The Red Ring and the Wrecking Ball

Every two years, when the Olympic institution plants its flag in a new city, speculators from metropolitan Lausanne meet with profiteers in the new athletic colony. They hover over the city map with carving knives, repurposing public spaces and re-zoning residences. Together, for the sake of a two-week event, they take over the territory, line their pockets with public resources, bring in outside workers, and push long-established locals aside.

On Yu Miri

Nakamura Hiroshi, Sacred Torch Relay. 1964.

Shot one: a white sun rises against a red sky, recreating the Japanese flag as an inverted film negative. Shot two: a demolition ball crashes into a support beam, shattering the bones of an old apartment building. By the magic of montage, it is as if the sun itself has swung out of the sky on a massive metal chain to clear space for a new city. This is how Kon Ichikawa’s 1965 film Tokyo Olympiad begins: with a national symbol followed by a mechanical crane, with a metaphor as subtle as thousands of tons of stone smashing to the ground. The sun rises, a weight swings; a relic falls, a stadium appears. Ascending from the detritus of war, Japan is finally hosting its first Olympic Games. It is a new dawn, and it is time to rebuild.

But this will take more than patriotic sentiment and modern machinery: it will take man-hours. For a moment, we catch a glimpse of Olympic construction workers in hard hats, stooping to dig out the wreckage. With the camera watching, one of them pauses, raising his head and looking askance through the dust, his gaze pointed just out of frame. Who is this laborer? We don’t know. Anonymous, he is himself an abstracted symbol: Ichikawa’s first Olympic hero, a physical competitor chasing his own dream. However high the cost and difficult the labor, this work guarantees a brighter future, for both the nameless laborer and the country.

Or, at least, that was the story of the Games that Japan’s Olympic committee asked Ichikawa to tell. Looking at Tokyo’s Olympic dawn, we could see this figure bathed in light, but we might also see him casting a long, dark shadow. The latter is what Japanese novelist Yu Miri sees; she has told the tale another way. Tokyo Ueno Station, Yu’s 2014 novel that was translated into English last year, gives a name to Ichikawa’s nameless construction worker. In January of 1964, Kazu has just arrived in Tokyo by train, leaving his home in Fukushima to take a job building sports facilities for the upcoming Games. For the next fifty years, he lives as an itinerant laborer, until Tokyo’s bid for 2016 drives him, now homeless, out of his tent in Ueno Park and on to his death. Tokyo 2020 finds him haunting the park as a ghost. Ichikawa’s laboring hero—promised a share of the prosperity of the new Olympic city—becomes, in Yu’s novel, an emblem of the Games’ human cost.

Yu knows these Olympic costs intimately. She is the grandchild of Yang Im-deuk, a Korean long-distance runner and Olympic hopeful who was forced to run for Japan when it occupied Korea. Born in 1968 in Yokohama, she is a second-generation zainichi Korean, a descendent of colonized Koreans living in Japan. That same decade, Japan received a new wave of Korean immigrants: the undocumented and underpaid workers brought in by criminal syndicates to build Olympic facilities.

Miri Yu found both success and controversy with her first two novels (Fish Swimming in Stone in 1994 and Family Cinema in 1997). Tokyo’s courts challenged her autobiographical fictions and Japanese nationalists threatened her book-signings. Refusing to acquiesce, Yu looked to her grandfather’s life and penned End of August and Tokyo Ueno Station, two novels that hinge on the history of the Tokyo Olympics. The Games recur in her work because she recognizes something familiar at their core: the power of the imperial sector and its impoverishment of the colonial sector.

With the new Tokyo Olympics taking place this summer—delayed one year by the pandemic, running up expenses of 30 billion dollars, opposed by four out of five Japanese citizens, and barred to international spectators—Yu is emerging as the world’s guide to the dark side of the Games. After the international success of Morgan Giles’s translation of Tokyo Ueno Station, next year Yu and Giles will publish a translation of End of August, a sprawling epic that begins and ends with the story of Yu’s grandfather. Like Kazu, Yu’s ancestor plods through the novel while alive and dead, running from Korea to Japan and back, then continuing to race into the darkness of the afterlife, where he can no longer see the rising sun of his imperial jersey on his chest. In these novels, the Olympics not only claim lives, but hold their claims on the dead as well. Nations continue to draw glory from runners even after their races have ended; cities continue to profit from laborers even after their workdays are over.

