Construction Literary Magazine

Summer 2019

Notes on Japan and South Korea, April 2011: Occupation, National Flowers, and April Showers

Notes on Japan and South Korea, April 2011: Occupation, National Flowers, and April Showers

Photograph by Philippe Nieus

An April 6, 2011, New York Times article about Japan brought tears to my eyes. The mayor of Minamisoma, Katsunobu Sakurai, posted an eleven-minute YouTube clip pleading for assistance for his city. “We are left isolated . . . I beg you . . . to help us.” Minamisoma was a city of 75,000 residents, but according to the Times, some 50,000 have fled, turning it into a “ghost town.” It is fifteen miles from a failed nuclear reactor, and those who have remained there are required to stay indoors.

This is just one city. There are many others like it. People have lost everything—their family, their friends, their property, their livelihoods, their lives. As I write from South Korea, where I have been living and teaching English for the past two years, the worry here has been about the radioactivity coming from Japan and dusting over the landscape I have come to love. The winds have shifted, now coming from the east, and the radioactivity, coupled with high levels of yellow dust from China, is approaching.

My colleagues warn me to stay indoors, but I am dubious about their advice. It reminds me of the Fifties, when public school children were instructed to hide under their desks during atomic bomb drills. Just like desks wouldn’t have shielded students from atomic attack, I cannot help but doubt the efficacy of cinderblocks, concrete, and window glass in thwarting the ill effects of radiation and heavy metal dust.

The media here have been critical of the Japanese government for not taking the necessary precautions to prevent the radiation leak from the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant. South Korea, Japan’s colony from 1910 to 1945, has long regarded its former occupier with anger and mistrust. The threat of radiation is just one more reason for South Koreans to be angry.

Living here these two years, it has been impossible not to feel the tensions between South Korea and its neighbor. But when the disaster hit, South Korea gave generously, and the concern for Japan’s well-being came through in the national discourse. The tensions between South Korea and Japan seemed to take a backseat.

Then, in late March, Japan’s Education Ministry approved a set of controversial textbooks—four geography, seven history, and seven ethics books—that officially deemed a set of disputed islets fifty miles from Eastern Korea (known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan) to be Japanese. The approval of these textbooks reignited decades of territorial dispute, bringing back feelings of anger toward Japan. The threat of radiation did not help.

Staring through my office window and watching the purported death showers, I am not worried about my health and safety. I’m sure I should be worried, but instead, I am thinking about what the devastation in Japan means to my friends and colleagues here in South Korea.


South Korea will soon have national cherry blossom festivals. The sight is beautiful and reassuring: year after year, thousands of trees, one next to the other, all abloom in soft pink. I’m reminded of an anecdote about George Orwell I read somewhere years ago. The famous writer planted almond trees as a hobby. The critic who shared this fact goes on to point out that a man who plants trees looks forward to, and believes there will be, a future. Trees, for Orwell, represented hope.

These cherry trees represent something a bit different for Korea because they are Japan’s unofficial national flower and were planted all over Korea by Japanese occupiers. Before the occupation of the peninsula these trees grew naturally on the Korean landscape; they were never deliberately planted by locals. The Japanese instituted a mass planting campaign. Many Koreans believe that they did this as another way to mark Korea as Japan’s territory. The trees remain a legacy of the colonial history.


The media in South Korea have been critical of the government. The threat of radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant is just one more reason for South Koreans to be angry.


My friend Mr. Na told me about the cherry blossoms. Mr. Na and I met through his wife, who teaches at my school. He and I get together at Starbucks and talk over coffee for at least three hours every Saturday. Mr. Na has taught me most of what I know about the intertwining historical narratives of the two nations. It was I, though, who reminded him of the 1936 Olympic medal ceremony in Berlin.

The year that Hitler boasted that Germany’s athletes were going to easily win every event in the Olympics, Japan won the gold and bronze medals in the marathon. The two runners who won were not Japanese nationals but Koreans who ran under the Japanese names they were forced to use (a policy of Japanese occupation). The gold medalist, Sohn Kee-Chung, stood crying on the stage as he watched the Japanese flag climb the pole.

When I talk about this, Mr. Na does not seem as angry as I think he should be. His reaction to this anecdote is subtle and reserved, a demeanor I admire about him. A demeanor I sometimes wish I had.

Mr. Na is in his fifties. He wears steel-rimmed glasses and his skin is lightly tanned from his weekly walks along the stream by his home. He loves to study English and reads books by Dale Carnegie.

During the week, he works for a free government-run legal consultation service. If people have legal issues but cannot afford an attorney, they go to Mr. Na’s office, where he is a senior manager. He wears a suit and tie to the office, but on Saturdays, he comes to Starbucks dressed in a bright shirt, hiking pants, and trekking shoes, walking with the spring of a twenty-year-old.

