The Passer

By William Wetherall

A high school student insists on using his real name

Began 1983, last revised 1993 (4,200 words)

Placed 17th in 1983 Asiaweek Short Story Competition.

The Passer

By William Wetherall

Kaneda Mitsunaga perched on the edge of the butt-worn seat of his hardwood desk and fingered the hole that had held an ink well when his parents had been in high school. His homeroom teacher was calling the first roll of the new term while the dusty window panes on the north side of the classroom rattled in their unpainted frames.

"Hashimoto Tomoko san!"


Everyone looked at the pimple-faced girl who had stood and bowed. Kaneda decided that she was not too plain and might even be pretty.

"To-mo-chaaan," cried the lanky boy sitting next to him.

The class, even Kaneda, erupted in laughter at the mimicry of a lovelorn boy begging for a girl's attention. Tomoko sat back down without raising her face. Her ears were crimson, and her pimples had vanished in the flush of her cheeks.

Some wind-whipped rain suddenly lashed at the windows. Kaneda looked at the streaked panes and met the eyes of the class clown.

"Hayashi Ken'ichi kun," the teacher called.

The rattling of the windows amplified the silence.

"Hayashi kun?" the teacher repeated, looking around the room.

"It's Rim. Rim Hyoil."

The feeble voice had come from the back of the room. The boy who had stood and bowed remained standing. He glanced in the direction of the clown then averted his eyes.

"Rin what?" the teacher said with a frown.

Some of the students began to giggle. The clown moved his head in a circle, a hawk about to swoop on a field mouse caught without cover, Kaneda thought.

"Ri-mu," the boy said. "Rim Hyoil. It's Korean."

"Here he comes, boys and girls! He's riding fast, he's riding hard! It's time for excitement and adventure with the Kimchi Kid and his Garlic-Eating Riders!"

The clown's parody of the popular TV hero triggered another round of pandemonium. Kaneda the chameleon, eager to blend in, laughed even louder than before.

"That's enough," the teacher shouted.

Order returned, but the teacher's frown had deepened.

"We'll call you Hayashi Ken'ichi," he said.

When Rim did not protest, the teacher continued taking the roll.

"Kaneda Mitsunaga kun!"


Kaneda's camouflage, long worn and well adapted, concealed from every bird of prey the racing of his pulse and the pain in his stomach.

"Hey, Kaneda! Write something."

The class clown's command echoed off the walls of the empty gym. He and several other boys, still in their shorts and basketball shoes, formed a ring around Kaneda, who had just come out of the locker room after changing back into his coal-black uniform and cap.

"Well?" said the clown, taking two cans of spray paint out of an athletic bag.

Kaneda just stood there, eyes straight ahead on the clown's Adam's apple. The clown raised one of the cans above Kaneda's cap and painted its patent-leather visor white. He aimed the nozzle of the other can at the center of the visor, pressed the button, and held it down just long enough to make a solid red circle.

The other boys snapped to attention, saluted, and began singing the national anthem.

"There's enough left for you to paint a message to Hayashi," the clown said. "Or maybe you'd like a nice red and white jacket."

The clown aimed both cans at Kaneda's chest and grinned.

"Okay, I'll do it," Kaneda said.

The clown thrust the cans into Kaneda's hands, which shook when the clown released them and said, "The locker room."

Kaneda headed for the boys' locker room. A couple of the other boy's swaggered ahead of him. The others ran flank or followed.

"The nastier the better," said the clown, right beside Kaneda.

Kaneda stumbled into the locker room., followed by the others. Seeing a chair, he pulled it into the showers, mounted it, and emptied the can on the ceiling. Even the clown gaped at the boldness of the sprawling words.

"You must know something we don't," the tall boy murmured at length. Kaneda, averting the clown's eyes, turned his back and walked away, trying to convince himself that he was no longer in a cage.


No one said a word as the acned girl set the vase on the empty desk. The flowers she had picked herself from a field near the school. Some other girls had helped her, but she alone had arranged the bouquet of forget-me-nots and clovers that held Kaneda's sleepless gaze. Even the clown watched her fingers in spellbound silence, the better to reflect on his own discomfort with Rim Hyoil's death. Many of the students were sniffling now that the girl had begun to weep.

