A Solution for the History Textbook War


Personally, I enjoy watching musicals. So, when there was a showing of Wicked a few years ago here in Korea, I was one of the many people who went to watch the show.

Yes, Gravity was certainly the highlight of the show and it was certainly exhilarating to watch Elphaba belt those high notes during the song’s climax. However, the song that I thought was rather under-appreciated was Wonderful, which was performed by the Wizard.

The part of the song that caught my attention was:

Where I come from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it history.

A man’s called a traitor or liberator.

A rich man’s a thief or philanthropist.

Is one a crusader or ruthless invader?

It’s all in which label is able to persist.

And that brings me to the History Textbook War that is being waged between Korea and Japan. The Japanese government seems to be doing all it can to whitewash its history regardless of how much it might offend its closest neighbors’ sensibilities. And it’s not like as though the Japanese are unaware of how its neighbors feel about it.

Of course, it’s not only the Japanese who are diving head first into the sea of historical revisionism. So are the Koreans.

With each side trying to make sure that history is taught “properly,” it appears that this rhetorical conflict will not end any time soon.

But is there really no solution? Are Korea and Japan forever destined to go through this series of sickening motions every time either country has an election coming up?

It doesn’t need to be so. I have a modest proposal. My proposal is for both countries to get their respective governments out of the business of authorizing text books altogether.

As Steven Denney said in the link that I provided earlier:

There is a fine but significant line between the history of a nation and nationalist histories. The former is more likely to be objective, the latter anything but.

Seeing how the only way this conflict will proceed is that both sides will get into a shouting match every time there is an election in either country, which, unfortunately also prevents both countries from doing other important things such as, oh I don’t know, having a summit between the leaders, the best way forward seems to be to allow individual publishing companies to publish their own history textbooks; as well as to allow individual teachers to select the textbooks that they think reflect the most accurate version of history.

No, it is not a perfect solution. There is no such thing as a perfect solution. There will always be those Japanese right-wing publishers that will claim that comfort women did not exist and that Dokdo is Japanese territory. There will always be Korean left-wing publishers that will claim that the only thing Park Chung-hee ever did was to torture his political opponents while accepting Japanese blood money. There will always be nutty teachers and parents who will think that an obviously biased interpretation of history is THE correct version of history. And the students will always be the ones who will suffer.

But it’s not like as though the current situation seems to be doing anything that much differently.

The difference is that by completely privatizing the publishing and distribution of textbooks, at least both governments will have that much less ammunition to attack each other with. And hopefully, the market will show that the number of people who actually have a life is greater than the number of those people who take to the streets with their effigies and banners denouncing the people in the other country as evil pigs.

If enough people in both Korea and Japan can agree with this opinion and tell their respective governments to can it, maybe, just maybe, both countries can move on to something else, like I don’t know, economic cooperation?

The Remembrance of Things Past

Douglas Martin of the NY Times writes a eulogy, if not obituary for Chung Eun-yong, the gentleman whose protestations exposed the tragedy of No Gun Ri; the killing of more than 100 Korean civilians by American forces during the Korean War.  

Mr. Chung’s protests against the killings, years later, gained the attention of Choe Sang-Hun (one of our favorite reporters with the NY Times) and others, who went on to write about this event.

Words fall short.

Trailer for “Battle of Myeongryang- Roaring Currents”

Speaking of movie trailers, for you fans of Admiral Yi Sun-sin there is a new movie coming out that portrays probably his most famous battle where, the story goes, he successfully fought off 330 Japanese ships with just 12 or 13 of his own.

Battle of Myeongryang- Roaring Currents,” is starring Choi Min-Sik, probably one of Korea’s most internationally well known actors.  It will be interesting to see how he portrays Admiral Yi, given his history of portraying such dark characters.  Another interesting thing is that at least some of the storyline and aesthetics will be based on the American comic book “Yi Soon Shin: Warrior and Defender.”

