Why Am I Here A Story About Becoming The-Best-Version-Of-Yourself North Korea’s Hand Has Been Reaching Japan For Over 30 Years

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North Korea’s Hand Has Been Reaching Japan For Over 30 Years

Sado is an isolated island like any other island. It is so naturally due to its remoteness. But for a quirky turn of events it becomes a part of world event and espionage. Following is the first half of the story. Enjoy and hope you can leave me a feedback. Thank you.

Sado island

It is a modest island. As far as an island goes, it is not small nor large. Only fame to its existence is its gold mine. Convict labor worked that mine 100s of years ago. A mountain where the mine is located is cut in two right in the middle with a wedge shaped trough almost all the way down to the ground level. All by human power.

We take a ferry to that island. Just a few hours choppy ride. Summer sun is bright enough but over on open ocean, sunshine is even brighter. Usually there is an anticipation when we step on a boat that takes us to a remote island for a tour but we know there isn’t much to see at all and most recreation we can have is looking for a good eat that we can have on the mainland anyway. Our spirit is listless and looking for a way out. The entire tourist industries on the island are busy drumming up, more like making it up, merits of coming to the island. It’s gotten so intense that their tone of wanting you to come is practically badgering. All souvenirs have a feel of a copy of some other place or hastily cooked up trinkets. By the time we get to the island’s port, we are already worn out a bit and weary. A ferry ride takes up a good chunk of the morning and ride back takes about the same so we don’t have time left to do much if we go back to the mainland on the same day.

A whole point of even coming to this island is contentious then. We are staying the night. It’s only a night stay and the island’s closeness to our home town makes us feel we haven’t left our home. We didn’t pack anything for the trip. Without securing a hotel room, we start to look for a restaurant. It’s lunch time. We have to make this trip worthwhile. We look for eats that we can’t have on the mainland. But,…. Seafood? Our home town is a port town. We can have freshly fried, grilled, poached fish of all kind and shellfish, too, without coming here. After looking over few restaurant’s entries made in wax and plastic displayed in a window case for patrons to see – they look really lifelike, you can smell them – we decide it is worthless to look for something indigenous and keep looking only adds to our miserable feeling. We settle in the nearest restaurant and order whatever we want. We don’t even talk over what’s good to eat.

We focus on gabbing and try to shake off this let down and salvage this trip. As we gab, it seems just an ordinary afternoon at home, except our surroundings. New place and different locale are interesting in itself to young people since they haven’t had a chance to venture out but we are a lot mature, extra mature some might say. More we gab, more we notice the unfamiliar scene around us and this makes us uneasy and uncomfortable. Casual gabbing among friends and new locale don’t mix. We are drawn to scenes around and outside. Coastal scenery is delightful enough but staring at it for two minutes we have seen plenty. Sea rapping and rocks jutting out of it and trees on top don’t, can’t seep down into our person deep enough, not today. As we grow older with keen mind that hasn’t gone senile, we are interested in bustle and hustle of people’s lives and what come out of it, not scenery. See the possibilities of other lives than our own and appreciate them is amusing and entertaining. Lure of the gold mine, slave labors toiled in harsh conditions that’s what we came here to see. But my companion, she had been here before and when you see a particular tourist haunt, you have seen it. You are filled with memories of that trip that predictably makes you recoil with the thought of going back to the same tourist destination. She came here because of me. This trip is a chore for her.

“So, what do you want to do? Find a hotel? Or take a bus trip to the gold mine this afternoon?” She asks me.

“I don’t know. I am not in a good mind right now to take a tour. I am disappointed in good eats already.” I think about what to do a bit more but it’s like not having enough sleep. “Do you have anything you want to do this afternoon?”

“No,… I don’t want to spoil your fun.”

“No, tell me. What’s on your mind? I sure can’t think of anything.”

“Well, it’s you who is insisting now. O.k.? I want to go back tomorrow morning instead of afternoon. That’s all I am thinking.”… “Ah, don’t scrunch your face. We are here so we are going to have fun. Right?… We can stay an extra day if you want. I don’t mind it.”

“An extra day? What are we going to do? We can’t even think of what to do for this afternoon.”

