The fifth in an award-winning series of interviews with Korean theater professionals, first published in The Dong-A Ilbo.
There is a word I occasionally come across when interviewing people in theater: “fate”. Some inexplicable force that pulls them into plays. And so fate is love. And the very word left Ishikawa’s lips as well.
“I returned to Korea in 1991. I’d been wanting to come back even before that, and even thought that I’d like to settle down here. When I returned, I felt that it was my fate to work for theater in Korea.”
The wheel of her fate was set in motion in 1985, when she chose to study Korean as her second language at college.
“I came to Korea several times while attending college and watching plays. My senior thesis topic was the Korean madang play movement. I loved them, but I was skeptical too—what was the movement up to, and what was art? There were a lot of slogans, and many had very similar styles. As someone who loved Korea, I thought it a shame that Korean mading plays were a bit lacking in artistry, stylishness, and beauty. But Theater Yeonwoo Company’s plays weren’t true madang plays, and they contained a combination of social perspectives and art. My thesis was mainly on Theater Yeonwoo Company plays.”
Who is this person, who’s been obsessed with Korean plays since she came of age? She is Juri Ishikawa, a Japanese translator, staff, coordinator, and interpreter, who has been bridging the gap between Korean and Japanese theaters for over 25 years since coming to live in Korea. I met her on June 26, 2017, at The Dong-A Ilbo.
Prior to the interview, she requested several times that I focus not on her personal details but on her works. I agreed. But the fact that a Japanese woman has been living in Korea for 25 years, working in plays, is unique in itself. Therefore the ‘who’ and ‘why’ seem as intriguing as the ‘what’ and ‘how’. And it is difficult to explain who she is now without discussing how she came to be here. So, as I told her during the interview, I asked her for her understanding in my deciding to introduce her before delving into her work.
1. First encounters
Ishikawa was born in Fujisawa, a city in the Kanagawa Prefecture. She attended elementary and middle schools in Fujisawa and high school in Yokohama. For college, she graduated from Wako University in Machida, Tokyo, with a degree in human relations.
I hadn’t heard of a human relations department.
“I went through a rebellious phase in high school. I couldn’t decide whether to go to college or not, so skipped classes occasionally and thought about life. About what happiness is and where it comes from. So I chose to study human relations, which was a combination of sociology and psychology.”
She was a member of school play clubs in middle school and in college. She mainly acted for the four years in college, starring in two plays every year. Some were original Japanese plays and others were foreign plays translated into Japanese.
What sparked the interest in plays?
“My father was a reporter, but his dream was to be a film director. Probably because of that, he showed a lot of films and plays to me and my younger brother (who is five years younger than her). My father also read a lot, and he used to lie down on his bed and read. When my brother or I went into his room, he would pick up one of the books by his bedside and read it aloud to us. The act of reading aloud is itself theater.”
Why did you study Korean as your second language in college?
“That’s also because of my father. His Korean friends and their families came to visit us often. So my mother started learning Korean first, and I thought I should start as well.
In the summer of 1987, her junior year of college, she visited Seoul for the first time. The heat of the June Struggle for Democracy was still in the air. The Japanese media had been reporting on the heated rallies and demonstrations in Korea, so her friends and family worried about her trip.
“I came to Seoul with those who were studying Korean at Wako University and stayed for about three weeks, mostly hanging out at the YMCA with Korean students who were studying Japanese. We used to explore Seoul in groups. After the official scheduled events were over, I traveled to Gyeongju and Busan by myself. Perhaps it was because it was my first time in Korea, but I was able to feel Korea’s energy, heat, and power. There were barely any convenience stores and fast food restaurants back then, but male Korean students talked about the democratization of their country rather than their own futures.”
She came to Seoul by herself for a month during the winter vacation of her junior year and during the summer vacation of her senior year and watched Korean plays in Myeong-dong and Daehangro. She paid for her trips to Korea by working part-time. And she decided to leave straight for Seoul upon her graduation from college.
She graduated in March 1989, and immediately followed through on this decision. Thinking that she’d need to study Korean for a year, she joined the Korean Language School at Yonsei University. But because her Korean was already great from having studied at Waco University, she finished level 5 in three months and level 6, which was the highest level, in another three months. (She said that she was only required to study a second language for two years but she’d studied Korean for all four years.)
Did she become interested in Korean plays because that was where her interests—Korean language and plays—intersected?
“As I said before, I thought about human happiness in high school. And I thought that it might be possible to think about a better society and life through plays, since they are an art form that is strongly related to society. Japan in the 1980s was in a bubble, and it seemed that the Japanese plays were direct reflections of the bubble economy. They were full of fantasies. But for me, that wasn’t what plays were. And I noticed the connection between plays and society in Korean plays, and that was very new. It wasn’t a matter of right or wrong, good or bad. It’s just that Korean plays had what I was interested in.”
