When Choi Chang Hwan passed away at age 82 in February, the 1,500 books on the modern history of the Korean Peninsula and on his fellow Korean residents in Japan that he left behind to his widow, Kang Sun Son, were a mixed blessing.
Unable to keep such a trove in her small apartment, despite their emotional and scholarly value, Kang, 71, a Korean a resident of Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, recently opted to donate the books to a new museum in Tokyo that will focus on the history of Korean residents in Japan.
Her husband, an ex-branch manager of a credit union run by the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun), was a Korean unification activist. His books were mainly published in Japan.
The museum, which has yet to be officially named, will be the first large-scale facility devoted to the history of Korean residents of Japan. And, in a twist, it will be run by Chongryun’s rival, the pro-Seoul Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan).
“The books were the spiritual foundation of my husband, who dreamed about the reunification of the Korean Peninsula until the day he died,” Kang said as a truck hauled away the books from her apartment earlier this month.
“But I think it will be more rewarding for my husband if the books are read by many younger Koreans and Japanese” instead of being kept at home, she said.
Mindan plans to open the museum in autumn 2005 in the hopes of instilling pride and a spiritual anchor for both present and future generations of ethnic Koreans in Japan.
Next year marks the centennial of the Protectorate Treaty between Korea and Japan, which was a major step toward Japan’s 1910 annexation of the Korean Peninsula.
The museum will display items donated by Koreans in Japan ranging from books and other printed matter to photographs, videos and elements of everyday life, including clothing and kitchen utensils.
The planning committee has also been recording interviews in both print and video with older Koreans about their past experiences, including accounts of harsh discrimination at the hands of Japanese society.
While several affluent Korean business owners have already built small private museums on Korean history and culture across Japan, this new institution will be the first large-scale facility run by a Korean resident representative body.
The building currently occupied by Korean Cultural Center attached to Mindan’s headquarters in Tokyo’s Minato Ward is planned to be the initial site of the museum, which Mindan hopes to expand and eventually move to another building.
Kang Tok Sang, professor emeritus of history at the University of Shiga Prefecture, heads a group of researchers helping to set up the museum. He emphasized that it is the “first and last chance” to build such a facility, in light of the passing of older Korean residents and the gradual assimilation into Japanese society of the younger ones.
Like Choi of Suginami Ward, first-generation Koreans are dying off, making it urgent for the community to create a place where their experiences can be preserved and passed on to future generations, the professor said.
He also pointed out that around 10,000 Korean residents annually take up Japanese citizenship, mainly through marriage to Japanese.
The number of Koreans with special permanent resident status, which was granted to people who entered Japan before and during the World War II and their subsequent offspring, dropped to 471,756 at the end of last year from 517,787 in 1999.
“Unless we have a place to offer the chance (for younger Korean residents) to learn the history of our struggle, the assimilation of Korean residents into Japanese society will proceed unchecked,” Kang said, noting that such a trend would also be detrimental for Japan if it seeks to become a more open society where people from diverse backgrounds can live in harmony.
A planning committee member said that such a museum should have been built years ago, just like the ones built by Koreans in the U.S. and China.
One reason for the delay is the historical North-South divide that has persisted between pro-Pyongyang and pro-Seoul Korean residents in Japan, he said.
“Without support from Chongryun-related individuals, the museum will represent only half of the Korean community,” said Lim Sam Ho, a senior Mindan official in charge of the museum project, voicing hope for broader support for the project.
To obtain wider support, the museum will focus on the daily lives of Korean residents and avoid political issues, he added.
Lim also said that the project represents an important turning point for Mindan, which has been seeking ways since the 1980s to transform itself from a political lobby for Seoul into a group that truly represents the interests of all Korean residents of Japan.
In addition to the museum, other ongoing Mindan projects, including the construction of nursing homes for aged Koreans and the creation of a mutual assistance network of Korean businesses, further reflect the policy shift, he said.
“Both Mindan and Chongryun used to serve the interests of the respective governments of the two Koreas, while often ignoring our original mission to serve all Korean residents here,” he said.
“We must get back to our original mission. Otherwise, we will both lose support from the Korean community in Japan,” he said.