Lure of gold mine is a bit tarnished. (“An image of gold tarnishing? Ah, it’s fake gold.”) The museum and all exhibits associated with this island and the gold mine are rather tourist exhibits. Historical details are preserved as much but academic pedigree doesn’t really exist in those exhibits. I was looking, hoping for a revelation among those tourist exhibits. There must be something that tells me even in those glossed over and sanitized displays a vein and a layer of something that can make me feel, connect with what was there in real life. Standing in the actual location would certainly help to conjure up images of their lives on this island and in the darkness of the gold mine. We decide on taking a tour in the morning. Now we have to find a hotel and hunt for semi private seats in a restaurant so we can peck at foods and drink very slowly to whittle away the long early evening. We would like to consider it an early evening instead of late, or rather mid afternoon.

The morning is clear, just like yesterday. The tour bus is taking us into a mountain road on a taller mountain peek of two peeks on this island. This is another tourist shtick. Since there is only few of note on this island we might as well go through a higher mountain peek to get to the gold mine. Coast line tour is also available but we chose the mountain route. We have seen enough of coast line. We have seen enough of mountain scenes, too. The mainland is nothing but coasts and mountains. Going up is uneventful. It is a lazy straight away with few turns…. On the way down the mountain I start to hear squeal of tires and I am jostled. And frequency of squeals are increasing. The tour guide is telling us how many accidents there were last year on this mountain road. I look over the edge of the road and notice a steep drop. I can’t see the bottom. If we fall, we are done for.

(“Is this another tourist shtick?… I don’t need a scary ride in the morning like this.”) I almost yell out to the bus driver to slow down. But my excessive pride keeps my mouth shut. For every squeal of tires there is a jostle. A jostle to the right, to the window of the bus, I am almost thrown over the edge of the road. A jostle to my left, to my napping companion, I am faced with a concrete retaining wall on the side of the mountain. If the driver loses his control and slip over the edge of the road – some places there are no guardrails – we are finished. If the driver loses his control and hit that retaining wall we would bounce off the wall at this speed and go over the edge of the road. This is a safe trip to the end or else. There doesn’t seem to be anything in-between. A minor accident? That would be too modest of a tour.

We make it. We passed the winding mountain road. The gold mine isn’t far now. The tour guide is talking about the mine.

“The Spanish ships could only make 1 or 2 trips a year from America but we could make many trips to China……. “

What? Spanish? What do they have to do with this gold mine? I wish I was listening more. I always thought this island was isolated from the rest of the country, much less the rest of the world.

“It was in the 1500s. The local lord, who also was in charge of this island, didn’t like the foreign influence over the East Asia. At the time Spanish were trying to ship silver mined in Central and South America to China for a profit. The lord decided to rump up the production of gold here. Silver was considered to be the byproduct of gold mining but nevertheless produced in abundance along with gold. He shipped those silver to China. All he could produce. Glutton of silver in China became so much that they stopped minting them into coins. They would have lost money trying to make coins out of silver at the time. They passed around the silver ingot as their currency instead. You can see a mold of those silver ingot here at this mine. They are the same shape as the ingot Chinese traded with for a time.”…

“Boy, they spin tails to impress you.”

“Oh, you are awake.”… “I don’t think she is weaving tales.”

“I know you are going through some kind of soul searching. But, don’t get hooked into believing wild tales. I don’t like to see you like that.” She yawns and stretches her arms out over her head. “Along with the mountain road we just took, the tour company have to sell their tour. Isn’t the story a bit inflated? There is nothing about it in the tour brochure.”

That’s true. I only skimmed through our brochure and it is very genial and cordial account of the tour. There is nothing, no revolutionary story in it. They went through pain to take anything like that out of it. No, I want to keep my interest going, now that I found some of it. I get myself excited, seeing a way to rescue time and effort we spent already on this trip. “I know Chinese passed around silver ingots as their currency, not coins for a time…. It’s a famous anecdote in history of how badly they managed their economy. It’s true, too, it was more expensive to mint coins than coins made out of those silver. It was that bad, you know.” I trail off to a whisper. I had to admit I didn’t know much beyond that…. “Let’s go see the mold of those silver ingot. Right? We don’t have to pass any judgement on what she said, true or false. This trip is for fun. Let’s have fun.” (“I am interested.”)

“When you are happy, I am happy.” She turns her face to look at me. (“Thank heavens, she still likes me. She shows no sign of disdain.”)