Ishikawa found the attraction to Korean plays in Korean madang plays (folk plays), which were popular at the time. She was aware of the limitations of such forms of plays as well, and perhaps this is the reason she was attracted to Theater Yeonwoo Company, which tried to blend in artistic and social aspects. I wonder how many Korean students had such clear critical thinking and then went overseas to do field work and write a senior thesis like Ishikawa did.
2. Studying Korean plays
After she graduated from the Korean Language School at Yonsei University, she returned to Japan in the fall of 1989. But there, in November, she had a chance to experience a Korean play truly up close.
“Oh Tae-seok was putting on Country of Fire (based on a book by Park Bum-shin) at Parco Theater in Tokyo, and he was looking for staff members. I only worked with them for a few weeks, but we became very close. Theater Company Mokhwa, which was led by Oh, put on performances in Japan about twice a year, and I got to help out every time.”
She was only 25 years old. Could they have found a Japanese staff member as young as she was, with an understanding of Korean plays, and with fluent Korean anywhere else?
In 1991, she came back to Korea. With the sense of fate she’d mentioned earlier. But it wasn’t for plays that she returned to Korea. She came as a Japanese instructor for Sisa English Institute, taught in Jongno for about a year, and worked part-time after that. Prior to coming to Korea, she had worked for several months at the Tokyo Office for KOTRA (Korea Trade Investment Promotion Agency).
And there was another important reason behind her return. She had fallen in love with actor Kim Se-dong (54) in Japan while helping out at Theater Company Mokhwa. They married in April 1992 (they have a 14-year-old son).
In 1993, Ishikawa enrolled in the graduate program for Korean Language and Literature at Korea University. She enrolled in order to study under Professor Seo Yeon-ho, a theater critic and an elder of the Korean theater community. But she had no interest in the elective classes and classical Chinese. So she quit.
Then the following year, in 1994, the School of Drama at the Korea National University of Arts opened. Ishikawa enrolled in the very first class.
“It felt like the School of Drama at the KNUA was made for me. The tuition wasn’t much because it was a national university. There were more people who’d graduated from or dropped out of other universities than students who came straight after graduating from high school. There were departments of Acting, Stage Design, Playwriting, Theater Studies, and Directing, and I was in the Department of Theater Studies. In all, there were five of us in the class, but I was the only one to graduate after four years. And I was the only foreigner in the whole school as well.”
She also wrote a 20-minute-long Korean play titled A Typical Story. This became a part of an omnibus style performance titled The Way to Enjoy a Full Course Meal, which consisted of four short plays put on by Theater Yeonwoo Company and Theater Planner Eda, and performed in the summer of 1999.
To this point, if we compare her path in theater to that of an actor, she’d had only had a few small roles with little dialogue while doing chores around the theater. If we compare her to a director, she’d been waiting for a chance while working as a regular member of staff or assistant director. (This is why it seems right to introduce her early days as well, just as I would with other theater people.)
3. Becoming a bridge between Korean and Japanese theater
After graduating from the School of Drama at the KNUA in 1998, she translated plays for Japanese theater companies performing in Korea and interpreted for Japanese theater companies. In 2002, she translated Across the River (co-written by Orija Hirata and Kim Myeong-hwa), which was jointly produced by Korea’s Seoul Arts Center and Japan’s New National Theatre, Tokyo. This is a masterpiece, praised as a work that opened the era of joint productions between Korea and Japan. Translating Orija Hirata’s writing into Korean and Kim Myeong-hwa’s into Japanese, she said she worked hard to create harmony between the writing styles of the two playwrights. Ishikawa was a perfect fit.
There is one organization that must be mentioned when talking about Ishikawa. That’s the Korea-Japan Theater Exchange Council, which was founded in 2002. The council consists of seven theater organizations: the Korea Theater Association, Seoul Theater Association, International Association of Theatre Critics-Korea, Korean Playwrights Association, Theater Directors’ Association of Korea, Korea Association of Performing Arts Producers, and Korean Association of Stage Designers. The Japanese counterpart is the Japan-Korea Theatre Exchange Center. Since their founding, these two organizations hold recitation performances of the other country’s plays, publish translations of plays, and host symposiums and workshops. The current president of the council is Ku Ja-heung (former director of the Myeong-dong Art Theater), after Kim Yun-cheol, Shim Jae-chan, Park Myeong-seong, Heo Sun-ja, and Kim Gwang-bo. The council is preparing for the Korea-Japan Playwright Forum in September and the 8th Modern Japanese Play Recitation and Symposium to be held at the Namsan Art Center next March.
Since 2002, Ishikawa has been working as a special member of both the Korea-Japan Theater Exchange Council and the Japan-Korea Theatre Exchange Center, participating in all their events.