Together—amid psychological portraits of lost family members, comfort women, and exiled wanderers—End of August and Tokyo Ueno Station offer an alternative history of Japan that includes an alternative eighty-year chronicle of its Olympic Games. Throughout, Yu tells a series of parallel stories that jump across time and space, splicing together Olympic preparations with declarations of war, the chatter of tent encampments, and tides of radioactive floodwater. Through narratives personal and fictional, Yu writes of colonized athletes who trained in vain for the cancelled Tokyo Olympics of 1940, workers who left home to rebuild Tokyo’s international image in 1964, and tsunami victims in Fukushima abandoned amid the preparations for Tokyo 2020—an Olympiad marked by both the promise of reconstruction and the threat of cancellation. When the Games must go on at all costs, Yu reminds us that the poor and vulnerable—the workers, the displaced—lose, even as the country supposedly wins.

Consequently, Yu recasts myths of national resilience and reconstruction as memories of imperial power and collateral ruin. This is visible in Tokyo Ueno Station, in the uncanny coincidences that pit Kazu’s family’s decline against the endurance of Japan’s imperial house, and it is even more apparent in End of August, a postcolonial historical novel set largely in occupied Miryang. Across these works, the Japanese empire is a central fixation for Yu, but it is not the only empire in question. The red, rising sun is the fifth Olympic ring, one interlocking piece of an inter-imperial chain.

Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic games and choreographer behind most of its rituals, always gave two explanations for his Olympic flag. Revealed in Paris in 1914 but not used until after World War I, the flag was to be “a true international emblem” at the beginning of an international age. The five rings, ordered from blue to red, represented “the five parts of the world now acquired by Olympism” and the colors of all participating nations’ flags, from the Greek blue-and-white to the red of “old Japan and young China.” For all of Coubertin’s professed internationalist idealism, the rhetoric and the design are more revealing of the British empire’s influence on his thinking. The concept for the flag follows the same logic as the Union Jack, with the same ambitions of annexation stretched to global proportions.

Today the IOC presents itself as an international referee, but in reality it has been an imperial player. As an aspiring athletic empire, the IOC differentiated between the territories it considered potential subjects for “athletic colonization” (in Coubertin’s words) and those, like Japan, that could be potential political allies. Tokyo’s bid for the 1940 Olympics was mutually beneficial: the IOC wanted to bring the existing “Far-East Games” into the fold, and the Japanese Empire wanted to win back international favor after invading Manchuria and withdrawing from the League of Nations. As would be the case in 1964 and 2020, the Tokyo Olympics (following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923) were promoted at home as “reconstruction games.” Meanwhile, Japanese bid representatives bought out IOC officials and struck a pact with Mussolini to win the votes they needed.

Coubertin, for his part, hoped that a 1940 Tokyo Olympiad would unite the traditions of Greece and Japan and “seal the contract between the purest of our European civilizations and one of the most illustrious of Asia’s civilizations.” In the same breath, he foresaw one culture overpowering the other: “Hellenism as a whole will, for four years, occupy the thoughts of the Japanese empire.” But Japan hoped to display its own dominance and its own sphere of influence. By the early 1930s, Japan was recruiting and training athletes from its colonies, staging regional competitions across the empire and preparing local champions to run under the rising sun. Tripling the number of athletes it sent to the Olympics between 1928 and 1932, this imperial team began to win medals in major events. In 1936, at the infamous “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin, two Korean runners representing Japan took the podium for the marathon, with Sohn Kee-chung setting a world record and securing the gold.

As End of August documents, Sohn became an overnight celebrity and a dual political hero. His name “roared out into the world” as both Sohn Kee-chung in Korean and Son Kitei in Japanese. In Japan, Son Kitei’s victory was the culmination of a “twenty-four year hope . . . Our first world conquest!” In Korea, people cheered for Sohn Kee-chung as a rallying cry for independence perhaps “more powerful than all the bombs” of the revolutionary Heroic Corps. Recognizing the complexity of his place atop the podium, Sohn Kee-chung refused to acknowledge the Japanese anthem when he received his gold medal; clutching the gift of a young oak tree to his chest, he covered the Japanese flag on his shirt.