I spend rest of the trip to the mine in a haze. My mind is filled with the thought of the lord who set out to oppose Spanish all on his own, and succeeded in some respect. Spanish, the Spanish Crown was going through bankruptcy one after another, true. Even without this local lord’s meddling in their money making plans, they would have gone bankrupt yet again.

Finally we are at the gold mine. Its entrance is made like those of samurai estate. A wall, not a part of the building, more than 2 meters high with white stucco finish stretching in both ways and tile roofed entryway in front of you. Strange entrance to gold mine. With this type of presentation this mine is not producing now for sure. Everything is for show. I see the mold for silver ingot. It is just placed among other items used for mining and smelting. No special placard to explain its significance. Only if I can look at the silver ingot Chinese were passing around and compare them, having them both in my hands, I can rest easy without this nagging,… nagging to find a meaning to this lord’s life. Larger than life, really. He didn’t just lived and died. He made a difference, even a little bit. I am craving for that kind of life. And here is a girl, young enough to be a girl, being a tour bus guide telling us this story.

After the gold mine it’s a shorter trip to the history museum and we have a break. Stretching my legs some more and sipping green tea freshen me up. I start to look for that girl. I head for the bus parked in the museum’s parking lot. Yes, she is there. She is cleaning the bus for us. I don’t want to seem like a come-on trying to talk to her, with her being so young and all.

“Hi, can I ask you about the story you were telling? About the Spanish and their influence here in Asia and the lord who tried to head off that influence. I saw the mold for the silver ingot on display and they look nothing like I have ever seen, triangle trough shaped and all. How do you know all that?” I say that in a quick one breath speech. I look for a “I don’t want to be bothered” sign from her. No, she is fluttered. She is starting to smile.

“About that. Are you complaining?”

That’s a strange thing to say. “No, I am not complaining. What makes you say something like that?”

“I had people who didn’t want to listen to a made up story. So, they thought that’s what I was doing.”

“Was that a made up story?”

“No, I don’t go around telling lies to my customers. I get fired if I did something like that. They didn’t like things out of ordinary. The story I told isn’t in the brochure…. But, my company boss let me tell it anyway. I convinced him and the rest of people at the company.”

(“She has a story of her own here. That’s interesting. Two stories.”) “Why do you decide to tell the story? And how did you find out about it? I betcha it isn’t there waiting for someone to look at it.”

She looks around the inside of the bus and sits down in the driver’s seat. She extends her hand to motion me to a passenger seat across the aisle. I step up one last step into the bus and sit down, facing her. (“Ooh, this is kind of intimate, isn’t it? If I am not attached, I will ask her out. I don’t care about the age difference.”)

She smiles and her smile beams wider and wider. “I saw an exhibit at the local library. You know, traveling exhibits that come and go. There were documents, papers and journals of the lord who ruled this island. This island used to be a penal colony and you know what people say about us living here. Descendants of thieves and all that. It’s not true, of course. We have nothing to do with things that happened so many years ago. My family didn’t come here until recently. People say that because there is really not much here and you have to be some kind of outcast to even want to be here. That’s what people say. Some part of it is true but not all of it.”

“Were you born here?”

“Yes,… and I grew up here… and noticed people from the mainland look at us in a peculiar way. They come here to tour a penal island of yesterday. That’s their mind set. They connect their idea of penal island to us living here today…. When I saw the papers I had to read it and find out how things were. How people lived. And mostly how they died as convicts, most of them. When the shogunate wanted more hands to mine gold, they picked up people for a smallest of offenses. Even a jaywalking would have gotten you here for a time. But, that was in 1600s. The papers and journals were written in 1500s. He talked about how he didn’t care for Europeans to come here and have an influence over the commerce and have a say and power over people living here. Possibly changing how they lived and they wouldn’t have a control on how that change might be. So, he found out what Europeans were up to and decided to head off their plans. He shipped quite a bit of silver to China at much cheaper price, undercutting Europeans. They went bankrupt, didn’t they?”

“Yeah, but they went bankrupt so many times that you couldn’t possibly tell if shipping all that silver had an effect, could you?”

