Sunday, August 12, 2012

100 years of Koreans in Japan



My "Korea-Japan" Friday was supposed to be quieter, highlighted by this visit to the Seoul Museum of History on the inaugural day of the exhibition about Koreans in Japan, and the bronze medal game between both countries at the Olympics.

Then the news came that President Lee would make a surprise visit to Dokdo, spoiling the mood to say the least*.

But nothing could ruin the first bearable day following the meanest heatwave in decades**, and I enjoyed the stroll along Gyeonghuigung-gil, with a quick hello to my old neighbor, the Korea Football Association building, dressed as usual for the event...



... and at the other end of the street, the museum and its old-map-of-Seoul-slash-fountain in full swing.



What I didn't expect was the massive crowd inside. Turns out I arrived right on time for an inauguration I suspected would have happened in the morning. There goes the ribbon, with the help of Dr KANG Hong-bin, the brilliant director of this museum, KANG Duk-sang, the curator of Tokyo's "History Museum of Japanese Koreans" (재일한인역사자료관) and an ethnic Korean himself, and CHUNG Jae-jeong, President of the Northeast Asian History Foundation:



There are two parts in this exhibition: a focus on the daily lives of Koreans and ethnic Koreans in the archipelago, and KANG Duk-sang's collection of nishiki-e prints. At the same time glorifying imperialism and fueling racism towards Koreans, these colorful pictures contributed, at the end of the XIXth century, to the official propaganda that paved the way for the colonization of Korea by Japan. There are even card games and board games. Textbook propaganda... and we're not even talking about textbooks!

Except for the exotic touch of the prints, I notice many similarities with colonialist materials from the same period in Europe. But the "other" doesn't look that different on the pictures. You do see a cartoon of a crying Korean tiger, but in this collection at least, not the equivalent to the outrageous racist caricatures that persisted late into the XXth century (more or less intentionally, like with Herge's highly controversial "Tintin au Congo", for instance).

The thing is that, like all humans but even more so, Korean and Japanese people are brothers. And it's hard to justify racist propaganda within the family. So the authorities resorted to techniques very similar to WWII antisemitic propaganda, for example a police briefing about how to tell "Joseon" people from "authentic" Japanese people. But with very few physical details - the hair, maybe? And a lot of behavioral traits, like the Confucian marks of respect to an elder citizen. And if you read between the lines, the same jealousy and self-hatred leaking from the racist speech. At one point, police officers are warned they may be tempted to believe Koreans look noble because of the way they walk. And there's the poem of a Japanese citizen, who doesn't understand why a policeman asks him to repeat a silly sentence, until he realizes that's a way of spotting a Korean accent.

I can say "Japanese citizen" because even now, Koreans and ethnic Koreans cannot get the Japanese nationality. Either they keep the Korean nationality, or they drop it for a special status that turns them into apatride oddities. The exhibition tells the story of generations going through daily discriminations and humiliations, even when they want to embrace Japan as their only country. When a brilliant person was exceptionally proposed to take the Japanese nationality in order to become a judge, and even if he had always dreamt of becoming a judge and of being recognized in the Japanese society, he had to refuse because it meant the very negation of his ideal of justice.




A few ethnic Koreans do succeed every now and then, and the compulsory fingerprinting is just a bit less humiliating than it used to be. And of course, in spite of the sick ping pong game between Fareastern hatemongers, the 1923 madness is not likely to happen anytime soon (following an earthquake, racist rumors accused Koreans of adding to the destruction, leading to the mass murder of 6,000 innocent "Joseon" in broad daylight).

But fundamentally, nothing changes, racism remains institutionalized, and this exhibition cannot identify any glimmer of hope for the future of hundreds of thousands of Koreans in a home that refuses to embrace them... at the official level at least: little progress would have been made without the contribution of responsible Japanese citizens, and I was happy to see a significant proportion of Japanese people among the visitors.

As you browse through these sad testimonies and lists of avoidable tragedies, as you try to overcome negative emotions - extremism feeds upon that feeling of helpless anger -, you can't help but think about the way today's Korea is sometimes dealing with its own growing population of foreigners, particularly migrant workers. Will Korean media help the audience appreciate the mirror effect? 

Once again: yes, Japan must apologize, yes, Japan must change, but Korea cannot at the same time ask for change and refuse to face and fix its own failures.

Seoul Museum of History
"100 years of Koreans in Japan"
55 Saemunan-ro (Sinmun-ro-2-ga), Jongno-gu, Seoul 110.062
Tel: Dasan 120
Website: museum.seoul.kr
(ADDENDUM 20120814: I forgot to mention the projection of movies related to the exhibition - fiction and documentaries, check the website for the program. that's only between Aug. 11 and Aug. 17)


Seoul Village 2012
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