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Mimicry and Division: Colonization and Language in East Asia


Sohyun Ahn

The story of the “shibboleth” can be found in The Book of Judges. After the Gileadites defeated the Ephraimites in battle, they waited at the corner of the Jordan River to catch fleeing Ephraimites (who were indistinguishable in their appearance) by having them pronounce the word “shibboleth” in Hebrew. As a result, 42,000 Ephraimites, whose pronunciation of the “shi” sound differed—and perhaps also those who simply pronounced the word differently—were slaughtered. The example of the shibboleth, which is a “test word” used to make distinctions regarding nationality, class, ideology, and so on, is commonly found in places of plunder and war, especially in East Asia, with its complex colonial history. Examples include Japanese words (i.e., the pronunciation of “10 yen 50 jun”) that were used to distinguish Joseon people in the aftermath of the Kwandong Earthquake and English words (under the assumption that Chinese people pronounce the “R” closer to an “L”) that were used to distinguish Japanese disguised as Chinese in the Pacific war. In this manner, in places where different cultures come into contact, language becomes a norm that operates as a principle of harsh exclusion.

With r:ead#4, we seek to address the exclusivity of language that emerges with contact between cultures. That said, not every contact between cultures results in characteristics of exclusiveness. In times of antiquity, Chinese characters were used in East Asia as written language, and while this aided communication in different spoken languages, it did not give rise to specific exclusivity or resistance. According to Karatani Kojin, language’s exclusiveness emerges when a nation in the modern context is formed and the concept of a single “language” or “standard language” emerges. Modern nations pushed out the “non-normal,” as which they regarded different spoken languages, and imposed unity by recognizing a specific language that could “be harmonized with written language.” And many nations began to emphasize the “exterior” as a means to maintain and reinforce inner unity; thus, imperialist colonization and plunder played a decisive role in creating the exterior image. The difference between the image of western language and the image of a minority’s language is not unrelated to the history of colonization. That is, the reason for referencing colonization in order to examine language’s exclusiveness can be found here.

However, we are not talking about colonization solely as a historical occurrence. The languages of a typical nation encompass the logic of exclusiveness and hierarchy irrespective of any direct colonial experience. According to Kojin, abstract concepts and ideas in most languages tend to be marked by written languages rather than spoken languages, and by loanwords rather than by vernacular. On the other hand, spoken languages used in everyday life tend to be rather vivid and specific, and tend to express subtle sentiment and nuance. Agglutinative languages such as Korean and Japanese added the endings of native words to Sino-Korean words and loanwords so as to “assist” the meanings of the words. Through this process, naturally, written languages gained priority over spoken languages, and Sino-Korean words and loanwords gained priority over native words, such that the gap between the language of the general public and the language of intellectuals gradually grew wider and wider. The hierarchy formed in this manner becomes the basis for an exclusion that is similar to the phenomenon that emerges from colonization. Thus, a person who uses a certain language becomes an object of admiration, and a person who uses another language becomes an object of contempt. People who are expelled because of language attempt to mimic the “inside” language so as to assimilate, but the language unceasingly differentiates. In this way, languages have become the languages of modern nations by eliminating and denigrating specific and vivid things, and they have embraced the logic of colonization. Above all, the reason that language resembles colonization is that it gradually becomes internalized and persistently resides in our thoughts.

This is the reason that we chose language and colonization as the theme of r:ead#4. While this topic is more likely to be the subject of research in the linguistic and historical contexts, we seek to examine this theme in the context of the art field because it is the result of a deep and lengthy internalization that cannot be explained through the lenses of causal relationships or influential relationships. We should ask why an old ideology that intervened in the process of the formation of a nation with a single language has persistently taken hold and continues to dominate our thoughts and actions. This phenomenon is in the domain of art because it is so relentless that it requires repetitive performance that proceeds like a gradual afterglow, rather than explanations that are delivered in a flash. I believe that this is an ideal inquiry for the Residency East Asia Dialogue. If we are interested in the “language connoting the inertia of colonization” rather than the “language used in the colonial period,” then this will be revealed in the process of intermixing different languages ourselves rather than in the process of studying distinct languages. In fact, when I participated in the program of r:ead#3 in 2014, I could sense various traces of colonization in the process by which the participants spoke in their mother tongues and the translators translated this into another language. This took form at times in vivid anecdotes involving their grandparents, at times in equivocal pronunciations, and at times in outdated vocabularies.

