Philosophy of the Working Man

Hwang Jang Yop's Memoirs - 12
 |  2010-01-25 17:47
Even before the first semester had finished, I got a letter saying that my brother had died. He had been suffering from a mental illness and no hospital would admit him, so he was treated at home but, unfortunately, died. Thereafter, I remembered some times when he had avoided work, saying he had a bad headache, and thought maybe his death had been caused by an illness resulting from the Japanese principal’s beatings. I couldn’t, however, prove it, and even if I could prove it I could not get the Japanese principal to take responsibility either.

It was a big shock to me, but I settled down again in time, and then wrote to my father. I told him that the working conditions were good and that I could take care of the tuition fee and living expenses by myself.

He replied, saying that my brother’s health insurance had provided them with some insurance money and that he was planning to bring his son’s widow, two sons and two daughters back to their hometown from Pyongyang. He added that she was a strong person and therefore could manage to move on.

My brother’s death was part of the reason, but in any case I was in a deep slump because I just wasn’t that interested in my studies. The more I listened to the lectures, the more disappointed I became; it did not feel suitable for me to study, because law didn’t fit my characteristics, and it had no depth. What is more, lectures on the constitution mostly consisted of praising the Japanese emperor. At least lectures on criminal code were interesting. The name of the professor was Makino, if I remember correctly. I also spent time in other lecture rooms listening to discourse on philosophy, logic, psychology, ethics and sociology.

However, earning money, like my seniors told me, was not so difficult. Back then all young Japanese men were out on the battlefield, so manpower was insufficient everywhere. While in order to get work one officially had to register with a labor agency, registry resulted in paying taxes and other troublesome requirements. So I did not register, and went to a labor market in Sibaura early in the morning whenever I needed money.

Where laborers hung out in the market, trucks would approach and people looking for workers would make their offer;

“We pay you six yen. Anyone coming?”

If one was satisfied with the pay, one got on the truck. Then, one would be taken to a cargo loading area or something similar and work all day. Working on the docks paid ten yen, but it was very tiring. I used to take six yen jobs and only tried the ten yen work once.

I had my breakfast at a restaurant where laborers usually went; it cost very little. I had to think about my health too, so I had my lunch at a normal restaurant, although it cost twice as much. Thus, one day’s work gave me my budget for food for ten days. I only had to work three days a month for my food, but I needed to earn my tuition fee, rent and some pocket money too, so overall I had to work about seven days a month. My rent was six yen, and the tuition fee was less than that. I spent most of the pocket money on buying books.

Ever since the Seoul abacus calculation competition I had taken part in during my commercial school days, I had been trying to control my eating and sleeping, since I believed that the weakening of the body strengthens the mind. While I was in Tokyo I ate about once a day. Maybe it was because I was still young, but it didn’t wear me out and I was perfectly healthy, too. I didn’t even bother to lie down when I slept. I slept sitting down. My blanket was black cotton. Even in winter I could sleep anywhere as long as I had that blanket wrapped around me.

I often fasted too. It may differ between people, but observing a fast and sleeping less reduced my desires and calmed my mind, which led to satisfaction. Occasionally fasting wore me out and weakened my determination, but as soon as I braced myself once again, thinking that I’d rather die if my willpower were that weak, I felt heat deep inside my body and the power returned.

There was a time when I lived perfectly normally for two months while eating only once a day. I even went on for 6 months once, only eating a handful of uncooked rice.

One thing I had always cared about was preserving my reputation, but after I started working on construction sites I changed. On a construction site, laborers had to show respect to the foreman. The foreman, however, treated laborers like his inferiors. Laborers just accepted it, and didn’t pay any heed to petty things like getting cursed at.

Dealing with cargo at a train station, we sometimes took apples and tangerines from boxes on the train. The foreman didn’t even question us regarding who ate the fruit; he just slapped every one of us. But it wasn’t done in a spirit of torture, forcing us to confess our wrongdoing. It was more like an indulgence. He slapped all of us once and it was finished. He didn’t scold us about it any further, and took care of it all by himself. Then everyone forgot about the slapping and returned to a friendly state.

There was nothing to be embarrassed of or hide among the laborers. Their lifestyle was very simple. Whether one was Korean or Japanese was not a big deal there. Workman and laborers worked together and got their wage for the day, and that was it.

I made a habit of saving on everything. I didn’t like working, so I sold anything I owned that could make some money like a coat or a watch. Even in such poor conditions, I always read newspapers. However, I felt that it was wasteful to throw away the newspaper after I had finished reading it, so I folded it a few times and used it as a notebook. However, if I were to write on a newspaper, I had to write bigger than the newspaper font. It really made me feel bad, because writing in a big font took up much more ink than usual. I completely economized. Things I could manage by myself like laundry, cleaning or sewing, I never paid others to do. After making a habit of this, I was able to maintain it from then on.

Getting used to college life, I became attracted to philosophy. I studied German classic philosophy with Western history of philosophy as the introduction, and spent a lot of time on Kant´s Critique of Pure Reason. Much later when I went to Moscow, I realized the importance of reading in the early days of one’s life. I wasn’t left behind in German classic philosophy among the Moscow University graduates there.

When there was a lecture or seminar on the state of international affairs, I always attended and tried to figure out how the international situation was moving. That is how I grew more and more certain of Japan’s defeat. As the war got worse for Japan, they tried to use a nominally “volunteer” student army to relieve it. It worried all the Korean students, but I didn’t pay much attention to it.

Then one day Song Han Hyeok, an old schoolmate from Pyongyang Commercial School came to visit me. He was one brilliant student who had never failed to be number one during the five years he studied in Pyongyang Commercial School.
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