“It had to have some kind of effect. Ships they used to transport silver from America were repossessed. Captains of those ships didn’t want to turn the ship over back to Europe, demanding that they get paid before they turned the ships over. I don’t think it was a coincidence.”

“… Yeah. That’s right. That’s in the history book, isn’t it?… Wow, you looked,… researched all that…. You know… I think you are right. Things kind of fit like a jigsaw puzzle. Maybe not all the bankruptcy they had but one, he did have an effect. Well, for a time at least, you know. Europeans overran us anyway later.”

“Ha ha ha. Yes, I know. But, he lived and made his mark, I think. All on his own, too. And this island had a part in it. I think that makes people lived and worked on the mine had a part in it, too.” She has a very nonchalant smile on her face now. It is a smile of satisfaction.

(“Wow, how wonderful to be young. She is radiating.”)… “Yeah. That’s a good story…. You know I came here to look at how those miners lived and died here. I can add your story to my memory…. Is there any chance your story will get into our history books? I think it’s worth at least a footnote, if not outright paragraph there.”

When she hears me say that she looks away from me a little and takes a slow deep breath and lean back in the driver’s seat. Her smile turns into a scrunch of dismay for a second and disappear.

“I talked to local school teachers and college professors on the mainland but they seem too busy to care about what I have to say. I got tired of it and I stopped.”

“That’s too bad. I don’t think it is that difficult to look over the papers and confirm your point. You have done the most of the work already. All they have to do is spend their time to write postulating papers and submit them to a publication…. Maybe, that’s what makes them hesitant. They want their own original ideas on their papers, mostly. I am a writer. I know those things. In this case, you would be the principal instigator and they would just be scribes. On top of that they would be rocking the boat of establishment a little. These things don’t get settled right away. It takes a protracted back-and-forth argument. It seems hardly worthwhile to them, I guess. If they are to take the whole credit for their effort, that will give them a motivation to work on it…. See, I can get into their head. I am a writer. I think what you found out is definitely worth a mention in a history book.”

“I never thought of it like that…. You know, I was disappointed at first, but my boss told me I can tell my story to our customers. I decided I would be happy with it…. But, they don’t seem to welcome anything that is not in the brochure. And I was,… am starting to drop the whole thing and forget about it.” Seeing her shoulders slump down almost nothing but I can notice they did.

(“Oh, I can’t let her down like this because I let her talk to me.”)… “Yeah, people who take a tour don’t want to think and much less don’t want to start an argument over what is real and what isn’t, especially over things they come here to see. They are just looking for a neat package they can stomach and spend their time away. But a guy like me come around every now and then and listen to your story. One out of a hundred isn’t bad.”

She just looks at the floor of the bus for awhile…. “I guess you are right…. I am glad I talked with you.” Her smile is back on her face now.

(“I am glad to see your smile, too.”) I say quick “see you later on the bus” and start off to find my partner. If she sees me chatting with that young girl with a grin on my face, I don’t know what she will do to me. She is in the museum’s cafeteria, sipping green tea. She sees me come in and gives me a – found a missing person – look.

“I was talking to the bus guide about her story. You know about the local lord who shipped silver to China.” I take a seat next to her. I try to avoid facing her across from the table. I feel my face will betray me and I want to keep grinning a little longer.

“You enjoyed her company.”… (“Ooh, she is too sensitive.”)… “What did you find out?”

“Yeah, she went through quite a bit. There are old papers written by the local lord way back. She read them in the library when these papers were exhibited. What she said is genuine I think. I trust her. She couldn’t get people interested and take notice of these paper’s significance though. She ended up telling the story to her tour bus customers, like us.”

“What significance?… Spanish bankruptcy? That’s the only thing big enough to take your notice, right?”

“No, no. Not that. Spanish were going through bankruptcy like going to an amusement park back then. No. I mean the local lord’s intent on standing in the way of Europeans encroaching in East Asia. All on his own, I may add. He didn’t like what he saw and he went out to thwart their plan by dumping silver to China. You know, we came here to see the gold mine, right? And we find a story about silver produced in the very same mine. This trip turned out to be worthwhile. I think I write an article on this.”

“Silver? In the gold mine?… Huh,… I know a story about miners in California, who buried silver expecting it to turn into gold.”