One thing we have in common is the trekking shoes. Another is that neither of us cares for meat or alcohol. We both love English enough to dedicate significant amounts of time to studying it. However, our politics couldn’t be farther from each other. He’s conservative and soft-spoken. I’m left of left and working on lowering my voice in polite company. For almost two years we’ve spent every Saturday arguing about leaders and culture and many other political issues.

Mr. Na has been to Japan twice; the last time was a month before the disasters. Usually whenever the subject of Japan comes up, he will look at the table and quickly shake his head, his face full of mistrust and apprehension. There is a lot of history between South Korea and Japan and much of it is touchy subject matter. This history taints everything, penetrating as far as the controversy over South Korea’s national food.

Before I came to South Korea, some people, Korean and non-Korean, would look at me with a little concern and say, “Do you like kimchi? I hope you do.” And I would think, Why does it matter? There is other food in South Korea even if I don’t (plus, I’ve actually always liked it, ever since I’d first tried it in New York, and, yes, it’s much better in South Korea). Then I came to South Korea and learned that kimchi is more than just a peppery pickled vegetable dish. Kimchi family recipes are carefully guarded and entire families are involved in the process of making it. Many homes even have separate refrigerators solely for storing it. Restaurants are boycotted if their kimchi isn’t good. Seoul has festivals in honor of its more than two hundred varieties. Kimchi is more than just a side dish. It’s Korean culture.

Several years ago, Japanese food manufacturers started making something called kimuchi—a version of kimchi that foregoes the fermentation period (roughly four weeks) through the use of chemical additives. This upset and even enraged South Koreans. They considered it an inferior copycat. South Korea’s Ministry of Agriculture warned of kimuchi’s potential hazards borne of the use of chemicals. The older generation in South Korea saw it as another example of Japanese colonialism and modern imposition—precisely what upsets Mr. Na, who might say something like: They take our athletes, our resources, our land, and our national foods.


These overwhelming tensions are a reason why some embraced the disaster in Japan as an opportunity for positive change. That is, until news of those Japanese middle school textbooks came into the picture.

Days before one of my meetings with Mr. Na, I read lots of angry editorials about the textbooks, an issue that emerged after South Korea raised a reported $19.1 million to help Japan’s disaster relief effort. One editorial in a Korean newspaper called the approval of the textbooks a “betrayal” worse than Pearl Harbor.

I would argue that there are many far more alarming issues, such as the Japanese Army’s use of Korean and other Asian women as sex slaves, but the islets seem to be the most upsetting concern to the people I’ve talked to.


The history between South Korea and Japan taints everything, penetrating as far as controversy over South Korea’s national food.


The territorial dispute began after World War II, when the United States drew the post-war boundaries between South Korea and Japan. At first these islets were assigned to the U.S. forces that were based in Japan, but within a year the MacArthur Line shifted these boundaries and the territory fell under the command of the U.S. forces based in South Korea. The U.S. never determined which country the territory belonged to, and after the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, the sovereignty of these islets remained ambiguous.

This territorial dispute escalated in the early Fifties and has been up and down ever since, brewing, then lying dormant like a volcano. It continues to torment the two countries to this day but has never escalated into a full-scale military conflict. Unfortunately, tensions over the islets have re-ignited at a most unfortunate moment. Not even a tsunami and an earthquake can overshadow the gravity of this issue to the Japanese and South Koreans.


I have been watching my friends in South Korea discuss the islands, fascinated by their reactions, by what matters to them and what doesn’t. I have this friend Andy, a South Korean girl I came to know through her fiancé, Andrew, a Texan I met in a Korean language class. Andy was born in South Korea but isn’t a typical Korean woman. She is unmarried but lives in Seoul, away from her parents. She has met and regularly interacts with a lot of foreigners (she uses an American name because new foreigners can never remember her name, and if they do, they pronounce it awfully).

Months ago, before the earthquake and the tsunami, the three of us were talking in Starbucks. When the issue of Dokdo was brought up—is it Japan’s or South Korea’s?—Andrew joked that he didn’t understand all the fuss, and Andy did not laugh.

Andrew: I don’t see what the big deal is about Dokdo. It’s just a small nothing of an island. No one lives there.

Andy: What? I can’t believe you said that, you fucking jerk. The fucking Japanese take everything from us and they want Dokdo and it’s bullshit. Why doesn’t the US give Texas back to Mexico?

Andrew: Babe, I’m kidding.

Andy (turned away): Fuck off.

Then she punched him.

This reaction is what I might have kept in mind when I thought I’d joke with Mr. Na about the issue.

“So I shouldn’t have been saying ‘Takeshima’ all this week to my students?”

Mr. Na is not smiling.

I thought my humor came through.

“I’m kidding,” I say. “I didn’t say Takeshima to them.”

“I know.” Mr. Na pauses; he is still not smiling. “But you should not say that word. Using that name, and talking of the debate at all, only helps the Japanese strategy to take the islets from the Korean people.”

I had just learned the Japanese name from an article I read. No one at school told me about it. Mr. Na had never uttered it. He told me that many members of the younger generation don’t even know the Japanese name. It’s not taught in school, and uttering it seems almost verboten.