Korean politicians commemorate the Jeju Uprising

The heads of the ruling and opposition parties were in Jeju-do today to attend a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Jeju Uprising of April 3, 1948, which led to the killing of thousands of islanders by Korean security forces tasked with putting down the revolt. Ugly, ugly stuff – see also here. A film about the uprising, “Jiseul,” won the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Not in attendance was President Park Geun-hye, a fact noticed by the opposition.

The ceremony was the first to be held since April 3 was designated a national day of remembrance in January. The designation was not entirely welcomed by all, especially conservatives who note that the uprising started as a revolt against the very founding of the Republic of Korea. From a January editorial in the Dong-A Ilbo:

However, it is a different matter to designate the day as a national memorial day. After a plan to hold the May 10, 1948 general elections was announced to form South Korea`s initial parliament, the Communist Workers` Party of South Korea, which was linked to North Korea, waged an all-out struggle to obstruct the founding of South Korea by instigating a riot in Daegu on February 7 and attacking 11 police stations on Jeju Island on April 3. The Jeju April 3rd Peace Park records that leaders of the Communist Workers` Party of South Korea attended South Korean people`s representatives meeting held in Haeju, North Korea in August 1948. Those who waged armed struggled against the founding of North (South) Korea risked their safety to attend a ceremony for the founding of the North. It is the reality that many people criticize the move to designate April 3 as a national memorial day because of that fact.

There are national anniversaries commemorating pro-democracy popular resistances such as the April 19, 1960 Revolution, the May 18, 1980 Gwangju Uprising and the June 10, 1987 Democracy Movement. The incidents were major watershed in South Korea`s democracy. However, the nature of the April 3 incident is different from those pro-democracy movements. The planned designation of April 3 as a national memorial day could cause considerable controversies over the legitimacy, identity and the constitutional values of the Republic of Korea. The government`s naming of the day as the “Memorial Day for Victims of April 3 (Incident)” indicates its painstaking considerations.

The Chosun Ilbo also raised questions about this in January, arguing that we needed to do a better job separating the innocent victims who deserve to be memorialized from the armed rebels who do not. As conservative groups were still protesting last month that the list of commemorated victims includes a lot of communist insurgents, I’m guessing little has been done to allay the Chosun’s concerns. If you prefer to read similar griping in English, see here.

While the Korean government has apologized to the victims of the April 3 Uprising, some ask why the United States hasn’t yet. Direct US military involvement in putting down the Jeju Uprising was limited, but the United States certainly knew what atrocities were happening and did nothing to stop them. The roots of the revolt, likewise, go back to when Korea was ruled by the US occupational government. The question of an apology is a bit tricky, given that Korea was not the only place at the time where US-backed counterinsurgency operations involved some nasty business—see the Greek Civil War. I’d say in the bigger picture, US support for hard-pressed pro-Western regimes at the time was not only the right call, it was geopolitically necessary. On the ground, however, this support could lead to atrocities, as is wont to happen in a counterinsurgency. I’ll leave it to you to debate whether that requires an apology.

On the March 1 Front: Japanese scholar criticizes Japan’s historical perspective, NYT shows contrition

With the March 1 Independence Movement holiday—what I like to call “Korea’s Easter Uprising”—set for tomorrow, Yonhap talked with Professor Nakatsuka Akira of Japan’s Nara Women’s University. An expert on the history of relations between Korea and Japan, the historian is in Korea to speak at a lecture to mark the March 1 holiday.

Nakatsuka was very critical of the way his nation handles history, noting that the United States and Great Britain include the shameful past of the imperial era in their textbooks, but Japanese are largely unaware of their imperial past. With Japan’s historical perspective getting little support internationally, and little hope for conscientious voices rising from Japan’s media landscape, he suggested grassroots historical exchanges as a means to change historical thinking in Japan.

For instance, he said the March 1 Independence movement—which he said ignited national movements not just in East Asia, but throughout the world—is not properly taught in Japan. It’s mentioned as a mere historical fact, while its significance and background are ignored.

He said even progressive intellectuals close their eyes to Japan’s invasion of Korea and the preceding slaughter of Donghak peasant army and the Righteous Armies (Exhibit A: check out The Village Voice film critic Inkoo Kang’s brilliantly written rant about pacifist director Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises), and because of this, Japanese can’t understand why Koreans bring up historical issues.

