A Song to Imjin River

I first heard the folk song, Imjin River, when I watched the Japanese film Pacchigi, the Korean word for head-butt. The 2004 film took place in 1968 Kyoto, a time when the Korean resident youngsters living in ghettos had taken on a hostile stance toward the discriminatory Japanese environment that confronted them. In 1965, the Japanese government had recognized the South Korean government, but did not initiate any policy with the North Korean regime. In 1965, Koreans living in Japan were offered South Korean citizenship or remained stateless if they either supported the North Korean regime or adhered to their hopes for a unified Korea in the near future by refusing South Korean citizenship.[1] The film featured the gang of a Chosen (North-Korean affiliated) high school “butt heads” with the gang of a local Japanese high school.

Pacchigi opens with an iconic scene: A Japanese gangster had just ripped a young Korean girl’s school uniform with a knife as she walked home from school. Upon gaining knowledge of this, the Korean gangsters joined together to attack a group of Japanese students from the same school as the Japanese troublemaker. The protagonist was a victim in this group; he was a young Japanese student who would fall in love with a Chosen student. Somehow the gangsters had managed to get all of the Japanese students on to a bus, and then…they pushed the bus over.

Although I do not remember all of the details that would follow, our protagonist takes a little trip to the Chosen school, where he first sees his crush playing the song “Imjin River” on a flute in the small orchestra at her school. Other students had sung while this interaction took place. At that point in the film, I could not grasp the lyrics to the song since it was in Japanese and it had not been the focus of the scene, but it sounded very pretty.

It comes up in the film again later as the story progressed. The protagonist learned to play “Imjin River” on his guitar and to sing the lyrics. So, on the night that the Japanese and Korean gangsters would battle out their hatred toward each other, the protagonist symbolically took his guitar across the small river that separated his neighborhood from the Korean neighborhood, and sang “Imjin River” while he played his guitar. His sweetheart also took up her flute to accompany him while her family members watched them deeply moved. Then, I could capture the lyrics and the song’s meaning. I too felt moved.
“Imjin River” was originally a Korean folk song of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea made in 1957; however, it was popularized among the Korean residents in Japan when the Japanese folk group, The Folk Crusaders, performed it in Japanese, describing the pain that came with the division of the peninsula.
The version that The Folk Crusaders had sung is also performed in the movie Pacchigi. Also in 1968, a Korean singer performed her version of “Imjin River,” which was met with similar enthusiasm.

“Imjin River” speaks about the sadness that the Korean people experienced at the division of their homeland. A landmark that physically indicates the division of the peninsula in addition to the demilitarized zone, the Imjin River is far more symbolic and poignant because it flows just beyond the divide, where it can still be seen from South Korea. This is my loose translation of the lyrics: “Imjin River” asks who divided their homeland and laments that birds may fly freely from the North to the South while the Korean people cannot return to their homeland. They can only send their thoughts and hopes from the rainbows far in the sky to the Imjin River. They tell the river that they have not forgotten their homeland and will not forget their homeland as long as the Imjin River flows.

Although the relationship between the two Koreas wavers in uncertainty, I am sure that there are still many people who, upon hearing “Imjin River,” would think to send their hopes for unification to the river, reminding the flowing waters that they have not forgotten their homeland.

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[1] Ryang, Sonia, Writing Selves in Diaspora: Ethnography of Autobiographics of Korean Women in Japan and the United States, New York: Lexington Books, 2008, xxii.

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