NEW YORK – “My Dear Abe-san, the moment you became the prime minister, you totally messed up Japan’s relations with Korea,” Bong Yun-hu, my Korean friend in Pennsylvania, has recently written to me. “You seem to argue that the Japanese could not have possibly forced young Korean girls to become ‘comfort women,’ but to me, a 90-year old woman who lived in that period, the conclusion is that the Japanese deceived poor farm maidens. Which is more heinous, forcing someone or deceiving someone, is self-evident.”
Not that Bong thinks I have some private conduit to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. She was mainly responding to my 20-year old article I’d sent her about how my family was repatriated from Taiwan following Japan’s defeat in 1945.
Briefly, in the late 1920s my father emigrated from Fukuoka, Kyushu, to Taiwan, which Japan had acquired in 1895 as a colony. Japan was in a chronic economic funk following the boom during World War I, and he, a high school graduate, tried a dozen jobs but none of them suited him.
The economy in Taiwan was not much better. But in the end he found a job as a cop, rose to become an officer of the Special Higher Police, and, after Japan started a war with the United States, Britain and the Netherlands, was sent to Java where he became a Dutch POW upon Japan’s defeat.
My mother, a schoolteacher with four children, had to decamp for Japan. With most ships sunk in the war, it took the family five to six months from Guanshan, southeast of Taiwan, to Fukuoka, spending a month in a ship alone, from Keelung to Otake, Hiroshima Prefecture.
This story — the lengthy, arduous return to Japan part of it in particular — reminded Bong of her own life-or-death struggles that began with Japan’s defeat. That’s because Japan’s defeat reversed Korea’s political life. The Soviet Union declared war against Japan on Aug. 9, the day the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, and in no time the once-vaunted Kwantung Army collapsed. In Manchukuo there were 1,550,000 Japanese, a large portion of them Korean-Japanese. The Soviets would capture more than half a million of them, mostly soldiers, and send them to Siberia as POWs. The rest became refugees and stragglers and tried to return to Japan, via China, the Soviet Union, and Korea. An estimated total of 176,000 died in the process, nearly half of them “pioneers” who had emigrated to Manchuria by “national policy.” At the same time, Soviet influences, which had deep roots in Koreans’ demand for independence, quickly rose and spread throughout the Korean Peninsula.
For its part, the U.S. declared, on Sept. 2, 1945, the day of Japan’s formal surrender, that the U.S. and Soviet Union would divide Korea into north and south with the 38th demarcation line for each to occupy one half. Then, just five days later, the U.S. put the south under military rule.
This upheaval threw Bong and her husband into great difficulty. She had been born 14 years after Japan annexed Korea in what was now “south Korea” and married a man in “north Korea.” Her husband had worked for a prefectural government. That meant he had worked for Japan’s colonial government. So now he was branded “pro-Japanese.” Also, he was from “a local family with influence” and therefore “an exploiter of peasants and workers.”
Thus with political and social standards upside down, the couple found the north grew untenable by the day, forced to live “as if stepping on ice.” Finally, they managed to “escape to the south” in the confusions of the May Day of the following year, 1946, Bong holding her infant daughter. It was in the north, and while escaping to the south, that she witnessed or heard about the miseries that the Japanese, now refugees and stragglers, suffered.
“Russian soldiers’ looting and violence, the mass typhus in the concentration camps for the Japanese, the ghastly brutalities inflicted on the wave after wave of Japanese stragglers fleeing south on foot from Manchuria, and other things,” Bong writes, “may have been deserving punishments the Japanese had brought upon themselves for starting the war. Still, I choke up when I reflect how sinful mankind can be.”
More than 30,000 Japanese would perish in the north.
All that was “unbearable and painful to those like me who had been purely educated with the Japanese Nation’s virtues,” Bong adds. After the primary school where most of the teachers were Japanese, she was accepted by the Shukumei Women’s School for Higher Education founded by the Korean Imperial family and Japanese educators.
“During the 35 years after making Korea into its own territory, Japan had done its best to raise it to its own level in every respect: governance, education, transportation, culture, agricultural reform,” but all that proved “great pains but all in vain” upon Japan’s defeat, except for the governing system, Bong writes.
But the travails for Korea had just begun. With the fierce U.S.-Soviet Union conflicts worsening, there was first the 4.3 Incident in 1948, on Jeju Island. Touched off by the islanders’ demand for Korean unification of the north and south as well as for independence, the small “revolt” would turn the island into a killing field. In the next seven years, 70,000 to 80,000 people were murdered.
In June 1950 the Korean War broke out. Truce talks started a year later. In that sense, the war was “relatively short,” but it was “exceptionally bloody,” a history website notes, adding that more than half of the 5 million Koreans died. The South Korean government’s official estimates of deaths are smaller. Either way, the war produced a large number of casualties.
“Almost all of south Korea turned into a wasteland (as did north Korea),” Bong writes. But “with the war ending in a draw,” and the split between north and south “hasn’t changed a bit to this day, when the 70th anniversary has arrived since Korea’s independence” from Japan.
“Big countries trample upon small countries for their own national policies.” Bong’s lament is universal.
To go back to Abe, he “only debases himself by arguing whether ‘comfort women’ were forced or volunteer,” Bong warns, because “it is an unmistakable fact that ‘comfort women’ existed.”
Like every politician, Abe has changed his tune over the years, but I basically agree with Bong.
Hiroaki Sato is an essayist and translator based in New York.