Yonhap also found an old Washington Times column from 1922 detailing Japanese brutalities in Korea in the aftermath of the uprising. Written by an American businessman who spent three years travelling around East Asia, the article recounts what he saw and heard—at one point, he likens the behavior of the Japanese military to that of the German army in Belgium in World War I.

Newsis found a whole lot of other American newspaper articles from the time up the March 1 uprising, too. Note to Newsis, though—that New York Times editorial (fourth clip down) is, ahem, not quite the ringing endorsement of Korean independence that you seem to think it is.

In fairness to the New York Times, though, two decades and a Pearl Harbor later, the Gray Lady seems to have seen the light. On March 1, 1945, the paper ran a piece very much in support of Korean independence. What makes it more interesting is that it expressed contrition for America’s failure to protect Korea from Japanese aggression in 1905 and 1910 despite Washington pledging in 1882 to block attempts by third powers to interfere in or oppress Korea (Marmot’s Note: not sure that’s what Washington actually pledged to do).

“The Japanese are waiting for us to die”

The UK’s Daily Mail published an AP article today regarding the plight of the so-called “comfort women” residing in the House of Sharing in Korea.  Included in the article are quite a few pictures and some videos.

There are only 55 women left alive at the House of Sharing and their average age is 88.  The chance to offer an acceptable apology to the survivors of Imperial Japan’s comfort women system is rapidly coming to an end.

“… the women may also be the last chance for America’s two most important Asian allies to settle a dispute that has boiled over in recent years, as more of the so-called “comfort women” die and Tokyo and Seoul trade increasingly bitter comments about their bloody history.

“It will be much harder to solve, or more realistically mitigate, the issue after these women pass away,’ Robert Dujarric, an Asia specialist at Temple University’s Tokyo campus, said in an email. ‘Now, there are people — the former sex slaves — to apologize to. Afterward, there will be no one left to receive the apology.”

Comfort woman survivor Kim Gun-ja puts things in starker terms:

“The Japanese are waiting for us to die.”

So, Mr. Suga, what IS the other side?

Japan is unhappy about the recent opening of a memorial hall to Ahn Jung-geun in Harbin China:

“The co-ordinated move by China and South Korea based on a one-sided view [of history] is not conducive to building peace and stability,” Yoshihide Suga told reporters.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, you’ll recall, is the gentleman who had previously referred to Ahn as a “criminal.

Some might see this as an insult. I see it as an opportunity. A Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson needs to go out there immediately and ask Suga, “OK, what’s the other side then?”

I’m serious. Where historical issues are concerned, Japan is its own worst enemy. As we’ve seen in the New York Times, with the New York State Senate and, heck, even my humble comment section, Japanese right-wing nationalists absolutely love to talk, and the more they do, the worse they look. And the best part is, they’re completely oblivious to how nauseatingly bad they look, so they just keep going and going.

So just get Suga talking—he’ll do more to promote the Korean side than 100 angry condemnations from the Korean Foreign Ministry.

Trust me, Foreign Ministry guys. You’ll thank me later.

Anyway, one of the side benefits of the Ahn Jung-geun memorial has been the spectacle of Japanese editorial writers rending their garments in grief and outrage. See, for instance, the Yomiuri Shimbun, which in an editorial entitled “South Korea’s anti-Japan diplomatic maneuvering goes too far” (stop laughing now, dammit!) complains:

Yet we feel the memorial hall—built with no regard for Japan’s position or its national sentiments—is absolutely unacceptable.

I’ll let you meditate on the irony of a Japanese paper whinging about hurt feelings. And ponder this warning for a moment:

China is a multiethnic nation, and praising Ahn risks stirring up ethnic consciousness among the ethnic Koreans living within its borders.

And Japan would know, seeing how it spent most of the 1930s and 1940s trying to dismember China.

Finally, more whining about “Korea making us look bad with its one-sided views of history”:

Meanwhile, apart from the issues surrounding the Ahn memorial, South Korea has intensified its one-sided assertions regarding its historical perceptions. We cannot overlook the fact that such assertions undermine Japan’s position in international institutions and in the eyes of other countries.