In r:ead#4, each artist’s language will become the subject of dialogue and the object of observation. Through the process in which East Asian artists, curators, and translators meet and speak in their mother tongues, we intend to draw forth our longstanding customs while raising the histories, ideologies, and sentiments that are suspended within those customs. We hope that our words become test words that are the opposite of a shibboleth. They will become a standard that tests the traces that could not remain as unified symbols, the words that could not become norms, and the stories of history that the words raise up and the vivid senses within them. Through these words, we will embrace something that has been excluded, give life to something that has been dissembled, and regain the original power of communication once possessed by language.

Standing at the Boundary of Language


Cho Jieun (mixrice)

I have never been situated within a boundary. For me, a boundary means an abstract state, or perhaps moments delivered through certain stories. There might be a boundary somewhere inside me. But I will need to go through many steps to acknowledge it since it is very far from me. It is better to say that I am ignorant when it comes to such boundaries. I believe that this is one reason why mixrice was initiated.

It hasn’t been long since I came to know about the very simple boundary between the North and the South. The boundary between the North and South is too concrete, and thus is rather abstract to us. In terms of the boundary between Japan and Korea, it is a past-tense boundary and an abstract boundary that we can recognize only after experiencing various times and places, and pain.

I met the poet Kim Sijong※1 at a cafe in Tsuruhashi Station in Osaka in August 2014. His grey hair attested to the many years of his life but luckily he was still healthy and hearty. I had requested the meeting because of my own curiosity, so it was quite short, with only time to share an awkward greeting and ask about his life of late. I had guessed that he would not know why I asked him to meet me. He would simply accept my request with the heart of a teacher because a youth from Korea had asked. I wanted to face the present that came from the past. He said that last year, he visited Jeju Island for the first time in sixty years. Now and then, upon returning to Seoul, I would recall his poetry anthologies and think about the soil of Osaka Castle that he dug in the dark. And I thought that perhaps he could dig the land, build a Joseon primary school, write poetry, and think about Jeju Island.

He is different from me. He has always stood at the boundary, contemplating it. He is a Japanese Korean Joseon writer who writes poetry in Japanese. He says that everything that evokes his childhood is based on Japanese. ※2

“The boy inside me is a boy with Japanese language.” “As Japan lost the battle and thus disappeared from Joseon, the land of colonization, my past—a past of fantasy— disappeared. The lost past was painful for the boy who existed inside me, and thus I felt guilty; my past was dark because there was no way to express it.”

Nevertheless, he attempted to write poetry in Japanese. He said that he “floundered.” But, at the same time, he said that “in order to extricate myself from the self under colonial rule, I had to cut myself off from the Japanese that the boy created.”

This is the nature of his boundary: rather than choosing language, standing within its boundary, and writing poetry in the situation of a “Japanese Korean,” but trying to maintain distance from the Japanese of the boy of his past. He stands at the boundary with these attitudes. By publishing poetry in Japanese, he broke away from Jochongnyeon, the pro-Pyeongyang federation of Korean residents in Japan. Also, by writing Poetry of Gwangju, he became estranged from South Korea. I believe that he collides into language using his body. Thus, his language is not a language of form like Japanese and Korean; instead, it is the way that the linguistic state his body is going through is revealed. In this sense, I would like to focus not on the kind of language we use, but rather on how to collide into language using our bodies.