A scene from the invitational play Conversations in Several Ways (organized and directed by Lee Kyung-sung) performed by Creative VaQi at the 2014 Festival Tokyo. Ishikawa translated and subtitled the play. She said it is best for subtitles not to be noticed, but for this play she wanted to make experimental subtitles. When director Lee Kyung-sung agreed, she tried making patterns with the Japanese characters used in subtitles or had the subtitles scatter like flower petals and fade. This was a great success, leaving a favorable impression in the minds of the audience as a big part of the performance. The same effects were used when the performance was put on in Germany as well | Festival Tokyo (photographed by Tsukasa Aoki)
“In theater, there are no other organizations that have been cooperating as long as these two. The council was made possible because elders of the Korean theater community, such as Lim Young-woong, Kim Eui-kyung, and Park Jo-yeol, spoke Japanese and had personal connections with the elders of the Japanese theater community. It was founded to foster cooperation and exchange more systematically. That’s how the BeSeTo Theatre Festival was founded and is still in operation. (It is named after Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo, each of which have taken turns hosting it since 1994.) Theater exchange is people exchange—actors, staff members, and many people have to travel between the three countries. So it is difficult unless you are geographically close. Korea and Japan are geographically close and have a smaller emotional gap than they do with Western countries. That’s why I think the exchanges have lasted this long. The goal is to publish ten play collections each in the two countries, which means 50 plays from each others’ countries in total.”
The two organizations have published seven collections of Modern Japanese Plays in Korea and eight collections of Modern Korean Plays in Japan. Ishikawa translated seven plays into Japanese and five into Korean. When she did not translate, she proofread and reviewed the translations. (Since the organizations are non-profit, and depend on subsidies, most people who work for the organizations do so voluntarily.)
Ishikawa’s work, however, does not end with translation. She also creates subtitles when the plays are performed on stage. Occasionally, she coordinates and translates for the two countries. It seems safe to say that she does all the things that are necessary to facilitate exchange between Korean and Japanese theaters.
You must have your own principles when it comes to translation.
“To me, translating plays is like acting. Actors think about what the playwright is trying to say and act while thinking about how to express the playwright’s intentions. But when ten actors play the role of Hamlet, you get ten different Hamlets. When I translate plays, I think about how to express the author’s intended meanings as best as possible. But translations also differ depending on the translator. When translating Korean into Japanese, I imagine how this person would write in Japanese if he could speak Japanese. And it feels like I am playing the writer’s role while I translate.”
Ishikawa also works hard at the subtitles, saying that subtitle translation is different from script translation.
“People still tend to use translated scripts to subtitle performances, but I believe that subtitle translation has to be done separately. For foreign performances, there are ones where the audience is busy following the subtitles rather than focusing on the acting. When translating subtitles, you have to think about how to better show the actors’ acting and how to make the play itself stand out, in addition to expressing the playwright and the work’s intent. You have to make it as concise as possible and deliver the lines as best as possible. So sometimes I choose a different expression than the one the playwright used. I believe that allows the work to be better communicated to the audience. The best kind of subtitles are the ones that make the audience forget that they are watching a play in a different language and focus on the actors’ acting.”
Let’s hear a little more about subtitles.
“In the play A Typhoon’s Tale (written by Seong Ki-woong, directed by Junnosuke Tada), there is a scene where a princess of Joseon Korea and a young Japanese man are talking in their own languages. Since they are unable to understand each other, they use body language to try to get their meanings across. At first, we used subtitles for this scene, but I suggested to the director not to use the subtitles, thinking that it would be best for the audience to directly experience this uncomfortable but funny situation. Junnosuke accepted my suggestion, and I heard that the play was more fun because of the lack of subtitles for that part.”
It seems that her philosophy of the best subtitles being subtitles that should not be noticed has developed to the point of occasionally not using subtitles.
Her efforts have led her to receive the 15th Yoshiko Yuasa Prize in 2008, the only playscript translation award in Japan. This award is only presented to plays that have been performed, and this was the first time a Korean play has received this prize. The play that earned Ishikawa this award is General Oh’s Toenails by Park Jo-yeol, which was performed in Tokyo in 2007. Park Jo-yeol is one of her favorite playwrights. When talking about it, she humbly said, “The prize disappeared the year after I received it. Since Western plays have received the prize in the past, I think they wanted to give one to a Korean play that year.”
After this prize was discontinued, Yushi Odajima, a famous Japanese English literature scholar and Shakespeare expert created the “Yushi Odajima Prize” out of his own pocket to encourage play translators. Last year, Hong Myeong-hwa, a third generation Korean-Japanese and actor, received this prize for translating Park Geun-hyeong’s Generation after Generation and Jang Jin’s Welcome to Dongmakgol.
4. Korean and Japanese
I couldn’t not ask about the differences between the plays of the two countries.