As I said above, nothing—and I do mean nothing—“undermines Japan’s position in international institutions and in the eyes of other countries” than when Japanese themselves try to counter Korea’s “one-sided assertions.” It’s not Korea that makes Japan look like a nation of unrepentant assholes. It’s Japan that makes Japan look like a nation of unrepentant assholes.

Anyway, here’s a suggestion to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga—wanna see a memorial to real criminals? Hop on a subway and visit Yasukuni.

Memorial hall for Ahn Jung-geun opens in Harbin

Harbin Railway Station is now the proud home of a memorial hall for Korean patriotic martyr Ahn Jung-geun:

A memorial opened on Sunday in Harbin, capital of northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province, to commemorate a Korean patriot who killed a top Japanese official over a century ago.

Ahn Jung Geun shot dead Hirobumi Ito, who had served as the prime minister of Japan four times before becoming resident-general of Korea in 1905, at Harbin railway station on Oct. 26, 1909. He was arrested at the scene of shooting and secretly executed in March 1910 by Japanese forces.

Covering an area of more than 100 square meters, the memorial hall consists of exhibition rooms telling the story of Ahn’s life, and shows the exact spot where the shooting took place.

Yonhap reports that the Chinese media is giving the opening major coverage, with much praise directed at Ahn by the press and Chinese netizens.

The Japanese press, meanwhile, is interpreting the opening of the memorial hall as a sign of Sino-Korean cooperation to pressure Japan on historical issues. One Japanese paper, the far-right Sankei Shimbun, suggested that China had been lukewarm about building the memorial after Korean President Park Geun-hye proposed it in June, but Japanese PM Abe Shinzo’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine may have spurred Beijing to action.

You’ll recall that back in November, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed displeasure about the statue, calling Ahn a “criminal.” Which, sadly, is just the sort of statement we’ve come to expect from high-ranking Japanese officials nowadays. Anyway, I’ll repeat here what I said back then:

Expect more of this cooperation between Korea and China in the future. I’m not especially comfortable with it, and ideally, I’d like to see greater cooperation between Korea and Japan. That said, Japan doesn’t make it easy sometimes. I’m not sure what Suga hoped to gain for Japan with his statement—scoring points with some domestic lobbies, perhaps?—but as an act of diplomacy, all it does is give propaganda material to Korea and China and drive Seoul closer to Beijing at a time when Tokyo really should be working to gain an ally.

Happy Birthday Dr. Fred Dustin: Jeju’s Renaissance Man

Think you have been here for a long time?  Except for a few years while at school, Dr. Fred Dustin has been in Korea since 1952!  He has literally done it all:  Military, English teaching, Mining, Copy Editing, Rainbow trout promoting, writing, voicing, poultry raising, agriculture, and, of course, The Kimnyoung Maze on Jeju Island.

Not only has Dr. Dustin done everything, he also knew everyone.  Have any of you ever heard of the Koryo Club?

Seoul was a city in transformation and it was filled with interesting people. One such person was Ferris Miller, who arrived in Korea prior to the Korean War and returned in 1953 to work for the Bank of Korea. It was he who founded the Koryo Club – a group of Koreans and foreigners with an interest in Korea and its culture.

The meetings were held in Miller’s home and members were supposed to deliver papers on “things Korea” but Dustin, who was the youngest member, does not remember any specific papers every being delivered – only the large number of beer bottles that had to be cleared away the next morning.

But there were exchanges of ideas as evidenced by the names of the members – names that are now well-known in Korea studies: Edward Wagner (founder of the Korea Institute at Harvard), Richard Rutt (a former Anglican bishop who wrote many books on Korean poetry and his life as a country priest), William E. Skillend (the first professor of Korean at the School of Oriental and African Studies), Greg Henderson (diplomat and author), Chung Bi-seok (novelist), Cho Byung-hwa (poet) and Choi Byung-woo (Korea Times managing editor and reporter who died at the age of 34 on Sept. 26, 1958, while covering the Chinese Communist bombing of Quemoy and Matsu Islands).