Rim had been discovered at sunrise, under the bleachers near the volleyball courts, hanging from the neck by his own belt. But the police had not found any notes. Some cash had been stolen from the principal's office, but no suspects emerged until an outbreak of graffiti had blamed the theft on "the protruding nail who dislikes his Yamato name." It was little consolation to Kaneda that the words had not been his.

The next day, the entire class attended the funeral at the crematorium. Rim's relics were consecrated in a glazed white ceramic urn, placed in a natural paulownia box, wrapped in a white silk cloth, and set on a simple altar in front of a large portrait cornered with black ribbon. Kaneda, whose turn had come to kneel before the altar and offer some incense, felt transfixed by Rim's eyes. From whatever angle he looked at them, they seemed to focus on his.

He fought back the tears that threatened to spill down the face of his trembling dam, an unyielding mien that more than once had saved him from a flood of self-contempt. Kaneda Mitsunaga, son of a passer, heir to an ethnic closet, in this world and probably the next. But no mask wearer he, in life or death, whose charred bones had just been passed with fresh-cut bamboo sticks from mother to father and brother to sister.

Only Rim's family had witnessed the burning of his encoffined body. Kaneda stood outside with the others, wordless in the morning sun. The tall chimney gave the place the appearance of a public bath enclosed by a small woods. The early poets extolled the clouds that solemnly shrouded the funeral pyres of antiquity. But Rim Hyoil's sky was clear when the smoke from his smouldering soul rose colorless through the pines, and drifted into the slipstream of a white heron's soaring wings.-2-

Kim Kwangsu, alias Kaneda Mitsunaga, struggled against the acceleration that seemed to be sucking him into his seat. From the tail window beside him, an excited Takano Reiko watched the receding lights of the Golden Gate, but prayed to herself that all would go well. Kwangsu found her jubilance difficult to emulate, knowing how it might wane when they landed in Tokyo and she found out who he was.

"Mitsu?" She squeezed his hand.

"Yes?" He managed to smile.

"I wired my parents that we'd be arriving at Haneda," she said apologetically.

"I thought we agreed not to tell them," he sighed.

"But father wants to meet you," she argued. "Besides, he can help with the bags."

He had no idea how she would react when she learned that he was not Japanese. The presence of her family could complicate matters. But swallowing the saliva that had pooled in his mouth, he resigned himself to the inevitability of a small welcoming party.

"I want to meet him too," he assured her, with more certainty than he felt. "I just didn't want him to waste his time at the airport."

Reiko, an only child, had told Mitsunaga that her father might want him to adopt her family name. "You can become a Takano," she said, "and let your little brother carry on the Kaneda line." But when Kwangsu agreed, she laughed that her father wasn't that feudal, and teased him for being so gullible.

Kwangsu and Reiko had met in a graduate anthropology seminar at the University of California at Berkeley. They sometimes lunched together, but neither saw the casual dates as more than breaks in their native tongue from the real and imagined rigors of overseas life. The turning point had come when she sought his advice on ending her engagement to marry a Korean student who came from the peninsula and had only one name, Pak Songhui.

"What would you do if you were in my position?" she had asked him.

"A Japanese woman who wants to break up with a Korean man?"

"Yes, but in America. And speaking English."

"Same as I'd do if speaking Japanese in Japan, or Korean in Korea," Kwangsu had replied. "Just tell him how I felt."

The "counselling" as Reiko had dubbed their meetings continued almost daily, until they found themselves talking more about each other. One time Kwangsu asked what her parents had thought about her going to America.

"Both were apprehensive," she told him. "They worried about my safety. I joked that I would find a husky American boyfriend to protect me. Mother laughed that then I would need another bodyguard. Father humorlessly warned me not to do anything that would shame our ancestors."

As Kwangsu unfastened his seatbelt, he wondered how Reiko's father would feel about him. Would he place the social survival of his family ahead of its ethnic purity? He would certainly balk at adopting a son- in-law with an un-Yamato name like Kim Kwangsu. But he might overlook the origins of one who agreed to be known as Takano Mitsunaga. Even the Imperial Family had once secured its male heirs through immigrants from the peninsula. That, of course, was centuries before the myth of homogeneity.