(True to his subtle conservativeness, Mr. Na thinks President Roh Mu Hyeon, Lee Myeong Bak’s liberal predecessor, made a foolish and youthful error in having once said “Takeshima” in a speech. Mr. Na explains that, in South Korean politics, conservatives don’t talk about the issue of whom the islets belong to; it’s a given that they belong to South Korea. Though liberals agree that these islets are South Korean, they talk about the issue openly.)

The next day, I asked Andy, “What comes to mind when I say ‘Takeshima’?”

She stared at me and asked, “What’s that?”

“You don’t know?” I asked.

“Nope.”

“It’s the Japanese name for the islets known as Dokdo.”

“Oh really,” she shrugged. “I didn’t know that.”

I was, at first, a little confused. She didn’t seem bothered, or at least not as bothered as the last time the Japanese-South Korean land dispute came up. Then again, I thought, Mr. Na did tell me that the name was unutterable. It is not taught in schools. Maybe Andy’s ignorance of the name stemmed from my butchering of the pronunciation. Or perhaps Andy was not, at that moment, that concerned with the issue. Whatever the reason, I felt confused and deflated. I’d expected at least a discussion if not a debate.


When we look at Japan’s precarious situation, given natural and geological issues stemming from the disaster, it is difficult to appreciate the complexity of its relations with its former colony. But it’s not just about trade and resources.

“In the past, we’d never said Dokdo was ours,” Mr. Na explains. “We don’t say, ‘This is my wallet.’ It’s in my pocket and has my ID: there is no need to say that it’s mine. But now we say ‘our Dokdo’ because of the Japanese claims to it.”

Andy is not as adamant. This is her e-mail, in which she asks me to “please keep in mind that I do not represent [an] average Korean person.”

She writes, “Japan has claimed Dokdo so many times already . . . I don’t care too much anymore . . . all I think is, here we go again.”

She has no issue with Japanese people but she does feel that the government owes “some form of apology and compensation” for acts committed during the colonization, which fuels the Dokdo/Takeshima issue: “I learned that Dokdo is more than just a tiny little island where nobody can really live . . . but I don’t really know on what grounds we claim Dokdo to be our soil.”

Reading that, I can imagine Mr. Na shaking his head slowly from side to side, face set, jaw locked. I admit that I am, once again, a little confused. She had seemed pretty upset by Andrew’s sarcasm at Starbucks. The e-mail, however, is tempered and reserved.

It continues:

“In my opinion, the reason why Koreans get so mad at Japan every time they claim Dokdo is because we get the impression that they (the government and the people) don’t feel sorry or guilty for what they have done. I think what some Koreans feel about Japan right now is betrayal. We raised a lot of money only to help the Japanese people, and they still claim something that we think is clearly ours. I guess it was very bad timing. Japan, in our mind, is some kind of thief who stole a lot of things from Korea, and is still asking for more without giving us anything back. Japan is doing a lot better economically and internationally [and that] doesn’t help us [in] forgiving them either.”

My friend and colleague Shelly, an English teacher at my school who was born and raised in South Korea, tells me that her view of the Japanese government and its people, is complicated. She told me that her cousin married a Japanese man, so she cannot hate all of Japan (not that she had before the marriage).


“The reason why Koreans get so mad at Japan about Dokdo is because we get the impression that they don’t feel sorry or guilty for what they have done.”


Does the younger generation’s more dimensional vision of the tensions indicate a new direction for the future? Like Andy, Shelly’s use of a non-Korean name might reflect her worldly outlook, her openness to learning about the “Other.” Or it might just be a way to help non-Koreans who cannot remember their names, let alone pronounce them correctly. Regardless of their reasons for using non-Korean names, the younger generation is clearly more open. Their willingness to talk about the islets and the controversy, to regard the situation more lightly than Mr. Na does, demonstrates a clear generational divide on this and other issues in South Korea. Perhaps the issues between South Korea and Japan will come to pass.


As the reports in the daily news reveal more and more the level of devastation in Japan and speculate over the long-term effects of radioactivity, I still wonder what the devastation and its aftermath mean to Japan’s former colony. Those textbooks will be used next year and students in Japanese middle schools will learn about how the South Korean government has illegally occupied Takeshima. Mr. Na will continue to study English, and we will talk every week and continue to disagree.

As my city, Ansan, plants cherry trees just in time for the festivals—they are going up as I write—Mr. Na will enjoy them, and Andy and her fiancé will bike around town. Shelly will ask me if I am enjoying the beauty, and I will be reminded of the bittersweet situation between the two countries. I imagine no immediate end to this disputes. Japan and South Korea do not seem poised to release the rights to the islets, and the governments continue to debate what belongs to whom and which words should be used in what school textbooks. Meanwhile, the people of Minamisoma stay shuttered in the remains of their homes, and hundreds of thousands of others in Japan struggle to find food, water, and adequate shelter. To begin rebuilding, they look only to hope.