An entire chapter of End of August, “The Enemy in the Wind,” is titled after a Japanese flag that flies over the Busan Public Athletic Grounds, to which Korean runners must turn in deference. One of those runners is Yu’s grandfather Yang Im-deuk, re-named in End of August as Lee Woo-cheol. At first, Woo-cheol thinks of the flag only as a windsock, warning him of a headwind as he prepares for his run. He knows that a flag will tell you which way the wind is blowing; he has not yet put together what that means beyond the race. A few pages later, between heats, his friend Woo-hong opens Woo-cheol’s eyes, telling him of an alternative flag that neither has ever seen: Korea’s taegukgi, “the flag,” Yu writes, “my grandfather could not wear on his chest as he ran.” Under Japanese rule, any victory Lee Woo-cheol seeks will not be his or his country’s. Realizing this, he no longer runs for the sake of winning: he runs so as not to lose. Thinking of the imperial flag at Busan, he vows, on behalf of defeated Korea, “I’ll take the battle to the enemy in the wind.” After Sohn’s victory, Yu’s grandfather picks up copies of the special news bulletin, complete with celebratory headlines and patriotic poetry, to run them on foot and deliver them by hand through the southern peninsula. This is all part of his training for Tokyo 1940.

Yu has another set of Olympic ancestors; they don’t appear in the novels, but they, too, managed the demands of representing imperial Japan in a European contest. These were not biological grandparents but artistic forebears: a team of painters, sculptors, architects, and composers called up to represent Japan at the international Olympic Art Competitions. Though little remembered today, from 1912 to 1948, artists could win medals at the Games in five major events—a set of competitions dreamed up by Coubertin, who referred to the sequence as the “Pentathlon of the Muses.”

In the 1920s, Japan’s only representative had been the painter Tsuguharu Foujita, a star of Paris’s modern art scene, who served as a judge. Foujita has largely been forgotten in the West, but he was once as celebrated as Picasso. At the Paris 1924 Olympics, Foujita was not only an official competition judge but one of the stars of the unofficial “Olympic Ball,” a transgressive avant-garde soirée where he put on a stage act representing Japanese boxing and wrestling, both “masculine and feminine.” This double-act was typical of artists’ relations to the Games: some sought the approval of the Olympic organizers, while others took the opportunity to provoke international crowds from outside the institution.

By 1932, one out of every five Japanese Olympians was not an athlete but an artist, with the team featuring celebrated printmakers Kōshirō Onchi (father of the sōsaku-hanga woodblock-printing movement) and Shikō Munakata (who later won multiple international prizes, including the Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale in 1956). Overall, though, there were few standouts: as American curators noted, the team’s general plan of action was to submit works “in the Western manner.” The most popular sports in the Japanese gallery that year were rugby and baseball. Coubertin’s prediction of Japanese Hellenism might not have materialized, but a different form of cultural convergence was in the making.

Some indigenous artists found ways to defy the Olympic monoculture in the 1930s. At the Los Angeles Games in 1932, Acee Blue Eagle and Kathryn Leighton of the American Pawnee and Blackfoot tribes exhibited representations of pre-colonial sports and games. Artists including Romano Espinosa (Peru), Antonia Matos (Guatemala), and Graciano Nepomuceno (Philippines) depicted Incan runners, pirogue racing, or the game of Sipa. And some Japanese artists deviated from the Western strategy of their national team, rendering scenes on sumo, judo, horse-racing, or kemari.

But where did this leave artists like Jiang Wen-Ye, a composer from colonial Taiwan, representing imperial Japan? Jiang suspected that his identity had always barred him from top prizes in Japan, but at the Olympics he would have to compete under the Japanese flag and a Japanese name: Bunya Koh. Jiang titled his submission Formosan Dance (Taiwan no Bukoku) after his colonized homeland. Uniting European musical impressionism and traditional Chinese scales, the piece is hardly avant-garde in sound or structure, and its politics may have been too subtle for the all-German jury, but it stands apart by representing nations (Taiwan and China) that had no official artistic ambassadors. German, Italian, and Czech composers swept the music medals, but Jiang received an Honorable Mention, a distinction reached by no Japanese composer.

In anticipation of hosting the art competitions in 1940, Tokyo organizers set aside a number of exhibition spaces in the city, including the Tokyo Prefectural (now “Metropolitan”) Art Museum in Ueno Park. If other Olympic exhibitions from this period are any indication, a Tokyo contest would have captured some of the aesthetic and political diversity of Japan’s Olympic arts, within the country and across the colonies. But Japan’s military and cultural ambitions were at odds. As Japan waged war on China, the government refused to fund the Games. While the IOC would find a new prospective host in Helsinki, World War II canceled the event for good.

