TOKYO -- Add one more name to the list of authors facing persecution: Yu Miri.
She is barely known in the United States, but her situation highlights the costs of a certain kind of fame, and the ugliness of a certain brand of racism. Since winning Japan's top literary prize in January, she has become the target of death threats from people who want her to stop writing.
Yu is facing a different problem than have Salman Rushdie, accused by Iran of blasphemy against Islam, or Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, exiled by the Soviet Union for his political views. She is a native of Japan but of Korean origin, and that alone is apparently enough reason for some people to hate her.
"The only reason the blackmailers are making these threats is because they feel a Korean has made fools of the Japanese," she says. "It is simply a matter of liking or hating Koreans."
Yu won the Akutagawa Prize, the country's most prestigious literary award, for her novel "Kazoku Cinema" ("Family Cinema"). It tells the story of a dysfunctional family whose members become estranged. They reunite when the father asks them to make a semi-documentary movie. As the family members act out their various roles for the film, the troubled relations that tore the family apart are revealed.
Before the award, "Kazoku Cinema" had sold only a few thousand copies; it then became a best seller on the fiction list, with more than 240,000 copies in print. Yu's autobiography, "Mizube no Yurikago" ("Cradle at the Water's Edge"), quickly appeared on the best-seller list for nonfiction.
The themes of these books, and most of Yu's stories and plays, revolve around family. She draws on her own family's dissolution, a subject that hardly seems worthy of a hate campaign.
Yu receives anonymous letters warning she will be killed because she is Korean. The publishers of her essays received bomb threats. A series of book signings in Tokyo was canceled xTC because the publisher feared there would be violence; the one that was finally rescheduled was by invitation only.
"This is a matter concerning the freedom of expression," says Yu, who was unhappy at the publisher's decision.
With straight black hair that reaches down to the middle of her back and an expression that seems to be both haunting and innocent, Yu is not a figure who would stand out in a crowd. But in her writing, she comes across as a figure of enormous complexity and startling honesty.
In her autobiography, there is a picture of herself at age 6, with her younger sister, two younger brothers and her parents. It is the only family picture.
Shortly after the photo was taken, her mother, a bar hostess, ran away with another man. Her father was a compulsive gambler who worked in the gaming industry. The children spent most of their lives in Yokohama, but were handed off to various relatives to be raised.
Because of her Korean heritage, Yu faced constant bullying at school. She was kicked out of a high school, drifted, attempted suicide but then found a position in a small Tokyo theater company. And there she discovered she enjoyed the role of playwright more than the role of actress.
At 20, she was writing plays for the company; at 23 she won her first literary award.
"I am trying to mix the realism of my life with the world I create in fiction," she says. "If I can write about one family and find the interplay of relations between the parents and the children and how the family functions in the society as a whole, then I can describe the world in which human relations are created and destroyed."
Her best and worst experience as a writer are perhaps the same: the winning of the Akutagawa Prize, for it brought intense media attention and then the death threats.
She became the subject of scores of magazine articles. That exposure helped book sales, but she was also unwillingly cast as a spokeswoman for the Korean minority in Japan.
The magazine Sapio, for example, sought her opinions about the Korean women who were forced into sexual servitude for the imperial Japanese army during World War II. It published her remarks but added its own scathing commentary on what it judged to be her lack of historical understanding.
She is one of about 700,000 ethnic Koreans in Japan, a population that began immigrating here after Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula in 1910, and came in larger numbers as forced laborers during World War II. But Yu has never dwelled on being a Korean in Japan in her writing.
She is between being Japanese and Korean: She is not a citizen of Japan, but she can hardly write or speak Korean. Without a Japanese sponsor, she can't obtain a credit card or sign a lease for an apartment. She is regarded by others as an outsider here, and she regards herself as an outsider in Korea.
She has made three trips there, and it was during the latest -- after she won the literary prize -- that she felt the most awkward.
"People were asking me things like, 'Why are you speaking Japanese?' 'Why didn't you come back to Korea?' " Yu says. She was warmly received for her success, but people were puzzled why she had seemingly severed ties to Korean culture.
What she knows best is not Japan or Korea, but family. "There is an ideal for the family," she says, "but in places such as Japan, South Korea, and the United States, that model has been lost. The only thing we can do now is create our own original scenario."
Pub Date: 8/28/97