- Leveling the Metropole: Awakening and Disillusionment in Yi Sang’s “Tokyo”
The life and works of the enigmatic artist now best known as Yi Sang are inextricably imbricated with the modern histories of Korea and Japan. Yi came into the world Kim Haegyŏng on September 23, 1910, less than one month after Japan formally annexed Korea. He was born in the capital city of Seoul, then Keijō, where he spent a full twenty-six years of his life. He lived only twenty-six years and seven months, passing away on April 17, 1937 during his first and only stay in Tokyo. Prior to his roughly six months in the empire’s capital, his entire experience outside Keijō had consisted of two brief trips to convalesce at local hot springs resorts—one in Inch’ŏn, only a short distance from his home and only for one week, and the other in Sŏngch’ŏn, which was more remote and where he managed to endure three weeks.1 Thus, prior to his final half year in Tokyo, Yi essentially knew only Keijō, the capital city of Chosen, and an integral part of the growing Japanese empire. He was born into a situation where there was no Korean nation state, came of age in a Keijō that often aspired to mimic Tokyo, and died in a Tokyo that was the undisputed metropole of a [End Page 315] burgeoning imperium. Despite the undeniable traction that these ponderous biographical and historical forces exerted upon Yi’s life, however, he was never subsumed by either Japan or Korea, Tokyo or Keijō. He finally lived as an idiosyncratic individual, an expert architect, and an acclaimed artist who neither desired nor suffered any national subjecthood.
His striking confidence notwithstanding, Yi was also very much affected by and integrated with his milieu. He lived as an outlier, but not a hermit. He produced unique works, but he also worked well with others. From school literary magazines during his formative years to adult coteries such as the Kuinhoe, Yi believed in participation. Due to this, he necessarily underwent comparisons—both external and self-inflicted—to those around him. And while he nearly always triumphed in terms of both raw ability and actual production—both academic and artistic—his record did suffer from one crucial flaw or absence. Unlike so many of his mentors and contemporaries, Yi had never been to Tokyo. His prodigious talents notwithstanding, the halo effect conferred by time in Tokyo cannot be underestimated for a colonial intellectual and artist active in the mid-1930s. Whether this lacuna in his curriculum vitae was held over Yi by others as the one and only criterion by which they could outstrip him, or self-inflicted as a sort of colonial inferiority complex, Yi was keenly aware of it. His first published essay, “Hyŏlsŏ samt’ae (Three forms of writing in blood),” begins with a section subtitled ‘Oscar Wilde’ in which Yi recounts his passively and poignantly waiting—in a strikingly homoerotic voice—for a dear friend to return from Tokyo.2 [End Page 316]
Uk3 is not the name I wish to call him. But let us call him Uk for now. As recently as 1930, Uk was as infinitely sincere as his girlish bob, and his attitude and passion in devoting himself to the path of art were sincere as well.
That year, when I was bedridden, nearly taken by severe illness, Uk, having endured no more than a few months of desolate life in Tokyo, with an ineffable love/affection (愛情), sent me postcards, two or three each day, with the pathos of a flower girl scattering petals upon the wedding aisle, how excited he must have been upon the ferry’s deck.4
Uk does return to Keijō and to Yi Sang, but Tokyo has changed him. This opening subsection of the essay concludes with the following lines, bemoaning this change: “But, Uk, you were also a clever young student who came to possess a calculating side that allowed you deftly to dissect and organize into separate vignettes the flamelike passion arising from this.” The antecedent for this is the...