors at a Japanese high school. The novel has a whiff of John Hughes’ 80s teen movies about it and nothing particularly rings true. Sugihara, in parts, resembles a kind of super-charged macho version of Haruki Murakami’s Toru Watanabe from Norwegian Wood. A high school thug with in-depth knowledge of biology and socio-cultural concepts adds to the novel’s overall unlikeliness. The other characters are merely caricatures.

One online reviewer points out that is reads like a “YA novel”. It’s pretty doubtful that Kaneshiro was deliberately aiming for this age group, and in places, it reads like a novel for learners of English as a foreign language. To this day Zainichi in Japan face discrimination and this can be seen, first-hand, on the streets of Okubo in Tokyo or Tsuruhashi in Osaka, and in the hate speech marches which blight several other regions of Japan on a regular basis. Kaneshiro, himself a Zainichi, does himself an injustice by writing a kind of wish-fulfillment revenge fantasy on his Japanese persecutors. Kaneshiro’s writing, rather than aiming for readers’ empathy with Sugihara and his plight, makes readers scoff at the dubious plots and simplistic writing.

The Zainichi experience in Japan has been more recently explored, with much more success, in Min Jin Lee’s superb 2017 novel Pachinko. Lee’s epic story of one family’s uprooting from Korea to Osaka in the early 20th century is simply more believable and nuanced. It captures the realities of Zainichi in western Japan in the 20th century, from racial discrimination and poverty to prosperity and entrepreneurship. Although similar themes such as hidden identities are explored in both works, Lee’s novel is panoramic in ambition and goes much deeper into the cultural and social dichotomies of Koreans living in Japan. Kaneshiro’s shallow attempt at a bildungsroman comes off as facile and there are other Japan-based writers doing this kind of storytelling better – namely Haruki Murakami, Hitomi Kanehara and even the much-hyped and overrated Hiromi Kawakami.

Go is actually a love story between Sugihara and Sakurai, a Japanese girl he meets at a club. Their relationship isn’t developed and is, in turn, consistently derailed by scenes of Sugihara’s penchant for unrealistic violence. We don’t really find out much about Sakurai and it ultimately doesn’t matter as the novel unravels into a dreary pastiche. 

Go is published by AmazonCrossing.