(“Hu,… She is not interested in what I have to say. Her thought is wandering.”) I give a sideway peek at her. No hint of sarcasm. “You know why they buried silver back in the ground? Often times, silver is found along gold in the same vein. That’s why they thought if they bury silver and wait, it will become gold…. No, no. That’s not it. Weren’t you listening?”

“I am not a writer. Your line of thinking is not easy to follow for me. You are always looking for a hidden speck of a story. I only see obvious.” She gives a big yawn. And raising her arms high in the air, arching her back.

(“Oh, she yawns a lot.”) “Well, I guess that’s what I like about you. If you are like me, I don’t think our relationship can last.” I look at her with a side way glance again and see her staring at me.

“Just spill. Do you know why I like you? With you, I don’t have to go out to find a human side of life. You do it for me. And I can’t stop you from telling me about it.”

“… I don’t want to argue again. O.k.?… I thought we had an understanding on this. You keep your scientist’s attitude and I won’t encroach on it. You let me keep my writer’s mind, right?”

“….” She doesn’t say anything, just staying still and looking toward me gently then she moves her gaze away from me and start to look at her surroundings in the cafeteria.

“Sorry…. You know, I think I have an inferiority complex…. What you do can make a difference in this world. What I do is only words no matter how hard I try at it. I can’t change that.” I turn toward her and look at her straight.

Now she is the one glancing at me with her side way look. “I am interested. I yawned because I am interested. My brain needed more oxygen to listen to you and I am not going to pamper you. Just tell me the rest of the story.” She gives me a side way glance again.

“FYI, I don’t need to be pampered. I am proud of what I have done and I will keep doing what I do…. Well, kind of…. Yeah, sorry. I hate myself when I am like this.”… “Yeah. Right. I am thinking,… You saw the mold for silver ingot on the display in the museum. That’s the shape of the ingot Chinese used to pass around their silver was in. The ingots they passed around came from this gold mine. This local lord contributed to their hyperinflation…. No. The point is he had an influence in the world affairs even though he was just a local lord here. That’s what impressed her. That’s the center of the story…. Well, it’s not cut and dry. I can’t attribute how much influence he had though. Chinese mismanagement of their economy at the time is a folklore. And Spanish story of their bankruptcies are kind of well told story, too. But, Chinese were passing around his, this local lord’s silver ingot and Spanish had a trouble getting their ships back from pacific. Some captains of those ships refusing to hand over their ships unless they get paid their due is in the history book, too…. I just have to weave a story around them, I think.”

“I don’t remember reading that in a school history book.”

“Yeah, that’s exactly it. This story may be a footnote but worth being told. Only someone like her trying to find a value of her existence on this island can connect things.” I am pumped up. A structure of my article is gelling in my head.

The TV in the cafeteria turned to a bulletin. It is breaking into a story of Japanese abductees who were kidnapped by North Korean agents back in 1970s and 80s. It is telling a tale of an American deserter in North Korea, Mr. Jenkins…. “… He is married to a Japanese woman who was kidnapped from Sado island with her mother in 1978. They have children… “

“What?… Sado island… is this Sado island, right?” I look at her in amazement listening to the news on TV.

“Is there another Sado island here in Japan. Of course, it’s this Sado island. Wow, I can’t imagine being kidnapped at such young age. She was just a teen ager.” Everyone in the cafeteria is mesmerized of how extra ordinary the arc of the news are and this very island is a part of that news.

News of kidnapped women are on the lips of tourists on the bus for the rest of the tour. No one paid much attention to anything any more.

Months later.

“Come. Watch this. Abductees are here. They landed at Narita.” She is calling out to me. I am fixing snacks in our kitchen. I drop everything and scamper over to our living room. The airplane is taxing and about to park at the terminal.

I am glued to the TV showing the plane just moving slowly about. “So, they are on that plane. I wonder how they are feeling coming back to their birth place after so many decades. You know most of them spent more of their years over in North Korea than years they spent here.”

She takes her eyes off TV and looks at me. “Fix me some snack. It will be some time before they disembark. And I want some tea.” She gives me her meek, pleading look. I always have to do what she wants when she gives me that look.

“Yeah. I am almost done with making snacks. I boil water for tea.” I walk back toward the kitchen. “Jenkins-san isn’t on that plane, right? Just 5 abductees coming home?”

Copyright © 2010 toshiyuki ihira

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