SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — American actor and comedian Fred Armisen has just learned that his grandfather was a legendary dancer from Japan who, while living in Germany in the 1930s and ’40s, allegedly volunteered in propaganda work for the Third Reich and moonlighted as a spy for the emperor in Tokyo.
But among the startling discoveries about his lineage, the “Portlandia” star seemed most shocked about what has been general knowledge in the art world — the late Masami Kuni was actually Korean.
“Well, that changes everything,” a stunned Armisen said during a recent appearance on the PBS ancestry series “Finding Your Roots,” where host Henry Louis Gates Jr. revealed to him that Kuni was born in Korea in 1908 as Park Yeong-in.
“I’m a quarter Korean?” Armisen continued in disbelief. “You have to understand that I tell people, that I have interviews where I say I’m quarter Japanese … I’m not Japanese at all.”
Before the end of World War II, Kuni was seen as an influential dancer, choreographer and theorist whose work bridged Asian traditions and European modern dance. However, he received less recognition after the 1950s, apparently because of his past as a pro-Nazi artist, according to South Korean dance scholar Okju Son, who wrote a study about Kuni in 2014.
While living in Germany from 1937 to 1945, Kuni staged dozens of performances in Germany and other European countries such as Italy and Hungary, according to Son. It was also during this time when Kuni had a brief affair with a young German woman who gave birth to Armisen’s father in 1941, according to “Finding Your Roots.”
Kuni participated in propaganda activities for the Nazis, which included performances for front-line German troops, according to the PBS show, which citied a 1939 Japanese newspaper report. The show also uncovered a 1944 report from the U.S. Office of War Information which suggested that Kuni worked as a secret agent for Japan during his time in Germany and gathered information on southern European and Turkish affairs.
“He is a Japanese dancer and appears from time to time in the different capitals of Europe, always being charged with special duties which he covers by his profession. He is one of the most clever agents they have,” said the report from an American agent based in Istanbul. The show said it failed to find any other evidence indicating that Kuni worked as a spy.
“This is so insane,” Armisen said. “If this ended with you saying that he was a famous Japanese dancer, I am good … this clever agent, I can’t believe it … it’s like a movie.”
Allegations that Kuni engaged in espionage activities for Imperial Japan have never been raised in South Korea, where Kuni’s overall body of artistic work is now largely overlooked or forgotten.
After the end of World War II, Korea was liberated from 35 years of Japanese colonial rule, but was divided into the Soviet Union-controlled North and the U.S.-controlled South. Unlike many other famous Korean artists who returned home after the war, Kuni chose to stay in Japan and had very little contact with his family in South Korea. While Kuni choreographed “Chunhyang,” an opera based on a 17th century Korean novel that was staged in Tokyo in 1948, he later distanced himself from Asia-centered themes and declared himself a “cosmopolitan,” Son said.
Born to a wealthy family in the southern port city of Ulsan, Kuni spent his childhood in Korea before leaving to study in Japan, which is where he adopted his Japanese name. While majoring in aesthetics at Tokyo Imperial University, Kuni pursued his passion in dance by taking classes from Baku Ishii, widely regarded as the father of Japanese modern dance who also taught perhaps the most famous Korean dancer ever, Choi Seung-hee, who died in North Korea in 1969.
After graduating from the university, Kuni moved to Berlin on a Japanese government scholarship to pursue a doctorate at a Berlin university and learn from prominent German dancers such as Rudolf von Laban and Mary Wigman. After the war, Kuni moved to the United States in the 1960s and died in 2007.
This story has been corrected to show that the South Korean scholar’s name is Okju Son instead of Oksun Son.