All of these men had an impact on Dustin’s life.

“I look back in awe and with great respect upon those friends, role models and early mentors,” he fondly recalls.

You can read more about Dr. Dustin here in (Korea Times, Jan. 10, 2014).  For those on Jeju Island – if you get a chance, stop by today and wish him a Happy 84th Birthday.

Comfort Women statue sparks competing White House petitions

We mentioned Tony Marano’s petion at the White House earlier. Now it seems somebody has started a counter-petition:

On Saturday, a blogger identified with initial S.H. submitted a petition to counter Marano’s claim, asking for the protection of the monument.

In the petition, the initiator said, “The Peace Monument is symbolizing the victims of sexual slavery by the Japanese imperial military during World War II. And we have to know history correctly.”

So far, the petition has received more than 200 signatures.

You can find the petition here.

Personally, I think petitions are a waste of time, but anything that counters Tony Marano’s asshatery is probably worth doing. LA’s CBS affiliate described Marano’s Youtube video thusly:

The petition was started by a Texas man by the name of Tony Marano. On his YouTube channel, he states, “these women were recruited and they volunteered to serve in these comfort women houses for the Japanese Imperial Army.”

Yes, he did say that. But that’s not all he said. I hate to link to this reprehensible douchebag’s video again, but it really deserves its own Two Minutes Hate—scroll to about 55 seconds in. As a matter of theology, I don’t really believe in hell, but if I did, I’d like to believe anyone who goes on video to call the victims of gang rape by the Imperial Japanese Army “ugly prostitutes” has a place reserved for him in Damnation.

Thanksgiving in Joseon Korea

Yes, I know Thanksgiving is over but, did you ever wonder what the first Americans in Korea feasted on for Thanksgiving?  It wasn’t much.

Horace Allen, an American missionary doctor, brought his wife and infant son to Seoul in late Oct. 1884. They spent the first month repairing the home and getting it ready for the winter ― and winter was early that year.

Allen described Nov. 27 (Thanksgiving) as “a cold crisp day” with the “ground frozen for four inches below [the] surface.” He complained about the slow progress in plastering the house but then noted that it was the American holiday so “we celebrated the day by a little altar worship by singing ‘My Country tis of Thee’ and by eating ‘Boston Baked Beans’ for tiffin.”

By the mid-1890s, things had improved but getting a turkey was no small matter – they had to be imported from China – so many Americans made due with what was available.  Sallie Sill, the wife of the American Minister to Korea, described one of her substitutions to her daughter:

“I wish you could have seen the swan, a large, handsome, pure white one it seemed a shame to have it killed and eaten.  I do not like the meat as well as turkey, but it is considered a great delicacy here.”

You can read the rest of the article here – Korea Times November 30, 2013.


The return of Korean turtles and birds from the past

Lately a number of historical significant items have been returned to Korea – items that were alleged to have been stolen by U.S. soldiers.  It should be noted that in some cases these items were bought from Koreans – although the buyer should have been a little suspicious such as Sergeant Giltner who was approached by a Korean selling antiques from his cart:

One item, a huge carpet – nearly eighteen and a half feet long and about eight feet wide – made from the matched pelts of 48 leopards immediately caught Giltner’s attention. Although he didn’t explain how he had come by the carpet, the Korean peddler claimed “it was worth at least $25,000 and came from the Chang Duk palace in Seoul.” He was willing to sell it for a mere 150,000 Korean won – worth about $25 USD. Giltner promptly bought it and in a letter to his parents wrote that he was sending them “a pretty nice Korean rug” that he had picked up.

After the carpet was sent home, a Korean diplomat recognized the carpet as having come from Queen Min’s bedroom.  It was returned to the Korean government but now it has been speculated that the carpet was not the queen’s.

Los Angeles County Museum of Arts may be forced to return a Joseon era seal:

In a September statement, the museum said there was “credible evidence” that its Royal Seal with Knob in the Form of a Turtle was “removed unlawfully from the National Shrine in Korea.”