In the recitation of Wen Yuju, the Japanese Taiwanese novelist who participated in r:ead#3, her power of speaking with her body made me curious about “grandfather’s song” and “grandfather’s language.” Although I tried to recall it for a long time, I could not remember what kind of voice and what tone of voice my grandfather had because my “grandfather’s language” is too faint. ※3
Only then I could imagine the “boy with Japanese language inside me” that Kim Sijong was talking about. In a halfway situation that is far from both the center and the boundary, I hope that it remains an act of fumbling for one’s boundary. This is my suggestion for r:ead#4.


  1. KIM Sijong was born in 1929 in Hamgyeong-do and raised in Jeju-do. He participated in the Jeju 4.3 Incident in 1948 and then stowed away to Japan. He writes poetry in Japanese and is engaged in cultural and educational activities while living in Osaka Ikuno. He was active in Japanese Korean literature activities, launching the Japanese Korean poetry coterie magazine “Azalea” and creating “Karion” with Yang Seokil in 1959. His collections of poems, including Niikata, The Poem of the Boundary, and others, have been translated into Korean. He writes essays serially about the passages from Jeju-do to Osaka.
  2. Oh Chang-guen, “Study on the Identity of a Man at the Boundary,” Umoonrongip, issue 45 (pp.37-59), p.43.
  3. See mixrice’s text in r:ead#3, <http://r-ead.asia/report-mixrice01/?lang=ko>

Sowing Small, Sowing Deep


Chiaki Soma

In 2012, r:ead was established in Tokyo. At the time I was working as the director of a large-scale art festival that aimed to “represent Tokyo, Japan, and Asia.” Bound by various institutional limitations, it was a place where the quality and quantity of a piece were scrutinized. In such a tense environment, mistakes were not tolerated. Needless to say, the fate of present-day public cultural institutions is to fight on behalf of localist municipalities and nations in intercity and international competitions, only to be harshly evaluated for attendance and festiveness of the programs.

r:ead is an attempt at sowing seeds deeply on a small scale, in a territory free of the obligations that burden cultural organizations. Artists, curators, and translators from four East Asian countries gather in the same place at the same time and engage in dialogue. They are both “neighbor and stranger” to one another, as they discuss their creations, societal contexts, and histories. We were not asked to organize this project. But we realized that in such a process of discourse, we turn over, relativize, and face our own history once again. Seeds of future works are softly sowed in the ground plowed deep by dialogue. At the end of the two-week conversation, all participants present on how they plan to nurture their sprouts. This is the program at r:ead.

r:ead is also a small and independent body in motion, shifting and evolving in accordance with its surrounding situations. r:ead was held in Japan for the first two years but for the third, thanks to Jow-Jiun Gong who participated in r:ead #2, it became a roving event in Tainan that traveled across Taiwan. Owing to the strong initiative of previous participants Cho Ji-Eun and An So-hyun, we were able to realize our fourth iteration in South Korea. This is a project traveling across East Asia, relayed by those who believe in its necessity.

Over the course of four years r:ead has brought new independent initiatives into being. With the inquiries cultivated at r:ead as its chief concept, Arts Commons Tokyo was established. Leaders of Tainan’s independent art scene followed suit. Furthermore, r:ead’s translation director, Kanoko Tamura began organizing the Art Translators Collective, specializing in the most important and challenging aspect of our program: interpretation and translation. These projects arose as a natural result of re-confronting local contexts and pressing issues through r:ead.

At r:ead we have an extremely simple, yet frighteningly laborious rule of communication. Everyone speaks in their mother tongue. This year we have situated interpreters and translators living between two languages and cultures, as the third creators/mediators beside artists and curators. This move explicitly raises the issue of language in East Asia. One of the major challenges of r:ead is to address the relation between art and language in the region, heretofore distorted by the inevitable translation into Western languages.

r:ead is not the type of project that has a political agenda, framework, and a budget. Rather it is a temporary community, which comes into existence solely because each participant feels its necessity. And it can only be formed by an accumulation of discourse. No one asked us to do what we do. Everyone involved has a direct connection to East Asia and is the subject of history, taking on the task of renewing the present. As artists, curators, and translators, we mediate otherness. As foreigners, we widen the site of this shared work. We sow the seeds deeply on a small scale. No one knows how they will sprout but we gather here precisely because we do not know, because we yearn for dialogue.