Berlin 1936 and Tokyo 1940 definitively destroyed the myth that the Olympics could, by way of cross-cultural exchange, ensure international peace. However permissive the art competitions were, the expanding cultural wing of the Games proved to be most effective as a platform for state propaganda. In one corner of the Japanese empire, Yu’s grandfather learned this quickly as witness to the miniature Olympic rituals of flags, speeches, and anthems that were part of his qualifying races. Yang Im-deuk, the model for the fictional Lee Woo-cheol, was a lock to run in Tokyo 1940, but the Olympics’ tenuous cultural alliance was no match for the material inter-imperial struggle to come. In End of August, Yu cuts together a series of headlines: her grandfather’s first-place Korean ranking in the 5000 meters in 1938 and the announcement that the Tokyo Olympics are canceled. Then she transcribes reports of the National Conscription Act in 1939 and the Japanese re-naming system for “internal unity” in 1940. Yu’s grandfather, now “Kunimoto Utetsu,” runs off “in the opposite direction to Sohn Kee-chung,” away from his country, the draft, and his family. The headwind proved too strong.

When Tokyo finally hosted the Olympics in 1964, its place in the world had flipped: Japan was no longer an imperial juggernaut but a recovering state, marked by reminders of its own occupation. Winning its bid in 1959, Tokyo was the most populous city in the world, but it didn’t have the infrastructure to service its ten million residents. Small, shoddy buildings had been built upon bombed-out foundations, and important sections of the center-city were still American bases. The Olympics changed all of that. Over the next five years, construction was constant. Around the clock and around the city, workers and their machines built thousands of new office buildings, new residences, and miles of highway, along with futuristic new stadiums and gymnasiums.

This period of reconstruction plays a pivotal role in Yu’s Tokyo Ueno Station. The narrator, Kazu, arrives in Tokyo at age 30 to work at the heart of its Olympic preparations.

Our job was constructing athletics facilities—the track and baseball fields and the tennis and volleyball courts to be used in the Tokyo Olympics. Although this was construction work, I never saw any heavy equipment like bulldozers or diggers, and we laborers down from the countryside wouldn’t have been able to operate those machines anyway, so everything was done by human force: we dug the earth with picks and shovels and carried the soil away in handcarts. Many of us were from farming families in Tōhoku. Everyone joked about how construction was just like plowing the fields.

Living in a company dormitory, Kazu puts in nights, Sundays, and holidays to send money back to his young family in Fukushima. After the Games, his employer sends him to Sendai to continue building athletic grounds, and one year away turns into twenty. His work gradually moves him closer to home, but not close enough. He’s digging out the foundation for Sukugawa City Hall’s tennis court, within Fukushima Prefecture, when he gets the news that his son, now an adult he has barely known, has died.

Yu’s depiction of the labor conditions around Tokyo 1964 could have been even bleaker. More than 100 workers died working on Olympic facilities, and some 2,000 were injured. Companies like Kazu’s were often run by organized crime gangs—the gumi—who moved laborers, managed dorms, and ran the bars and cabarets that Kazu describes. These gangs were largely responsible for the new wave of Korean immigrants in Japan in this period, as they trafficked workers from overseas. But before the wrecking balls could swing or manual laborers like Kazu could dig, political authorities had to force residents out of homes with legal threats. The expressways that took their place covered over or interrupted the city’s waterways, poisoning the supply and driving fishermen out of work. Acting on Olympic prerogatives, authorities gassed hundreds of thousands of stray animals and moved beggars and homeless people out of view.

The facilities Kazu helps to build and the processes of dispossession on which they depend ultimately give rise to the tent encampment in Ueno Park where he ends his days. Ueno Park first became a refuge for the homeless a century ago, when citizens fled the fires of the Great Kanto Earthquake and Emperor Hirohito gifted the land to the city. It remains one of the few places where Tokyo’s homeless can find shelter. We learn this history in Tokyo Ueno Station thanks to Shige, a homeless book-collector and amateur historian who is Kazu’s closest friend. Shige’s longest stories are of attacks against the empire, from the Battle of Ueno in 1868, where the Shōgita rebellion fell, to the American firebombing of 1942–45, in the empire’s last days. Throughout the novel, Shige is Kazu’s guide to the park’s many monuments and museums. Though Ueno’s Olympic history does not come up in conversations with Shige, one imagines readily how he would tell it.