“While LACMA has not received a formal request from the Korean national government, we have reached out to them to discuss the results of our research and a mutually satisfactory resolution, including the return of the Royal Seal to Korea,” the statement said.

An official at the state-run cultural heritage administration told The Associated Press that South Korea in May asked the United States to investigate how the seal ended up at the Los Angeles museum known for showcasing art from ancient times to the modern era.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing department rules, said U.S. homeland security officials have confiscated the seal, as they investigate.

But not every item coming back to Korea is coming back by legal force.  A large number of Joseon era wooden birds are being given to a univeristy in Korea by a Japanese collector in the hopes of generating goodwill:

Haruo Yahashi, 79, owner of a surveying firm, has collected 140 such artworks, many of which were made in the 19th century and were used as gifts, ever since he fell in love with an elegantly sculpted bird he saw at an antique store in Tokyo some 30 years ago.

He will donate them to Daegu Health College in the city of Daegu in southeastern South Korea.

Many of the sculptures are 20 cm to 40 cm long and weigh between 3 and 5 kg. Some are painted in bright colors such as red and yellow, while others are covered with gold foil, a sign that they were originally owned by wealthy Koreans.

Mr. Haruo Yahashi explained his reasons for giving the gifts as,  “Japan-South Korea relations are facing difficulties now, but I hope my donation will help promote exchanges on a grass-roots level.”

Is the pen mightier than the nationalism?

As many of you already know, a couple of weeks ago, President Park Geun-hye suggested that Korea, China and Japan collaborate on writing the history of the region as a “way of alleviating tension and promoting peace in Northeast Asia.”  Does anyone think this has a snowball’s chance in hell?

In her article (“Three-nation joint history book to bring peace,Korea Times, Nov. 26, 2013), Kim Jeong-hyun declared that

Korea, as a leader of the relative studies, should work to strike a balance between Sino-centrism and Japan’s imperialism in writing the joint history textbook.

She also eagerly points out:

From the stance of Korea, what worries us the most is that China and Japan both maintain their superior position in describing historical events involving Korea.

In addition to Japan, China also exaggerated Japan’s influence over ancient Korea. However, it is not a correct interpretation, since the installation was not the sign of subjugation, but “diplomatic prowess” that stayed within the boundary that didn’t imperil Silla’s

The points of disputes, raised by the report of China-Japan Joint History Committee, as well as erroneous description of Korean history, are the issues that we should spare no time to resolve.

I am sure that China and Japan have more than a few issues they would like to correct (from their perspective) that Korea might not be so willing to acknowledge – including historical claims to islands and islets.  The word Dokdo alone could throw this project into a free-for-all.  The present looming confrontation between Japan and China over some disputed islands will clearly cause some agitation to the committee.  Even a submerged rock has the potential to rock the boat (KT front page entitled “Nothing Can be spared for Ieodo).

Prof. Kim sums up her article with:

Publishing a joint history textbook is an important task that has great implications beyond the three nations to Taiwan, North Korea, Mongolia, Russia and others.

What lies on our shoulders is not just a task to unravel the current issues and bring regional cooperation, but a task to ensure peace in the future.

I wonder what Prof. Lew Yong-ik has to say about all this.

The plight of Korean leprosy patients and the superstitions surrounding them

A recent article (newscom.Au November 24, 2013) once again sheds light on a sad chapter of Korean medical history and society – the plight of leprosy victims – particularly those on Sorok Island.  It appears that some of the former inmates – inhabitants does not seem fitting – have returned to the island that was once described as “hell on earth”.

Yu Myung-sun, 61, who lived on Sorok for six years until 1974, returned in 2008 after living with other former leprosy sufferers in a village near Seoul. People outside the village “wouldn’t even look at me … restaurants wouldn’t sell meals to us,” Yu said.

“People on Sorok Island make me feel at ease,” she said, wearing a pair of big sunglasses, her face dotted with black spots from anti-leprosy medication. “I feel comfortable here and this is where I’ll die.”

Starting about a decade ago, the number of returning former patients began gradually increasing. Over the past few years, about 70 people, mostly former residents, have resettled here each year.