The plane leveled off on the great-circle route that would take it over the Pacific, north to the Aleutians, south to Japan. Kwangsu studied the reflections of Reiko's face in the double plexiglass window. She seemed to be gazing at the Milky Way, but was pondering something closer to earth.

"Reiko?" He nudged her arm.

"Yes?" She turned her head and smiled, but her eyes remained lightyears away.

"Would you like something to drink?"

A stewardess was working the beverage cart down the aisle, too slowly for Kwangsu, whose mouth was now dry.

"Do they have champagne?"

"The beverage of romance," he replied with approval, then ordered a bottle from an exasperated stewardess who fumbled with a stubborn cork. When finally served, Kwangsu returned his attention to Reiko, who was less spacy but still adrift, and proposed a toast.

"To our return."

He wondered if it was proper for a Korean to "return" to Japan. More fitting, he thought, than for him to return to a "homeland" he had never seen.

"To our return," Reiko repeated.

Kwangsu searched her cryptic eyes, now back on earth, for clues to where they had been.

"What were you staring at out there?" he finally asked.

"Our future," Reiko replied, as though prepared for the question.

"So far away? So dark?"

She smiled and sipped some champagne.

"It depends."

"On what?"

"If you like my father."

"Why shouldn't I like him?"

"You haven't met him," she said. "You have no idea who he is or what he's like."

Reiko's voice was earnest, but Kwangsu recalled how she had cajoled him about his becoming an adopted son. Maybe he should change his approach and joke about something that truly disturbed him.

"He hasn't met me either," he laughed. "For all he knows, I'm a Korean in disguise."

"Is that supposed to be funny?"

Kwangsu was puzzled by Reiko's frown, but then he remembered.

"I'm sorry. I forgot."


"About Songhui."

Reiko said nothing, but Kwangsu knew that he had upset her. She and Songhui had broken up over a year ago, and as far as he knew they had not kept in touch. But maybe she had left him reluctantly, he thought. Perhaps her parents had been opposed to an international marriage, and she had decided that love was less important than filial piety. So her father might really be coming to the airport to confirm that she wasn't bringing home an embarrassment to the family. Or maybe he did hope to adopt Mitsunaga, and wanted to welcome him home as he might a real son.

"The Emperor has decreed that you must use a Yamato name," the captain announced in a booming, unrelenting voice. "So you are now Kaneda Mitsunaga."

Kwangsu's face twisted with an uncontrollable rage.

"I'm Kim Kwangsu, the first son of Kaneda Kohei, who is the son of Kim Hosik," he sternly protested.

"That's illogical!" the captain screamed. "How can the son of a Kaneda be a Kim? Or the son of a Kim a Kaneda? And why would your father take a name that your grandfather would not have approved? What kind of son are you not to follow your father's example, and join the Great Yamato Race?"

"My name is Kim Kwangsu!"

Your name is Kaneda Mitsunaga!"

The captain had Kwangsu tied to a post and lashed.



Kwangsu winced each time the whip sliced into his scarred back. Every lash brought more pain until his vision began to blur and he slipped into a traumatic sleep.

When brought before the military police, Kwangsu was struck by the captain's eyes, which glared at him like those of a vengeful ghost. Then the face, too, took on the appearance of someone he had known. But Rim Hyoil had not been born when the Japanese Empire had forced all of its colonial subjects to Yamatoize their names. For that matter, neither had he.

Jolted awake by a windshear that tossed the plane like a butterfly in a chimney draft, Kwangsu looked around to confirm where he was. His tears, had someone been looking, were lost among the beads of sweat that poured from his temples and brow.

He wiped his face and looked at Reiko. She too had been jarred awake, but from a deeper sleep. Rubbing her eyes, she avoided his. Still brooding, he thought, about what he had said of Koreans in disguise.-3-

Kwangsu recalled how he had arrived in America when Roots was topping the bestseller lists. He started reading his roommate's copy, but it took the power of the TV drama to overwhelm his self-deceipt and force him to think of who he was. What moved him most was the way that Kunta Kinte had rejected the slave-name Toby, despite the torture he knew such defiance would bring him. Tears welled in Kwangsu's eyes, and his lips had begun to quiver. Only the stares he feared he would draw from the other students in the dorm's TV room had kept him from losing control.