In the run-up to Tokyo 1964, Japan wanted to signal support for the West while celebrating its restored autonomy after years of American occupation and cultural Westernization. Ueno Park played a pivotal role in that effort. The park and the surrounding blocks became host to the country’s arts displays under a policy called bunka gaikō, or “cultural diplomacy,” an effort to promote Japanese culture to foreigners. Across Tokyo, bunka gaikō resulted in old imperial and military facilities being transformed into new urban and athletic infrastructure, with the U.S. returning territory near the shrine of Emperor Meiji for the Olympic Village and National Gymnasium. In Ueno Park, organizers cleared the homeless population to make space for monuments, decorations, official receptions, and a “World Youth Camp.” At the adjoining Tokyo National Museum, curators put away European collections and exhibited “Ancient Japanese Art Treasures,” bringing in nearly 400,000 visitors. On their way into the park, Olympians, officials, students, and tourists passed by giant banners adorned with the rising sun and the five rings. As the first Asian Games in more than twenty years—facilitated by the U.S. as part of its anti-communist campaign—the Tokyo 1964 Olympics represented a transpacific capitalist coalition, and the arts events hosted at Ueno Park aimed to prove that Japan could remain an ally to the West while celebrating its distinct heritage as a bunka kokka: “nation of culture” or “culture state.”

As Shige might have pointed out, Ueno Park’s banners were a first: Tokyo invented the custom of decorating the city with a unique and cohesive set of Olympic pictograms, fonts, and logos. It was here that the allusion of Coubertin’s red ring took explicit form, when designer Yusaku Kamekura suspended the red circle from the hinomaru (Japan’s national flag) above the Olympic emblem. Designs like this one, though, make easy fodder for parody by dissenting artists. There have been memorable examples over the years, from a bayonet thrust into Mexico City’s dove in 1968 to the creative mutation that turned Tokyo 2020’s circular ichimatsu moyo design into the spiked ball of the coronavirus. Back in 1964, there was Nakamura Hiroshi’s painting Sacred Torch Relay, exhibited at an independent exhibition during the Games. In Nakamura’s painting, the hinomaru waves above a surreal scene of billowing smokestacks and oily waves, while humanoid torches run on their own mechanical feet and Kamikaze planes draw the Olympic rings out of fumes. Behind the curtain of the flag and the spectacle of the Games, Nakamura seems to say, is the same old militant nationalism and industrial excess.

Comparatively, Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad—the most famous artwork to emerge from Tokyo 1964—is understated, not quite an act of rebellion nor a piece of propaganda. His 168-minute epic—dwelling on losers as well as winners, loneliness as well as unity, conflict as well as celebration—was too artistic for the Japanese Olympic Committee, which had already dismissed Akira Kurosawa from the project in its search for a simple documentary. Ichikawa ultimately had to cut his work to 93 minutes, but the original project survives. In that version, Ichikawa continues to spare attention for workers at the Games, from cooks at the Olympic village to ground crews at the stadium. “They, too, are participants in the Olympics,” says the voiceover. With more than 100 cameras and 250 lenses at his team’s disposal, Ichikawa captured the Games from almost every angle, even if athletes, rather than construction workers, ultimately dominate the runtime.

Ichikawa’s masterpiece is the marathon. It is this twenty-minute sequence that captures the tension between success and struggle core to the film and to the Games. As the runners exit the stadium, passing under a subway car and into the urban outskirts, they start to drift apart from one another, taking on an increasingly internal competition. They fight to keep moving, to stay on their feet. Ichikawa’s runners do not always run; they walk, they cramp up, they stop for water, they fall to the pavement, and they get carried off in ambulances. Off to the side, a half-built high-rise stands unfinished, another crane waiting. Volunteers set out water and sponges; health officials run about with stretchers. Ten runners don’t make it to the end of the race.

The marathon is no less subtle as a metaphor than the wrecking ball, but it shifts the register of meaning from the historical to the personal. For Ichikawa, the race is a test of a filmmaker and his subjects; for Yu, of a novelist and her characters. The establishing shots, visual and textual, of imperial capitals and colonial satellites—of flags planted in city parks and foreign soil—are necessary to frame the contest, but ultimately novels like End of August and Tokyo Ueno Station do their work in close-ups, following the tired strides of individual competitors. Kazu and Woo-cheol are runners perennially on the point of collapse. With fewer cameras but just as many lenses, Yu records a country pushing its conscripted workers and athletes to the limits of human endurance.