It is a sad article but what I found touching was this:

Oh Dong-Chan, a dental surgeon and the longest-serving physician on the island at 18 years, said many former patients have come back as word has spread that conditions on the island have improved. He said he often treats his patients, who are used to be shunned, with his bare hands because he knows they like the feel of bare skin.

It reminded me very much of how the first hospital was set up in Gwangju for these poor sufferers.  It was established about 1909 through the efforts of Dr. Wiley Forsythe after he encountered a woman on the road nearly dead from the disease.  He bundled her up and took her back to the mission hospital but, because the other patients were so afraid of catching the disease, was forced to house her out in a brick kiln.  In her book, Martha Huntley described the incident:

A group gathered at the brick kiln saw her coming down the road, assisted over the difficult places by the loving and unshrinking hands of Dr. Forsythe.  The thought in the mind of each of us, ‘How like his Master’…Dr. Forsythe, every inch a gentleman and dressed as such, every now and then grasping the arm of this woman, loathsome from disease, filth, and long neglect…Her hair had been uncombed perhaps for months, or even years, her clothes were ragged and filthy, her feet and hands swollen and covered with sores…on one foot was a straw shoe, on the other a thick piece of paper had been tied.

The woman died two weeks later but money was raised to build shelter for a handful of patients.  The blog Ethnoscopes has an excellent write up of Joji Wilson Kohjima, the great grandson of Robert Manton Wilson, an American doctor who worked in Kroea from 1907-1941 treating the victims of this disease. Notice in this account the poor woman was being stoned by the Korean villagers.

It is also interesting to note that sufferers of the disease were mainly found in the southern part of the country.  I wonder if there were more victims originally in the south or perhaps those in the north traveled south for the milder climate.  There were some victims in the Wonju area in the 1920s who begged for food and aid as well as in Seoul in the 1890s, but the vast majority appear to have been in the southern part of the peninsula.  They were reduced to beggars as described by this Korean describing a neighbor in Pohang with the disease:

It was a death sentence for him and a catastrophe for his family.  Leprosy in Korea was shrouded in older superstition and medical ignorance.  Lepers were abandoned by their own families and eventually became roving beggars with no eyebrows, lopped-off noses, and no fingers or toes, all eaten away by the disease.

These beggars were not only shunned for their disease but also because of the desperation they might exhibit in their attempts to cure themselves of their affliction.  Up until the 1960s, mothers often frightened their children by telling them that unless they stopped crying, a leper would come and steal them and eat them.  When I lived in Gangwon Province, a friend’s grandmother told me that as a child she used to carry red pepper powder as a form of mace to protect herself from lepers.  It was said that lepers would haunt the cornfields and pounce upon children to eat their livers in the belief that this would cure them.  How true was this?

In January 1917, the St. Petersburg Times reported:

Seoul, Korea.  Justifying his act by the Korean superstition that the eating of human flesh is a cure for leporosy, a Korean leper named Sin Yungsyun has confessed to the murder of a five-year-old-boy, whose mutilated body was discovered in a field in South Cholla province.  According to the police, the accused also admitted that with another leper he killed a girl in the mountains on September 15, and that both had eaten of her flesh.

Lepers in Korea hitherto led a miserable life.  With the exception of those cared for by missionaries in a small hospital near Fusan, they have been left to roam at will and eke out their own living.  The superstition as to cannibal cure is very general.

There were others as demonstrated by this article from the Seoul Press (April 18, 1928 – sorry no link, hard-copy transcription):

A wave of superstition seems to be still running high among Korean lepers.  It is understood from Taikyu that a leper named Cho Yoh Soon aged 28 of Kingokudo, Keishu, North Keisho  Province was recently arrested on the charge of exhuming the remains of a baby from the public  cemetery under the impression the ‘Human Flesh Liquor’ is very efficacious for the cure of leprosy.

Apparently these were not isolated incidents.  The Korean poet Seo Jung-ju wrote this poem about the belief.  Maybe they should have used Korean Ginseng – said to cure everything.