Though Roots had helped him come to grips with the self-pity that compromised his pride, he continued to pass. He could not pretend that discrimination did not exist, that Yamato attitudes toward Koreans and other minorities were not oppressive for those who refused to acquiesce in the belief that by passing they become as pure as those who would reject them if they did not.

The Japanese Empire no longer existed. No laws or guns forced him to stay in the ethnic prison where history had first put his father and then himself. But unlike his parents, first-generation passers who had assumed new identities as adults, Kwangsu's self-denial had been socially implanted from birth, long before he had learned of his other self, the self which if acknowledged now would make him an object of scorn among those whose biases he himself had embraced.

If he wanted to enjoy the safety of myth in the mainstream, he knew he must keep passing. But the price of passing had proven to be a gnawing self-hatred, and a painful awareness that he was doing his Yamato friends the greatest possible favor by not being a Korean in a country that did not want any minorities under its cherry blossoms. Nevertheless, the pressure to remain a second-generation passer had been so great that in America, too, he had felt compelled to continue his natal state of ambiguity, a Korean gypsy afraid to signal his hidden identity even to other Koreans from Japan.

Though it hurt him to yield to Yamato whips, he had come to realize that the most painful lashings were of his own hand. External enemies could be defeated. The wounds they inflicted would close and heal. The pain would become an itch, and the itch would subside and be forgotten. But routing those spiritual traitors within entailed a running battle with himself. A life of chronic self-injury. An introverted drama behind a name that curtained his very soul.

But what was in a name? Could someone born Kim Kwangsu, by any other name be so proud? Could Kaneda Mitsunaga be Korean? Could Kim Kwangsu be Japanese?

If Kwangsu had learned anything in America, it had been that there were more species of Koreans in the world than he had ever dreamed of. North Koreans, South Koreans, in Korea, Japan, Thailand. Korean, Japanese, English, and Tagalog speaking Koreans. Korean Chinese, Korean Soviets, Korean Americans, Korean Japanese. Christian Koreans, Confucian Koreans. Free Koreans, imprisoned Koreans. Lost Koreans, found Koreans. Baseball heroes, yakuza bosses, doctors, novelists, popular singers, company presidents, prostitutes, taxi drivers, journalists, illegal aliens, teachers, janitors, and spies. And Koreans even came in different colors.


The first contractions of labor came as the plane began its approach on Haneda. Kim Kwangsu, conceived in the body of Kaneda Mitsunaga, awaited his own delivery. Impatient to be born, his fetus vigorously kicked at the womb that nourished his new soul. The excruciating pains of giving birth to himself. The anxious anticipation of breathing free, of walking alone, of discovering integrity and pride in a hostile world. Of revealing to the woman he loved that priceless emblem of his existence, his name. If only she would understand why he had so long concealed it.

The American college never had reason to know that Kaneda Mitsunaga was an alias. All of his transcripts from Japan had shown his passing name, duly recorded on his Alien Registration Certificate, issued by the Japanese government, which encouraged the use of Yamato names by Koreans, Chinese, and other minorities in Japan. The airlines, too, had checked him in as Kaneda Mitsunaga, for his Korean passport gave his Yamato alias along with his legal name.

At San Francisco International, though, Kwangsu had worried that Reiko, who was standing behind him, might see that his passport was different from hers when he showed it to the check-in clerk. And he was about to excuse himself and let her go ahead of him, when suddenly she jumped to a second line that had just opened up.

"Whoever gets to the counter first can sit by the window, okay?" she had said with an impish smile.

"Sure," he agreed, more relieved than had he gone to the toilet. He marveled at her ability to make a game out of waiting in line, and immediately dismissed the thought that she may have been trying to avoid him.

The procedures in Japan would entail more risk. Immigration checkpoints at Japanese airports usually had two kinds of lines, for Japanese and aliens. Sometimes, though, aliens were processed with Japanese. So Kwangsu was willing to take the chance that Haneda had a one-line system, seeing as how their flight was on the only international airlines that continued to use its facilities. Simply by letting Reiko go first, the odds were good that she would not notice his passport.

