The newspaper reported sad news recently that music producer and composer Kazuhiko Kato, 62 years old, was found dead at the Karuizawa hotel in Nagano. The cause appeared to be premeditated suicide. I vaguely remember him as a member of the popular Folk Crusaders group in the late '60s that hit Japan, first with the best selling record "I Only Lived Twice", a parody of James Bond’s "You Only Live Twice". The group's second song "Imjin River" impressed the fans but because the song originated in North Korea, sales and performances were voluntarily suspended because Japan had no diplomatic relations with North Korea or DPPR. My whole family moved to the U.S. in the early '70s so I lost touch with the Japanese music scene.
Stuck in my memory, however, is the name "Imjin", the name of the river flowing in the DMZ between the two Koreas and the name of the fierce battleground of the Korean War (1950-1953). While in the U.S., I befriended a number of Japanese Americans who fought in Korea, including some Japanese who obtained U.S. citizenship and U.S. education as veterans of the Korean War. One of the photos I obtained from one of them shows a Korean father in "paggi" and his son in trousers, carrying hay, towering above them on their backs, crossing the frozen Imjin River. The photo was somewhat poetic, reflecting the postwar respite, and very symbolic of the country, burdened with recovery after the war.
When I read about composer Kato, my memory of Imjin River returned and I wanted to explore what happened after the song came out during the years I was away from Japan (1970-2000).
There was not a whole lot of information. Nothing had changed much between Japan and DPPR. The diplomatic relations actually got worse when the issue over Japanese abductions got so contentious, talks essentially came to a halt. Exploring on Google, some facts were revealed and changed my preconceptions. Another Folk Crusade member, Takeshi Matsuyama, grew up in Kyoto in the neighborhood of Korean Town, playing soccer with Korean children. One day Takeshi heard a pretty song coming from the nearby pro-Pyongyang Chongryong school (there are a little over 200 such schools throughout Japan, getting subsidies from DPPR) and asked his friend to translate it into Japanese. Takeshi Matsuyama, together with the late Kaz Kato made it part of their repertoire. After the song was banned, Takeshi Matsuyama wrote a novel inspired by the song.
Amazingly Takeshi Matsuyama’s story was adapted into a movie called Pacchigi! (Korean title meaning "We shall overcome some day") with "Imjin River" as the theme music, directed by Kazuyuki Izutsu. The movie picked up many accolades in 2007, including Best Film at the Japanese Blue Ribbon Awards. It is a serio-comic Romeo and Juliet romance set in Kyoto in the '60s, starring Shun Shioya as a naive high school boy and Erika Sawajiri as the cute-but-tough "zainichi" (ethnic Korean living in Japan) girl with whom he falls in love. This year, a stage version with the same director and music opened and it is being well received. The play has a new set of actors and actresses, both Japanese and Korean, at the New National Theater in Tokyo.
To conclude, let me introduce Pak Se-yeong (1902-1989), songwriter of "Imjingan", born in Kyeonggi-do, the most populous province in South Korea which includes Seoul, who became famous as the writer of DPPR's national anthem. (Ko Jonghang's name is given as the composer of Imjingan)
Birds come and go and freely commute
But I can't follow birds to my own town despite my yearning wish
Birds sadly sing in the reed marsh 'cross the river
People suffering lean crop and digging grass roots
Kolkhoz blessing us with golden rice crop and dances o'er the river
Nobody can block the river flow and surge
The second verse is interpreted as Pak's glorification of DPPR. It just so happens that not long ago the Imjin overflowed and flooded towns downstream. Half a dozen Southern Koreans died. Countering a South Korean claim that the cause was a dam water release, DPPR reportedly stated that it was unintentional.