And Yu knows something about endurance; she very nearly did not survive her childhood. Her father worked at a pachinko parlor and gambled his wages away at horse races; her mother worked as a bar hostess, eventually leaving home with her children. Facing her father’s violence, assaults from her mother’s clients, and severe bullying at school, Yu attempted suicide several times as a teenager. Expelled from high school at 16, she ran away to join a theatre commune, where she worked as an actress and assistant director. At 18, she formed her own troupe and wrote plays and essays about dysfunctional families and violence against and among zainichi Koreans. In the middle of the 1990s, not yet 30, Yu shifted from family dramas to family novels. Though she was met with critical acclaim, Yu was an outsider writing about outsiders: a child of a colonial family and a post-imperial state, reluctant to identify as either Japanese or Korean, living and capturing life on the fringe of society.

Yu’s early success as a novelist brought about two controversies, striking respectively at the heart of the autobiographical and anti-imperial dimensions of her writing. First, in 1994, Yu was sued by a Korean friend over her debut novel, Fish Swimming in Stone, because of a resemblance to one of the characters. By the time the Tokyo District Court ruled on the case in 1999, Yu had become a literary celebrity and the trial attracted commentary by major critics and writers. At stake was the fate of the shihshōsetsu, or “I-novel,” an established autobiographical genre in Japanese fiction that had found new life in Yu’s work. While many defended Yu, the newly laureated Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburō Ōe supported the plaintiff, explaining patronizingly how shishōsetsu-writers were morally required to run their work by their real-life models. Ultimately, the court ruled against Yu and her publisher, barring any further publication of the novel and assessing damages at 1.3 million yen. Her writing style and her ability to narrate the story of her life, not to mention one of Japan’s most important literary genres, were under threat.

Second and more significant was a series of physical threats levied at booksellers when Yu received the Akutagawa Prize in 1997. Ahead of a series of widely publicized book-signings, anonymous callers phoned bookstores in protest, threatening the use of tear gas or bombs to disrupt the events. At issue this time was Yu’s identity as a zainichi Korean. When the signings were canceled, Yu spoke out about prejudice against Koreans and the need for free expression, and the story exploded in the media, reaching even international papers. The scandal only escalated when a popular right-wing manga writer, Kobayashi Yoshinori, compared the public defense of Yu to the “silencing” of Sakurai Yoshiko, a journalist who had denied the history of Japanese soldiers abducting “comfort women” (usually from occupied countries) during World War II. The debate about comfort women that followed between Yu and Kobayashi drew Yu further into the public eye and into political opinion than she had ever ventured. By the end of the year, her views as an essayist had begun to eclipse her work as a novelist.

In between these scandals, in 1996, Yu agreed to do an interview on Japanese television with Sohn Kee-chung, the marathon runner who had been her grandfather’s inspiration and his rival. Meeting Sohn (now 83 years old) at Seoul’s Olympic stadium in South Korea, Yu was confronted with the political stakes of her personal ancestry. She recalls this event near the beginning of End of August, remarking at first how eager Sohn is to forget all that happened sixty years ago: “there is no need to say things that would trouble the ears of everyone in Japan.” Yet as Sohn goes on—relating how he must have “suffered the most of any man in the world to win a gold medal at a marathon,” and realizing that his “friend’s granddaughter . . . can’t speak [her] own country’s language”—his words strike her as a challenge.

I felt he was asking me back sharply    why are you visiting this country?    why are you in the Olympic stadium?    who and what are you?!

Those questions, Yu thinks, “became an ache.” They stuck with her through the court case and the bomb threats, demanding a new kind of work from her.

All of this—the legal challenge imposed on Yu’s personal fiction, the debate that compelled her to speak out on Japanese imperial history, and the questions posed by Sohn—resulted in End of August. Spanning more than eight hundred pages, written in bilingual script, and leaping across decades in the blink of a line, it is Yu’s most ambitious novel: her longest, her most political, and almost certainly her most difficult. The story of Yu’s grandfather and Tokyo 1940 is just one part of it. In the opening chapter, Yu summons a whole cast of characters at a séance, starting with Lee Woo-cheol and soon more extended family. Ultimately, she is called upon by the practicing mudangs—a Korean word best translated as shaman—to hold a wedding of spirits between her great-uncle and a young woman, a communist revolutionary and a comfort woman. Following through on that request, the text works to marry these two historical trajectories.

