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  • Questioning Authenticity:On the Documentary Film Reclaiming Our Names
  • So Hye Kim (bio)

The South Korean documentary film Reclaiming Our Names (Ponmyŏng sŏnŏn, 1998) is, to date, the first and only South Korean documentary that attends to the moments of ethnic "coming out" of Koreans in Japan, commonly known as Zainichi. Made by the renowned independent filmmaker Hong Hyŏng-suk (b. 1962), the film centers around the biannual ritual of honmyō sengen (lit. "declaration of one's original name") that was enacted at Amagasaki High School in Osaka, Japan, in the late 1990s. During honmyō sengen, Zainichi students publically declare their "Korean" names as their true names, rather than the Japanese tsūmei (lit. "passing name") by which they had previously been known. Reclaiming Our Names depicts the real and psychic challenges Zainichi students face when torn between their two names, as well as the personal and social meanings attached to each.

Toward the end of the film, a Zainichi student speaks to the audience in South Korea via an interview with the director. This student had chosen to render his ethnic identity visible by declaring his honmyō ("original name"; Korean name) as Pak Sŏng-yong in front of his Japanese classmates. Yet what he says in front of the camera is not a statement about the predicaments he faces in Japan as Zainichi, but a sincere request for Koreans to recognize Zainichi issues with empathy. He goes on to mention [End Page 335] that one of his Zainichi friends experienced ethnic discrimination during her visit to South Korea, suggesting that Zainichi Koreans are still invisible in their "homeland" even after and despite having endured the arduous and intense experience of reclaiming Korean identity. Looking at the camera, he appeals to the South Korean audience to recognize the existence of Zainichi.

Within Zainichi communities, issues surrounding ethnic identity have long been considered serious social, political, legal, and psychological concerns. However, as Sŏng-yong's remark poignantly reveals, in the wake of such moments of choice between dichotomous paths of identity, there is an enduring experience of grief that has remained all but invisible in South Korea. Compared with the relative visibility in recent years of Zainichi students within the Korean ethnic education system, representations of the complicated ethnic identity of Zainichi and the related issues of their passing in Japanese society are rarely found in South Korean films.

Reclaiming Our Names focuses primarily on portraying, in sentimental terms, the moment when Zainichi students stand before their Japanese classmates and declare themselves ethnically Korean. Yet, on screen, this ritual appears more as a performance of authentic identity than a confirmation of it. Such ambivalences thus call our attention to the many implications of a practice that equates the choice between names with the choice to pass or to "come out." Given that most Zainichi students have lived with their Japanese names their whole lives, to what extent can we regard the Korean name as "original" and the Japanese name as "fake" or "a disguise"? If Zainichi students do "choose" to use their honmyō, to what extent does this claiming of identity give closure to questions of authenticity? If the ritual of "reclaiming our names" actually ends up perpetuating a crisis of identity, in what ways do educational institutions shape this act of self-displacement into one of ethnic redemption?

Not only are these questions left unresolved in Reclaiming Our Names, but the film itself has raised overlapping concerns [End Page 336] about authenticity that exceed the boundaries of textuality. About ten minutes of footage that appears in Reclaiming Our Names was not actually shot by Hong Hyŏng-suk but by the Zainichi filmmaker Yang Yonghi (b. 1964) as part of Yang's short documentary The Swaying Spirit (Yureru kokoro, 1996). A few days after Hong's film premiered at the 3rd Busan International Film Festival (hereafter BIFF), Yang sent a message regarding the unauthorized use of her film in Reclaiming Our Names to several newspapers and film magazines in South Korea. In the latter half of 1998, the dispute over these two documentaries developed into one of the most polarizing controversies to sweep the...