- Introduction to Yi Kwang-su's "Maybe Love" (Ai ka, 1909)
Yi Kwang-su (1892-1950?) was seventeen years old in December 1909 when he published "Maybe Love" (Ai ka 愛か2) in Meiji Gakuin's Shirogane gakuhō, his school newsletter.3 A foreign student in Tokyo, Yi debuted as a fiction writer under the pen name Yi Po-kyŏng at a time of remarkable literary ferment in Japan in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), whose battles an even younger Yi had seen fought on his native Korean territory.4 Yet "Maybe Love" is often ignored by literary historians in Korea either on account of its alien language [End Page 315] (Japanese) or its awkward theme (unrequited love by a Korean boy for a Japanese schoolmate). It was not until the early 1970s that scholars Kim Yun-sik in Korea and Ōmura Masao in Japan began to argue that "Maybe Love" was fundamental to a complete understanding of Yi's early career, and it was not until 1981 that Kim produced a Korean translation of the story.5 In more recent years, Chŏng Paek-su has convincingly argued that "Maybe Love" is equally important in terms of content and style for the origins of modern Korean-language fiction as a whole.6 At the same time, other critics such as Im Chong-guk have pointedly condemned Yi's theme of interracial homosexual love (tongsŏng'ae) as his earliest "harbinger of anti-Korean thinking" (panminjokjŏk in palsang ŭi hyosi) in a life that would be marred by pro-Japanese collaborationist rhetoric as well as marked by literary genius.7
"Maybe Love," what Yi called his "maiden work" (ch'ŏnyŏjak) of fiction,8 was the result of a decision to abandon a planned longer work he had begun in March of 1909 entitled "Slaves" (Noye) and rework what he had written into a number of short stories.9 The first of these stories, "Maybe Love," was completed on the evening of November 18 that same year; the second, "The Tiger" (Tora), on November 24. His diary entry for December 21 expresses his happiness over the publication of "Maybe Love" in his school's newsletter ("Kippŭta. Kwaenhi kippŭta").10 But it is anything but a happy story. [End Page 316]
The main character, Mungil,11 is an orphaned Korean in his late teens studying at a middle school in Tokyo through the intercession of an official in Korea who noted his precocity. On the eve of his return to his country at the end of term, Mungil pays a nervous call on an attractive Japanese classmate, Misao, at his lodging house. Mungil, who suffered badly from loneliness at school, has developed a deep crush on Misao and wants to see him before he goes. The visit does not go as hoped, however, and the short story ends with a disappointed Mungil contemplating suicide on his long walk home through the dark of late night.
Kim Yun-sik, among others, sees much of Yi's own adolescence reflected in the character Mungil. Also an orphan sent to Japan at an early age, Yi Kwang-su too, we are told, developed an attachment of his own to a Japanese underclassman at Meiji Gakuin named Kumagaya Naomasa, and competed with his classmate Yamazaki Toshio (1891-1979) (who would go on to write stories extolling the popular "shōnen-ai" or "boy love" of the time before turning to stage acting) for his affections, begging the question whether Yi and Yamazaki were actually in competition for each other.12 This conjecture, together with signs of an interest in same-sex sexuality elsewhere in Yi's oeuvre, have led some commentators to label "Maybe Love" a homosexual story.13 While that characterization is not incorrect, it is misleading because it conceals what I believe to have been Yi's ambition for his story. [End Page 317]
Even from our perspective today, what is most salient about the feelings Mungil harbors for Misao is not necessarily their same-sex nature, but their racial dimension. In a sense the "homosexuality" of the young men's attraction...