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Korean volunteers put the K into kizuna

Sharing the same surname, ethnicity and drive, Tokyo and Kyoto students by coincidence each start volunteer groups — with the same name

by Shaun O'dwyer

In 2011, with a renewed sense of community solidarity in the air following the March 11 tsunami in Tohoku, the character for the word kizuna (bonds) was selected as Japan’s kanji of the year. But it would be a mistake to say that, just because “kizuna” is a Japanese word, it must refer parochially to bonds formed inside the Japanese national community.

I’m inclined to think that “kizuna” takes on deeper meaning when it is used to describe bonds formed across communities and nations, even in conditions of adversity. This brings me to the stories of two student volunteer leaders and the groups they have led in the service of the people of Tohoku since 3/11.

One group, based at Tokyo’s Meiji University, is called Kizuna International; the other, at Kyoto University, is Kizuna From Kyoto. The coincidences do not end there: Both groups’ leaders share the same surname (spelled differently in English) and both are ethnic Koreans. The experiences of Yeonho Seo and Tonghwi Soh illustrate those deeper bonds I mentioned above.

I first met Seo in May 2011 at Meiji University during discussions between students and foreign teachers about volunteering for tsunami disaster relief, which led to the formation of Kizuna International.

Seo later explained the international, humanitarian outlook that motivated him to volunteer in Tohoku. As a South Korean Army sergeant serving in harsh conditions in the demilitarized zone in 2003-2005, he was deeply affected by the plight of some of the men under him, who came from very underprivileged backgrounds. The grim realities of their lives, he says, “triggered my desire to know what is going on out there beyond my limited horizons.”

Seo went abroad to broaden his perspective on life. He studied and lived in North America and then in Japan, building up a wide network of friends, and was active in Meiji University’s international student community.

He returned to South Korea after 3/11 at the urging of his worried parents. But while there, he says, he felt a “guilt that I was leaving my family here” in Japan. This guilt, and dismay at the televised footage of the 3/11 disaster, soon prompted him to return to Japan, where he hoped to contribute to the recovery effort.

Seo was a regular participant in early Kizuna International trips to work with disaster-relief NPOs in the tsunami-damaged city of Ishinomaki. From October 2011 he took over management of the group as the teachers stepped back from active leadership roles. Working through social media and friendship networks, Kizuna International recruited some 200 members, around 80 of whom were international students.

By the time Seo graduated in early 2013, Kizuna International had made numerous trips to Tohoku to support disaster relief, reconstruction and fisheries work with NPOs in the region, and was beginning community-building projects of its own in the Miyagi Prefecture town of Minamisanriku. In October, Seo organized another volunteer trip to Minamisanriku, this time with a group of fellow employees from his company, Nitto Denko.

When I interviewed Tonghwi Soh recently in Tokyo, he told me that he identifies as a Zainichi, as an ethnic Korean permanent resident whose native language is Japanese. Born in Osaka and now a law student at Kyoto University, he has had a series of dramatic encounters with earthquakes throughout his life.

He was 4 when the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 wrecked his father’s company in Kobe; in nearby Osaka, Soh says, “I felt the earth shaking.” He was then unlucky enough to be visiting Christchurch, New Zealand, when it was hit by the Canterbury Earthquake of February 2011.

Finally, he was in Miyagi Prefecture on March 9, 2011, when a foreshock of 3/11 struck, and happened to fly home the next day. After 3/11, Soh felt as if some higher power had been protecting him and, grateful to be alive, he wondered how he could help the people of Tohoku.

There was something else in Soh’s background that affected his later work for Tohoku: From the age of 7, he was the target of racist bullying at his elementary school. When he was 10, he says, “It became physical, and I didn’t want to go to school at all.”

After entering an ethnic Korean junior high school, Soh discovered a security, an identity and a sense of solidarity with other Zainichi that he had never felt before. Later, partly spurred by his childhood experiences and the advice of a sympathetic Japanese lawyer, he resolved to study law at university.

Soh first volunteered in Tohoku in March and April 2012, working in Minamisanriku and Kesennuma, also in Miyagi Prefecture. Afterward, he formed Kizuna From Kyoto with four Kyoto student friends. This organization has grown to include 45 members and has worked on various projects, including collecting and dispatching used textbooks to Tohoku schoolchildren and sending volunteers to work in fisheries in Ishinomaki.

During our interview, I sensed that Soh’s work with Tohoku children has fulfilled him the most. In 2011, the mayor of Kyoto invited Tohoku evacuee families to stay in Kyoto and many, especially mothers and children from Fukushima Prefecture, answered his call.

Together with an evacuee elementary school teacher, Soh and four other Kizuna From Kyoto members started a “Study Support Project” in June 2012 to tutor evacuee children whose schooling had been disrupted. It has since taken in some 50 children.

There is more to the project than school lessons. As Soh heard stories of how, after leaving Fukushima, some children had been bullied for being “contaminated,” it dawned on him that this project was giving them the one thing he had missed as an isolated Zainichi child: a secure place where they could feel they belonged, “a space to be with other kids from Fukushima” who had suffered the same experiences.

So, how have Tohoku people reacted to these Korean volunteers? And what of their own awareness of Korea and Japan’s complicated shared history?

Seo’s accented Japanese often piqued the curiosity of local people during volunteer meetings, and so the question of his nationality came up. Some people were grateful to see a Korean volunteer in Tohoku. Seo was at first reluctant to talk about the reactions of others, but as he opened up, it was obvious that they still rankled.

“It happened a lot that as soon as I said, ‘I’m Korean,’ people would bring stuff up about territorial issues, the present, the past, sex slaves,” Seo says. He saw this line of questioning as naive but rude, and it undermined his hope to be seen as just another human being helping in Tohoku.

Soh, on the other hand, can pass as Japanese and never encountered such questioning. The one time he revealed his ethnicity, he says he received a simple, grateful thank you.

Seo and Soh are both acutely aware of the darkest episodes in Korea and Japan’s shared past, including the vigilante massacres of some 6,000 resident Koreans in the Kanto region following the 1923 Tokyo earthquake. But neither is consumed by anger at past injustices, and both put history and politics behind them when they began their work for Tohoku.

Seo told me, “I’m living in Japan and I saw people suffering so I acted. . . . No matter about religion or nationality or historical background or whatever, I just acted as a human being.”

Soh echoed this point: “I was born in Japan as a Korean, but I’m a human being before being a Korean. I want to do the right thing as a human being.”

Their message is, as British novelist E. M. Forster famously put it, “Only connect.” The cynic might remark that with the current state of relations between South Korea and Japan, this message is barely heard. Revisionist nationalism on one side and a nationalism of victimhood on the other increasingly frame those relations, and such nationalisms seem pre-engineered to feed off each other’s resentments. This puts Japan’s Korean residents in a difficult position.

But the cosmopolitan outlooks of Soh and Seo and of like-minded Japanese point to how bonds formed in international friendships, in shared humanitarian endeavors, can transcend bitterness or angry denialism about the past. A difficult achievement, that, and for me it is the most significant meaning that “kizuna” can have.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University, and an adviser to Kizuna International. For more on Kizuna International and Kizuna From Kyoto, see www.facebook.com/KizunaInternational and www.facebook.com/kizuna.fromkyoto. Send all your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Nori

    As a Japanese, I would like to express my huge respect for these brave, young Korean men.

  • zer0_0zor0

    It’s laudable that these Korean groups have been making such efforts and helping to forge the bonds that will be necessary to overcome, as the author aptly puts it

    Revisionist nationalism on one side and a nationalism of victimhood on the other