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A Korean who cherished her Japanese teachers

by Hiroaki Sato

My Korean friend in Pennsylvania, Bong-san, has written she will be turning 90 at the end of this year. Whenever she mentions her age, I am surprised: She can’t be that old!

Of course, I should know better. During the 1970s, when she worked for my employer, the New York office of a Japanese trade agency, she already had grownup daughters. Yet, because she was the very image of the Buddhist goddess of happiness and prosperity, Kisshoten, I did not really imagine she would ever age.

Also, I was inattentive.

In the early part of the decade, I occasionally wrote a letter for her — a letter addressed to the U.S. Embassy in Seoul guaranteeing her responsibility for the conduct and expenses of the person she was inviting to this country.

It was only some years later that I realized she was reacting to the Immigration Act of 1965 that famously removed nationality and ethnic quotas on immigration. South Korea was among the countries that saw a dramatic exodus of their people heading to the United States as a result.

From the 1960s to the 1970s, Korean immigrants here jumped ninefold, from 27,000 to 240,000.

While Bong was with us, I didn’t really know much about her life. It was after she left and we started corresponding that I learned bits and pieces of her life during Japan’s colonial rule and the several years after Japan’s defeat — “the liberation” for Korea. Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and ruled it for the next 35 years.

In her recent letter, she calls the latest spats between Japan and South Korea “ugly, infantile and lamentable.” She mentions some of the heinous things she has heard that Japan did in her country in the past. One was Japan’s attempt to force Korean people to adopt Japanese-sounding surnames.

It ignored the tradition of a country that “puts special importance on ancestral histories,” she wrote.

I say “the heinous things she has heard,” because, if Bong suffered the brunt of Japan’s colonial rule, she does not say. This is true of her perfect command of Japanese, the result of another of Japan’s arrogant measures in Korea, the imposition of Japanese on Korean people.

In writing, she retains the prewar style of kanji and kana. It is the style that Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), for one, never abandoned. He was born about the same time as Bong. Rather, she remembers how wonderfully she got along with Japanese friends and teachers in Korea.

“Most of my teachers while I was in school were Japanese, but they all cared for us from their heart, loved us and poured their heart and soul into making good human beings out of us. Each time I think of them, I want to see them again, and I become teary-eyed.”

She has described some of her teachers for me. In third and fourth grade, for example, her teacher was Nakasuna-sensei, a large woman. Childless, she had a special cushion made for her dog to sit on, but she was so partial to Bong that she insisted she spend Sundays with her, driving Bong’s mother up against the wall.

Nakasuna’s husband was, Bong heard, a security guard at an agricultural station, though he was formerly a high-ranking military officer. That story sounds highly plausible. In the years when Japan created and maintained a military force far too big for such a poor nation, many field-grade officers are known to have had to struggle in finding jobs in nonmilitary life after they were decommissioned.

In fifth and sixth grade her teacher was Chieko Hirose, Bong remembers. She was “petite, slim, and so stylish she looked like a Westerner, looking marvelous in her indigo suit.” But she was known to have a terrible drunk for a husband who created rows with her, “an intelligent, gentle-hearted soul.”

Bong hated the man for it, even though she never had a chance to see him. She also hated him for producing a girl, Yuki. Unlike her “beautiful” mother, the child wasn’t nice-looking, though she was her good playmate.

Hirose openly wept at Bong’s graduation, “trying to push back tears with a handkerchief as she repeatedly asked her to remain in touch,” even as Bong was overjoyed she’d been accepted by a “first-rate school.” She truly loved Korea, Bong reflects.

The school that accepted Bong, I found, was the Shukumei (Sookmyung) Women’s School for Higher Education — a university since 1948.

Established by a member of the Korean Imperial family, the school was strongly supported by the Japanese, among them Noe Fuchizawa (1850-1936), the Christian who had studied in the U.S. on her own. Bong remembers her as an elegant educator always dressed in a blue kimono.

Among the other people at the school Bong continues to admire to this day are school principal Seinosuke Nomura and “the honorary principal” Shogo Oda. Of the two, Oda was also a professor of Korean history at the Imperial University of Keijo (Gyeongseong, today’s Seoul). Reading some references to his work reminds us how difficult it is to write a history of a country that was once a colony.

“Imperial universities” were the highest institutions of learning the Japanese government established, beginning with the one in Tokyo, in 1886. The Keijo University, in 1924, was the sixth (before Osaka, in 1931, and Nagoya, in 1939).

Today, however, having been a professor at one such university makes Oda suspect, even though his position as a historian seems admirable.

Oda, lead author of the five-volume “History of Korean Peninsula” (1927), argued that “history must be a record of fact,” and he rejected as “of little worth” and “opportunistic” anything that’s written on the basis of “a ruler’s policy or the author’s prejudice.” He was a “positivist” in that respect, and his stance daring.

Yet Oda’s position may be dismissed as “fantasy” in the milieu in which he did his work — or so Nobuhiro Katsurajima, of Ritsumeikan University, suggests in his paper (which is online), “History Compilation in Colonial Korea and Historiography.”

Little wonder the joint effort some years ago to write a history satisfactory to both Korea and Japan went nowhere.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.