#BookReview “A River In Darkness” Masaji Ishikawa

The harrowing true story of one man’s life in—and subsequent escape from—North Korea, one of the world’s most brutal totalitarian regimes.

Half-Korean, half-Japanese, Masaji Ishikawa has spent his whole life feeling like a man without a country. This feeling only deepened when his family moved from Japan to North Korea when Ishikawa was just thirteen years old, and unwittingly became members of the lowest social caste. His father, himself a Korean national, was lured to the new Communist country by promises of abundant work, education for his children, and a higher station in society. But the reality of their new life was far from utopian.

In this memoir translated from the original Japanese, Ishikawa candidly recounts his tumultuous upbringing and the brutal thirty-six years he spent living under a crushing totalitarian regime, as well as the challenges he faced repatriating to Japan after barely escaping North Korea with his life. A River in Darkness is not only a shocking portrait of life inside the country but a testament to the dignity—and indomitable nature—of the human spirit.

A River In Darkness Cover



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Like what I assume to be most of the world, my curiosity regarding the secretive nation of North Korea led me to Ishikawa’s tale. I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t the absolutely raw sufferings laid bare in this book. The complete breakdown of humanity in this book will haunt you every single day of your life. This book will change you. Irreparably and irreversibly.

Because every single country is responsible for allowing this to happen. That means me. That means you. Every single one of us is guilty. Add this to the never ending list of horror humanity spreads among itself. 

“The party started churning out more slogans, more propaganda. I couldn’t help but wonder where they even got all the paper for the posters—and whether I could eat it” 
 Masaji Ishikawa

Ishikawa sugar coats nothing and lays each and every one of his humiliating sufferings open for the entire world to see. He injects us into the very vein of his existence. We are him and he is us. His story rings with the injustice served him and his. His tone throughout is accusatory and rightly so. He has received little in the way of help from anyone and his family remains trapped in the midst of unspeakable horror. Ishikawa’s guilt at escaping without his family loudly rings throughout the book and lends a haunting, viscerally primal pain to his already long list of tortures. His loss is a leaking sieve unable to heal.

Ishikawa opens with his beginning in a racially tense and poverty stricken slice of Japan. He details the maze of culture he attempts to maneuver as a child as well as his tumultuous home life.  Something readers should take away from this part of Ishikawa’s story is how a persons environment has a direct affect on their character. Some will argue that one must rise above such things but the reality is that most do not and in all honesty shouldn’t be expected to. The existence of such oppression is what matters. Life shouldn’t be a series of trial by fire. Are we not evolved past this? Are we all still primal beasts unable to transmogrify our society?

“You don’t choose to be born. You just are. And your birth is your destiny, some say. I say the hell with that. And I should know. I was born not just once but five times. And five times I learned the same lesson. Sometimes in life, you have to grab your so-called destiny by the throat and wring its neck” 
 Masaji Ishikawa

He is alone in a world full of those who turn a blind eye to the torment he suffers. Imagine how he must feel watching North Korea put on the show they now are. Imagine, if you will, his absolute feelings of betrayal as the world turns a blind eye to the brutal regime who took everything from him. Who still takes from him.

“This was laughable, of course, but that’s always the way with totalitarian regimes. Language gets turned on its head. Serfdom is freedom. Repression is liberation. A police state is a democratic republic. And we were “the masters of our destiny.” And if we begged to differ, we were dead.” 
 Masaji Ishikawa

I applaud Mr. Ishikawa for his bravery in raising his voice in opposition to injustice. In braving it all to make humanity accountable. You are the best of what is human. May your family finally be released from their hell. 

I encourage every single human on this planet to read this book. No, not encourage, I CHALLENGE you. Don’t turn away. Read it. Acknowledge it. Then fix it.

5 stars

Ishikawa author pic


Born in 1947 in Kawasaki, Japan, Masaji Ishikawa moved with his parents and three sisters to North Korea in 1960 at the age of thirteen, where he lived until his escape in 1996. He currently resides in Japan.



The Technical Data:

Title: A River In Darkness | Series: N/A  |  Author(s): Masaji Ishikawa  |Publisher: Amazon Crossing  / Publication Date: 1-1-2018 |Pages: 174 (Print) | ISBN: B06XKRKFZL  |Genre(s): Memoir |Language: English |Rating: 5 out of 5 |  Date Read: 3-28-2018 |Source: Copy from personal collection.


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