Appropriate to its origins, End of August provoked a scandal before it was even finished. The novel first appeared in simultaneous serial installments in newspapers in Japan and South Korea, but in March of 2004 Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, a left-leaning newspaper, stopped printing the story at a pivotal point. A 13-year-old girl, Kim Yong-fui, having made the mistake of trusting a Japanese soldier in her search for work, arrives at the brothel where she will be enslaved. Suddenly, Asahi’s editors stepped in to halt its publication, telling readers that they feared Yu would be unable to pull the threads of her narrative together.

Whether an act of cowardice or censorship on the publisher’s part, the interruption amplified Yu’s own doubts and difficulties in finishing the novel. In Chapter 2, “42.195km 4h54m22s,” she chases after her grandfather’s memory by running her own marathon, from Miryang to Seoul. This was a task Yu genuinely undertook as part of her training for the novel. “I’m running to write,” she thinks: “I felt that if I ran full marathon here     in-hale ex-hale     I could become one with this country’s landscape.” The chapter gives a form of punctuation to the rest of the text: here and elsewhere, Yu will break up sentences with the sound of labored breathing, “in-hale ex-hale” (su-su-ha-ha). At the midpoint of the race, a sharp pain stabs at her left knee, the surrounding muscles scream, and before long she cannot bend her leg. She questions what she is doing, what it means for her writing, and whether the work is necessary. Car horns sound, and Yu realizes she is in danger of falling behind the cut-off time when the city will end traffic restrictions. “I can’t do this!” she yells. Her coach responds: “Battling with the feeling that you can’t do it is what a marathon is.” The same might be said of writing a novel.

Spectators wait at the finish line: Yu’s readers expect an ending. As a stranger yells out her name, Yu realizes “it was in all the papers that I was running in this race.” Her reputation is at stake. Her arms flap like pages and she feels she’s “writing a book that nobody will ever open.” In the final stretch, her grandfather—summoned in the opening chapter—takes over as coach and pushes her through. Together, they make it to Seoul’s Olympic stadium, where Yu experiences what her grandfather never got the chance to. The crowd cheers the runner’s name, waving hundreds of red and blue taegukgi flags. It is only the second chapter, but she has passed the test of endurance. The full text of End of August appeared on August 15, 2004: the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, celebrated in South Korea as National Liberation Day.

Yu is not insensitive to the ways that the Olympics can inspire us. Her marathon is a testament to that, as is Sohn’s victory and her grandfather’s dream. But all three of these competitors know themselves to be, in the final count, challengers rather than champions. They are too world-weary to celebrate short-lived successes or idealize the institutions behind them. Sohn never ran another marathon after 1936: understanding full well that his success had become a political threat, the Japanese forced him to end his athletic career. Yang Im-deuk never made it to the Games: after a series of regional victories, the war ended any hopes of trading up to international trials. As for Yu, before she greets the cheers inside the Olympic stadium, she has to follow her grandfather (her halbe) into the silence of the tunnel.

I want to go to the other side of the tunnel    and tell him what I see there    in-hale ex-hale    in-hale ex-hale    halbe!     can I find what I’m after    like a dog sniffing the ground for a buried corpse    in-hale ex-hale    can I join together    those bones ground to dust    in-hale ex-hale    can I hear    the words of those gagged and killed    in-hale ex-hale    halbe!    can I    tell about the rumbling of war   answer before I’m asked    run through a city set on fire

Under any coliseum, there’s a catacomb. Sport is a diversion, a distraction, a circus. Athletics always hide the real story of victory and defeat out of bounds or underground.

Today’s Olympic winners are decided long before the Opening Ceremonies. They are, and have been for decades, the construction companies, the security firms, the TV networks, the athletic directors, the public officials, and the executive members of Olympic committees. These power brokers look a little different from the aristocrats of old, but their imperial character remains. Every two years, when the Olympic institution plants its flag in a new city, speculators from metropolitan Lausanne meet with profiteers in the new athletic colony. They hover over the city map with carving knives, repurposing public spaces and re-zoning residences. Together, for the sake of a two-week event, they take over the territory, line their pockets with public resources, bring in outside workers, and push long-established locals aside. Yu, a student of empire, recognizes the dynamic at play and directs our attention from the spectacle to the losers in the game. Look hard, she says, at what it means to “host.” It might mean losing your home.