But where did these superstitions come from?  One scholar claims that there was no social stigma associated with lepers in Korea until the missionaries arrived and claimed it was ‘divine punishment’ but this doesn’t seem likely as Eunjung Kim notes in his excellent paper “Cultural Rehabilitation: Hansen’s Disease, Gender and Disability in Korea”.  According to him, there were not only accounts of cannabalism but also body snatchers who sold organs to the afflicted:

“However, the image of the flesh eater and its association with leprosy were not invented in the beginning of the modern era. In The Annals of the Chosŏn Dynasty (Chosŏn Wangjo Silok), there are several entries regarding the use of human flesh to cure diseases such as epilepsy and leprosy. For instance, the chronicle of the King So˘ngjong, “So˘ngjong Silok,” records that there was a woman, Tu˘lbi, who cut off her finger, dried, powdered, and fed it to her husband upon hearing that flesh was good for curing sickness. As a result of her actions, her husband’s leprosy was cured (“So˘ngjong Sillok” 29 February 1472).

In the King Sŏnjo period, the chronicle records that there were vagabonds who stole gallbladders by kidnapping and attacking people in order to sell the organs to lepers seeking cures. Sŏnjo ordered the arrest of these organ snatchers (“Sŏnjo Sillok” 26 June 1576). Although these anecdotal reports tie lepers to cannibalism, they hardly represent lepers as a group of anti-social attackers. Instead, human organs were sold by nonlepers as a source of medicine to the lepers who were seeking cures. The wife’s sacrifice of her finger for curing the husband was recorded as an exemplar of her loyalty to her husband. The association between leprosy and the use of human body as medicine was somehow twisted into the image of lepers who sacrifice the lives of other people for cures.

While this image of lepers as child-eating vagabonds was dispersed through the newly available printed public media, the discourse of infection and the hereditary nature of the disease started to emerge in the propaganda supporting the sterilization and institutionalization of lepers after the 1930s. This fear seems to have advanced and later coexisted with the fear of leprosy infection, but it has not been replaced. Between 1920 and 1931, there were 21 articles in Tonga Ilbo (East Asia Daily), one of the popular Korean newspapers after 1920, about lepers allegedly attacking, kidnapping, and killing women and children, and eating the organs of the dead bodies. By contrast, there are only four entries about seeing a leper’s presence in restaurants or public baths as a threat to public health. There is no mention of infection and only one entry mentioning male sterilization as a way of stopping the genetic transference and eradicating leprosy.

These boogyman stories and accounts seem to have been as Mr. Kim notes, propaganda to isolate the victims of the disease from the rest of the public.  Thus began the Japanese-controlled leper colonies. Continue reading →

Practical Gifts in Joseon Korea

A little early for Christmas but….

It wasn’t that long ago when calendars were a popular gift in Korea.  It was not uncommon to visit a Korean friend’s house and see calendars gracing the walls throughout the house.  Those days are gone now – just another trend of the past.  But did you know during the late Joseon era – one of the most popular gifts was a fan?  And it wasn’t just the common people giving fans to one another – King Gojong’s favored foreign representatives and guests with fans:

Members of the diplomatic community frequently received large numbers of fans from the palace. The royal family probably believed the diplomats would distribute these fans to their staffs but many of them merely boxed up the items and sent them home as unique gifts.

One such individual was Sallie Sill, the wife of the American minister to Korea, who wrote to her daughter and proudly proclaimed: “You will never suffer for the want of fans if we get them all safely home.”

Fans were not only gifts – they were also an expected benefit.

Fans were such an integral part of daily life that employers were expected to provide their employees “with these indispensable articles” — even Korean soldiers were equipped with them.

They were also a tool for avoiding people on the street:

They were “an instrument of etiquette.” According to one writer, in Korea, “to hide the face with one is an act of politeness.”

But Westerners did not always seem to grasp Korean etiquette. Gilmore wrote, “Many a time have we passed Koreans on horseback and been amused to see the riders hold their fans before their faces so as not to be seen.”

You can read the rest of the article here – Korea Times, November 25, 2013.