Mar 10 2014

Non-ideas for fixing Japan-Korea ties

south-korea-japan-flag

 

By Fred Varcoe

I wrote this as a response to an article by Scott Snyder and Brad Glosserman on Council on Foreign Relations site Asia Unbound in which they explore problems between Japan and its neighbors, starting out with the issue of “national identity.”

“A deeper, and more compelling, dimension of the split between Japan and the ROK as it is currently framed: contradictory conceptions of national identity that stand in the way of reconciliation steps necessary to improve relations.”

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 The issue of identity is interesting. I would say your average Japanese has a very weak concept of self or identity, even less so when framed in historical terms. The average Japanese person has a poor grasp of history, if any grasp at all. The problem with Japan’s current brand of loud nationalist politicians is that they have the stage and theirs is virtually the only voice out there. So when someone like Prime Minister Abe – as intellectually disadvantaged as a politician can be – says ‘this’ happened in history and we must resist Korea because of it, quite a few Japanese will believe what he is saying because they have no points of reference to refute such claims; because – intellectual capacity notwithstanding – he’s prime minister; and because Japanese have a bad habit of believing anyone who’s always on TV.

The Koreans, on the other hand, have a very powerful sense of self and identity, and a strong sense of history (or should that read ‘injustice’) and did so long before the Japanese annexed their country. The oft-portrayed image of Korea as merely a peasant country prior to (and even during) the 20th century does Koreans a disservice. They have trailed Japan in terms of modernisation in the 20th century, but they have always had a sense of self, a proud history and the ability to make progress.

If anything symbolizes Korea’s relationship with Japan, it is probably the assassination of Queen Min:

“In the fall of 1895, Japanese ambassador to Korea Miura Goro formulated a plan to assassinate Queen Min, a plan that he named ‘Operation Fox Hunt.’ Early in the morning of October 8, 1895, a group of fifty Japanese and Korean assassins launched their assault on Gyeongbokgung Palace. They attacked the queen consort’s sleeping quarters, dragging out the queen and three or four of her attendants. The assassins questioned the women to make sure that they had Queen Min, then slashed them with swords, stripped, and raped them. The Japanese displayed the queen’s dead body to several other foreigners in the area, particularly the Russians, so that they knew their ally was dead, and then carried her body to the forest outside the palace walls. There, the assassins doused Queen Min’s body with kerosene and burned it, scattering her ashes.”

This was followed by annexation and domination as the Japanese forced Koreans to adopt Japanese names and only use the Japanese language as they tried to wipe out Korea’s culture and enslave its population. I don’t think a few new roads, railways and some fancy architecture will compensate for that. And that only ended 70 years ago. This is living memory.

Japan’s sense of victimhood is based entirely on the fact that it lost the war and was humiliated. It’s almost comical how they try to offset decades of rape and pillaging in Asia with the suffering its citizens endured in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After visiting the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki (or was it laughingly called the ‘Peace Museum’ to go along with the Peace Park, etc.?), I wrote: “The only surprising thing about Nagasaki is that foreigners don’t have ‘guilty’ stamped in their passports when they leave.” As a result of Japan’s distorted view of history, most Japanese think that Hiroshima and Nagasaki had nothing to do with what went before. They believe the atomic bombings happened because of American aggression, not because of Japan’s insane rampage through Asia and their attack on Pearl Harbour.

The main missing ingredient necessary to achieve the task of healing the divisions between South Korea and Japan is statesmanship.”

Well, good luck with that one. You’re not wrong. Japan is desperate for a leader and hasn’t had one since … er … never. No matter what he believes personally, a Japanese statesman should not visit Yasukuni Shrine while in office. It doesn’t make any political sense at all. Nationalist Japanese politicians use Yasukuni as a political booster, but for prime ministers, ministers and senior government officials it is self-defeating. It says to Korea, China, etc., ‘You can’t tell us what to do.” It’s more about trying to prove they have big penises, which they don’t. Most Japanese politicians are emasculated by local politics, bureaucrats and inferior intellects. They don’t have the intelligence or the freedom to explore their own thoughts – and that’s probably a good thing.