Tokyo 2020 reveals the divide between the powerful and the public in especially stark terms. As in 1940 and 1964, Tokyo 2020 was supposed to be the city’s “recovery and reconstruction games”; Tokyo’s bid came just months after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that devastated Fukushima in 2011. Then, there was hope that these would be the “reopening games,” after the coronavirus pandemic pushed the Olympics back for the first time since World War II. Now, instead, protestors have dubbed these the “radioactive games,” a decadent and dangerous act of neglect amid the continuing fallout in Fukushima and a failure to administer vaccines throughout the country. After migrant workers, following Kazu’s footsteps, came to Tokyo from as far as Ghana, Turkey, and Vietnam to build new Olympic facilities, there are no spectators, foreign or local, to fill the seats.

Watching the preparations from a distance, Yu has been an outspoken Olympic critic. After several years of visiting Fukushima to interview survivors for the radio following the 2011 tsunami, Yu moved to the Tōhoku coast in 2015. In the last year, with English-language readers discovering the tale of Kazu’s journey between Fukushima and the capital, Yu has been telling the international press about a new crisis—a “reverse Tokyo Ueno Station.” With Tokyo’s Olympic building projects driving up construction expenses throughout the country, the “recovery and reconstruction games” have ironically made Fukushima’s rehabilitation impossible. Now, itinerant workers lose their livelihoods, their homes, and their lives not in Tokyo but in the north, where new infrastructure is needed but no money is left.

As a novelist and as a contemporary voice in the Olympic arts, Yu shows us what it’s like to experience sporting spectacles at this kind of distance. When Lee Woo-cheol in End of August hears the commotion that follows Sohn Kee-chung’s marathon victory when the news arrives all the way out in Miryang, he is half asleep, exhausted from training and work, and thinks there has been a declaration of war. Amid his training for the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo, he forgot that the 1936 Olympics in Berlin had begun. A few years later in Fukushima in Tokyo Ueno Station, not long before Tokyo 1940, Kazu sits on his father’s shoulders to get a glimpse of the preparations for a regional horse show and flag ceremony. Even with his future as an Olympic worker, this is the closest he will ever get to anything like a parade of nations. When Tokyo 1964 is underway, he recalls, “I didn’t see a single event.” He only remembers hearing the emperor declare the opening of the Games on the radio from his “prefab company dormitory.”

In pursuit of—or proximity to—the Games, the gravest danger is being pushed out of one’s place. After losing his Olympic hopes, his Korean name, and his eldest son, Woo-cheol tells his wife and children “I’m going to go for a run” and never returns. The false promise of the Olympics marks his final moments with his family: In his last conversation with his child, the two talk about running, and Woo-cheol imagines carrying him on the Olympic track as “Athlete number 962 representing Korea.” After the burial, he takes to the road, still trying to out-pace defeat. With a bitter sense of irony, he finds refuge at a bar called the “Olympic” among kisaeng courtesans, ashamed of what he’s become: “a long-distance runner who couldn’t make it to the Olympics, sleeping in a bar called the Olympic.” Kazu, too, leaves his family behind when he starts his work in Tokyo, never seeing much of his children: “I never went to their beginning-of-year ceremonies or graduations or to a parents’ open day or to a sports day, not even once.” In both cases, families put their faith in the Games, and the Games pull those families apart.

When the Games return to Japan in our time, the damage is done, and the divide only deepens. In 2006, Kazu finds himself evicted from Ueno Park when the Tokyo city government clears the homeless camp as part of its 2016 Olympic bid. A few years later, returning to the park as a ghost, Kazu comes across two large signs: the National Museum of Western Art has been recommended as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Tokyo is trying again for the Games in 2020.

Would we be targeted for reduction once the foreign commissioners in charge of World Heritage listings and Olympics selection committees caught sight of the homeless’s tents?

Kazu already knows the answer. It is the same bargain struck in 1940 and in 1964—the same interlocking interests, the same plans for the park, the same eviction schedule. If the maps are out, so are the knives. Two sets of imperious officials have agreed to clear the grounds of its local residents for the sake of its foreign visitors.

A softer, quieter demolition takes place here. There are no wrecking balls; there is no cinematic choir. The work of dismantling a tent, of “removing the blue tarps and disassembling the cardboard and pieces of wood that served as walls and a roof,” is done by hand. The materials of a hut, “all things that someone else had thrown away,” are returned to their former state: a pile of trash. The last job asked of the Olympic construction worker is to break down his own home.

The author would like to acknowledge scholarship by Noriko Aso, Jules Boykoff, Christopher Gaffney, Tracey Gannon, Kristina Iwata-Weickgennant, and Namiko Kunimoto—along with an early look at the new translation of End of August from Morgan Giles—that informed this essay.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles

More by this Author