But that, too, bothered him. Most couples liked to look at each other's mug shots. Reiko, though, had never shown an interest in his passport. She, of course, may even now be wondering why he had never asked to see hers. If he had, though, he would've had to reciprocate, so silence prevailed over curiosity.

If Haneda did not have a mixed line, then there was no way that he could continue the deception. Not that he considered his passing deceitful. But the fear that she might think so had moved him to postpone, to the last possible moment, the removal of the shield that had so long protected him from open ridicule, whispered insults, derisive looks, and a hundred kinds of closed doors.

The chief steward cranked open the huge door and swung it into the mouth of the loading ramp. The minutes it had taken them to reach the exit had seemed like seconds to Kwangsu. Preoccupied with what he might have to reveal to Reiko, he hadn't noticed how slow the line had moved, and before he was fully prepared to deboard, he found himself passing by the freshly primped cabin crew, which looked to him like a welcoming line to hell. He tried to ignore their robotic goodbyes, but finally forced a smile himself, and stepped over the threshhold.

Kwangsu glanced over his shoulder at Reiko, who had dropped a couple of meters behind him. He slowed his pace so she could catch up, but she let him stay a little ahead. In America they had held hands and even kissed in public. At first she had been uncomfortable with such overt displays of affection. Later she had said that they could do such things only because they were not in Japan. Now that she was back, though just a few minutes, her demeanor appeared to revert to that of a more reserved Japanese woman.

She also looked very depressed, he thought. The flight had left her exhausted. Her eyes had lost their characteristic radiance, and though she tried to smile at him, the results were barely perceptible.

"Welcome home," he said, trying to brighten her up. It was home for him too, he thought, though at the immigration checkpoint he would be merely permitted back, not welcomed. The ramp herded them into a meandering passageway which promised to lead them to immigration. They could have been steers being chuted from a cattle truck into a slaughterhouse.

Reiko continued to stay a measured step or two behind him. His pace slightly quickened when his eyes made out the entrance to the immigration area. Reaching it, he saw that there were two kinds of lines. His moratorium clearly over, he braced himself for the course correction that he would have to ignore.

Reiko would notice that he had turned toward the lines for non- Japanese. Thinking that he had made a mistake, she would call his name and advise him that they were supposed to go to the other side. He would tell her to go ahead, that he had to go through the alien gate. While she might knit her brows and ask him why, he figured that she was too self-conscious to press him for an explanation in front of so many others.

Kwangsu walked into the spacious immigration area and angled toward one of the lines for foreigners. Reiko, however, followed him. She must have been depending on him to know which side to go to, he thought, and had followed him there without noticing the signs which said that the lines were for aliens.

The lines were rather long, as Kwangsu and Reiko had been among the last to deboard. Kwangsu stopped in the line that seemed to have the fewest Orientals in it. Perhaps the racial contrast would awaken Reiko to the fact that she was in the wrong line. But though he stopped immediately behind a group of blond children, she stayed right behind him.

She must be really tired, he thought. Or perhaps life in America had left her so accustomed to the presence of non-Orientals that she felt right at home with them even in Japan.

He looked straight ahead and waited for her to notice. But every time the line moved forward, his fear increased that she wouldn't. He hadn't considered the possibility that he might have to take the initiative and tell her that she was in the wrong line.


Her voice exploded in his head. He had all but given up hope that she would discover the error in time.


He drew in his breath, like a boxer just before the bell.

"I think you're in the wrong line."

Her voice conveyed alarm, almost hysteria.

"You're in the wrong line?" he asked, his own voice tense, as he turned around and found her dark, moist eyes searching his.

"I'm not," she said. "You are. This line is for foreigners. The Japanese gates are over there."

"But aren't you Japanese?" he stammered.

"Please go on," she urged him. "I'll explain later."


Today I regard this story as an example of how not to write short story. The more stories I wrote for the Asiaweek competition, the more I've wanted to rewrite this one. Looking back, it violates many of the "no-nos" I have created for myself regarding how to "show" rather than "tell" a story. For one, it is much too journalistic, and it has a number of other flaws I'm sure the judges perceived.