Korean politicians are characterized by egotism, avarice and regionalism. Right-wing politicians are seen as true defenders of the nation; left-wingers, like the admirable Roh Moo Hyun, are labelled Communists. President Roh offered Korean society hope like no other politician had done before him. He was exploited by those around him and ended up killing himself…

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Roh Moo Hyun

The only person who can help to resolve the historical issues between Korea and Japan is the Emperor of Japan, but he is also constrained by politicians and the bureaucracy. He was invited to Korea for the opening of the 2002 World Cup, but it was never going to happen. So maybe resolution of this issue is also never going to happen.

A ‘no-war statement’ between Korea and Japan? That’s not much of an idea and even if one did materialize it wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on.

“Japan should declare its support for the unification of the Korean Peninsula under the Seoul government, a statement that would end speculation about long-term intentions in Tokyo about the fate of the Peninsula.”

Not sure that this wouldn’t be construed as Japan interfering in the internal affairs of Korea. Of course, we’re going off topic here, but Seoul is not the legitimate ruler of the entire Korean Peninsula.

The establishment of “a day for the two countries to jointly commemorate the history of the 20th century without being entrapped by it.”

Another wishy-washy idea that isn’t going to happen. August 15 celebrates liberation for the Korean Peninsula. They’re not going to want to stop celebrating that and why would they? It would be like asking the United States to stop celebrating July 4 (Independence Day) because it offended the British.

For right-wing dingbats like Abe, August 15 is not about reflecting on the war and Japan’s dead soldiers; it’s more about keeping alive an idea that didn’t quite pan out first time around but needs to be remembered for the next time.

abex

Shinzo Abe

In conclusion, the sadness of the conflict between Japan and South Korea is the division that moronic politicians are trying to make between two peoples who are quite comfortable with each other. The liberalisation of Japanese culture in Korea a decade ago and the reverse “Korea boom” in Japan made a huge people-to-people boost in the relationship. The “bottom-up approach” endorsed by Lee Chae-ryung makes sense if only evil politicians would just shut up and do their job of leading their citizens and countries toward a better future.

But I guess that’s not going to happen either.


Mar 3 2014

Cold comfort for Japan’s sex slaves

 

Right-wing and revisionist politicians Yoshiko Matsuura and Tomoko Tsujimura

Right-wing and revisionist politicians Yoshiko Matsuura and Tomoko Tsujimura

 

 By Fred Varcoe

It was nice to see the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan invite two right-wing politicians to the Club to express their views on the “comfort women.” Tokyo-based politicians Yoshiko Matsuura and Tomoko Tsujimura demonstrated how the right think in Japan. Or, to put it another way, how the right is incapable of thought.

Matsuura and Tsujimura arrived to explain how they travelled to Glendale, Calif., to protest at a statue of a “comfort woman” being erected in a public park. The protest was accompanied by a letter – from the Japan Coalition of Legislators against Fabricated History, which was signed by hundreds of legislators – to Glendale Mayor Dave Weaver explaining why they were protesting.

Here are some excerpts and comments:

1.     “We are committed to instilling a fair-minded, accurate perception of history in our children.”

A noble idea that has never been part of the Japanese mentality. Japan has consistently denied crimes committed in the past – as it denies truths that it doesn’t want made public. They constantly denied Unit 731 existed in China until incontrovertible evidence emerged. Sweep everything under the carpet is their modus operandi. If we can’t see it, it didn’t exist. It is ironic that the many signees to the letter to Mayor Weaver portrayed the message of the statue as a “distorted view of history.”

2.     “Japanese military authorities never forced Korean women to engage in prostitution. The comfort women were part of a legally sanctioned prostitution system, similar to others in existence throughout the world. They were handsomely remunerated; the word ‘sex slaves’ is an inaccurate description of the comfort women.”