I would like to thank Cho Jieun and Ahn Sohyun who accepted the unstable nature of this project and made it possible to host this year’s eve¬nt in South Korea. I would also like to extend my sincere appreciation to our supporters at Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation, The Japan Foundation and to all artists, curators, interpreters, and staff who have participated in r:ead.

Always Standing on a Stage

Translation Director
Tamura Kanoko

r:ead strives to build a communication platform where participants can share and collaboratively address artistic and social problems specific to East Asia. At this program, we have decided to investigate the valuable presence of translators who stand between individuals, cultures, and nations to seek means of connection. I recognize that this is an extremely important issue that will determine the direction of r:ead as well as the future of contemporary art.

Translators are not invisible. They are neither stagehands nor robots. They are creators.

Artists and curators from Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan gather and engage in dialogue at r:ead. As a principle, they are encouraged to speak in their native language. Japanese/Korean, Korean/Chinese, and Chinese/Japanese translators stand among artists and curators to exchange words, sometimes going through a two-step process of interpretation. The task is extremely difficult and demands the full concentration and patience of everyone involved but by allowing participants to think and speak in their mother tongue, an authentic, high-resolution dialogue is made possible (as opposed to surface-level communication in English, which not everyone can speak fluently).

Needless to say, the translator’s skill determines the quality of dialogue in such a situation. In addition to linguistic ability, translators participating in r:ead must possess a wide range of qualities: deep interest and literacy in the arts, understanding of the program’s philosophy and the importance of discourse, and willingness to join the conversation alongside artists and curators.
When interpreters step outside the frame of language translation, they unleash their potential as translators in a wider sense of the word. They connect artist and curators to a variety of materials and ideas and enable the team to develop their thoughts into an extraordinary work (or a seed of an idea that will become the work). For instance, On Yuju and Ookawa Keiko who joined r:ead #3 in Taiwan from Japan, produced remarkable results by researching collaboratively and having countless conversations with curator Yeh Zoe, who participated the program as a Taiwanese/Japanese interpreter.

Of course, there is the notion that translators should work behind the scenes. It is true that the personal opinions of translators should not be reflected in their output and there are times when robots or computer programs suffice. However, in interpretation, an interpreter first takes in the spoken content of the source and then communicates it to the listener, producing utterance from their own body. From the moment the words are processed through a body of an interpreter, it is inevitable that their physical features (tone of voice, gestures), knowledge and experience, and ways of thinking influence the information they convey. To pretend as though such factors do not exist, is to do injustice to the speaker and listeners who are also bring their bodies to be present in the situation. It is my opinion that the genuine task of a translator is to consider how best to take in the speaker’s words, comprehend, reorganize, and deliver the content to others.

I would like to view such an act of genuine translation as a mode of creative expression.
To express is not necessarily to state one’s opinion. Rather, it should be a means to suggest new ways of looking at the world by questioning values, shifting perspectives, and changing forms. If the translators fail to notice them, words die inside a body without ever seeing the light of day. But when they do notice, the words find connections with others and shine brightly. Picking up the words as they are being exchanged and using all one’s might to convey those words, to face the issues alongside artists and curators. Are those not the activities of a creator? To carefully examine and make visible the language seized by authority, the contorted borders, and the personal stories that fall outside of hegemonic narrative of history. These are the tasks that have been undertaken at r:ead.

Artists, curators, and translators arrive equally prepared to take risks and honestly exchange opinions from their respective standpoints. Together, they give a word, name, and shape to the unforeseeable future, the people living in obscurity, and the hope existing between the unknown. That is how r:ead should be as a communication platform. It is a special form of expression that can only exist in this environment where people from four East Asian countries live under one roof.

As someone who only understands English and Japanese, I feel powerless at times. But as the translation director of r:ead, I would like to bring myself on stage, listen closely to the words being exchanged, and witness the expressions that come into being as I explore my connections to the world.