In 2005, Ishikawa wrote the following in a piece titled “The acceptance of Japanese plays in Korea”:
“Korean theater people are surprised by the restrained format, the level of quality achieved through calculation of the tiniest details, and the thoroughness of Japanese plays; Japanese theater people are attracted to the sincerity of the themes, the primal rituality, the dynamic playfulness, and the rough yet deep scent of life in Korean plays.”
It sounds as though she is saying that Japanese plays focus on stillness while Korean plays are more dynamic. And these differences grow the more closely you examine the plays.
“There is more metadiscourse in Korean plays, while Japanese plays contain the philosophies of little everyday things. In Japan, many people began to write their own plays and direct them in the 1960s. In Korea, people started doing that recently. In Japan, there are huge groups of people who make plays and watch plays. Also, the genres are more diverse, from experimental to commercial and social plays.”
How about the training system?
“There aren’t many stage theater and film departments in Japan. Most people learn over the shoulder. I suppose you can say it’s an apprenticeship system or perhaps it comes from artisan/otaku disposition. There are a lot of people who turn to theater from different occupations. And there are many people in their 50s and 60s who serve as staff members or assistant directors behind the stage. And they are still respected. Compared to that, there are more people in Korea who have majored in theater. I heard that there are over 100 theater and film departments across the country. In terms of the learning system, Korea can be considered more advanced than Japan. But in Korea, assistant directors and stage directors tend to be very young, and there is a strong bias that people who couldn’t be directors stay as staff members or assistant directors. People tend to think the latter are just ‘sida’ (meaning servant).”
Korea-Japan theater exchange seems to be more one-sided. Many Japanese plays are performed in Korea (an article mentioned 20 to 30 plays performed every year), while not many Korean plays are performed in Japan.
“Many Japanese plays talk about the universality of life. On the other hand, Korean plays are related to the particularities in Korean society or history. That’s why you can see Japanese plays without a lot of background knowledge while it is difficult to understand Korean plays without historical or social background information.”
In Korea, many of the plays written by Orija Hirata, Koki Mitani, and Wui Shin Chong have been put on stage, and works by younger playwrights, such as Hideto Iwai and Shiro Maeda, have been introduced in the recent years by translators such as Lee Hong-i.
What changed after 2005?
“There are more Japanese plays being performed in Korea, and Japan began to show interest in Korean musicals and commercial plays. A Japanese talent agency called Horipro produced and performed Lee Gang-baek’s Dried Pollock Head.”
Lee Gang-baek is a playwright known for allegorical plays with elements of fairy tales and fables. However, star director Tamiya Kuriyama blew warmth into each character and stayed faithful to realism. And Tatsuya Fujiwara, who often played roles that gave off a lot of energy, played a character who was patient, timid, and feminine in certain aspects and received favorable reviews about showing a different charm.
5. Me and my dream
Ishikawa said, “I’m lazy, slow, and timid. Even more so these days. So I can’t work a lot. It feels like I’m growing more scared as I grow older. I didn’t use to be so scared when I was young…”
And she said, “I’m clumsy. I focus so much on what I’m doing at the moment that I lose sight of bigger things. I regret that I wasn’t able to do more things that I could have.”
But that’s her opinion.
“Ishikawa is seen as difficult in the Korean theater community. This is because it’s difficult to give her work. The main reason is that she doesn’t work on a lot of things at once. She focuses on what she is working on at the moment. In order to understand the writer’s intent, she reads the work again and again. She also studiously finds and learns the materials in order to understand the work. And she revises her translation several times to avoid mistranslation. That’s why her works are accurate and trustworthy.” (Myeong Jin-suk, a special member of the Korea-Japan Theater Exchange Council, Korean Theater June 2008).
These days, she sometimes hands over translation opportunities to younger translators. Are there people following in her footsteps? I asked. She answered, “There are more people translating now than when I’d started”, and mentioned translator Lee Hong-i and producer Ko Ju-young.
But I could tell without asking that handing over translation opportunities to younger translators was not something she did because she had tons of work and plenty of income. Considering the difficult situation the theater community is in, there is no way that translators are doing well.
“It’s hard. So I call myself an irregular foreign worker. Before, I was just Juri, but as I grew older, people started calling me unni and nuna, and now seonsaeng. I didn’t change at all, but now that I have higher titles attached to my name, it’s rather difficult to go work somewhere.”
But she also said that her dream of “translating a lot of great Korean plays and introducing them to Japan” has not changed.
Currently, she is translating Peer Gynt, which will be directed by Yang Jeong-woong of Theater Company Yohangza in December to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Japan’s Setagaya Public Theatre, and Tanha, a new play by Kim Min-jeong that premiered in Japan in the spring of 2018.
Lastly, I asked Ishikawa if she ever regretted coming to Korea. She plainly said, “No.” She has my respect for dedicating her youth to Korean plays.