It is quite possible that real prostitutes from Japan, Korea and other countries sought to make money from Japanese soldiers. The right wing in Japan often cites an American Army report from Burma that suggested that some girls they came across were professionals (i.e., prostitutes) and making a good living. But no one outside Japan has suggested that this single report exonerated Japan over this issue or that this represented the true, broader picture of what was going on in Japanese military brothels.

3.     “Also engraved on the statue is the following: ‘In memory of more than 200,000 Asian and Dutch women who were removed from their homes in Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, East Timor and Indonesia, to be coerced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Armed Forces of Japan between 1923 and 1945.’ However, the Japanese military never abducted women or compelled them to serve as comfort women.”

The speakers and other right-wingers in Japan claim that the Japanese military never abducted women. And they absolve themselves entirely by blaming recruitment on local agents. This is to some extent true, but there is little doubt that the agents were working on behalf of the military and the military was fully complicit in these crimes against humanity. Whatever the chain of command may have been, the women were conned into working for Japanese military brothels. If they had been independent prostitutes, as the Japanese imply, then they would have been free to go where they wanted and fuck who they wanted. But they were typical examples of human traffic, conned into believing they would be properly employed (e.g., in a factory) and reimbursed. The traffickers then imposed an artificial debt on them – typical of today’s traffickers – which they had to work off by being raped by Japanese soldiers (up to 40 a day). The vast majority of these women were not free, certainly were not prostitutes and definitely didn’t want to be where they were. They were enslaved and, let’s be quite clear, they may have been recruited by “agents” (and there is evidence of military complicity) but they were slaves of the Japanese armed forces. Lack of freedom = slavery.

4.     “Japan is a nation whose culture places great value on women, as evidenced by the fact that works about romantic love created by women writers such as Murasaki Shikibu.”

Anyone who has lived in Japan for any length of time knows that Japanese women are far from being equal with men:

From the Asahi Shimbun:

“October 26, 2013

Japan’s ranking for female equality has fallen a further four places from 101st in 2012 to 105th this year, according to the newly released 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, ranking women’s equality in 136 countries.

The ranking is Japan’s lowest since the World Economic Forum started releasing its annual report in 2006.

The report, released on Oct. 25, said that Japan is failing to have women more involved in society despite their achieving a high education level.”

Murasaki, of course, created the “Tale of Genji,” a book that is revered in Japan but is basically about a paedophile rapist…

  • 5.     The Japanese Government-General of Korea prosecuted and punished deceitful brokers at every opportunity. But neither government nor military entities were involved in any way whatsoever in recruiting the comfort women.”

Another copout. I don’t think the Government-General of Korea did a very effective job of prosecuting and punishing deceitful brokers. More to the point, if this was the case, why were the women recruited not sent home if the Government-General of Korea was aware they’d been tricked into serving in the brothels? The inescapable fact is that the Japanese military wanted the women in the brothels, didn’t care how they got there and would keep them there no matter what their recruitment involved.

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 I had a simple question for these women at the FCCJ. It was this:

“Were Koreans forced to work in the mines in Oita?”

They refused to answer the question. At first, they said they were only there to talk about comfort women before rambling on about how Koreans and Japanese were working together to win the war, which I thought showed they had a sense of humor before realising that they weren’t joking.

But the question had a purpose. My Korean father-in-law was forced to work in the mines in Oita during the war. Mr. Lee was a noble man of unimpeachable integrity. His admission was not a trick to get money from Japanese companies or the Japanese government. In fact, it was a painful memory for him and one he only shared with his family a few years before he died.

So I wanted to know what Matsuura and Tsujimura thought about Korean workers in Kyushu. Were Koreans like Mr. Lee forced to work down the mine. Their reluctance to answer spoke volumes.

If they believed (and I’m sure they did) that Koreans were forced to work down the mines in Kyushu, then it shouldn’t be a surprise if women were forced to work in brothels for the military. If they had said Koreans weren’t forced to work down the mines, then they were calling my father-in-law a liar. I know he wasn’t. So for me, their arguments have zero validity.

In fact, they were asked how many Koreans they had spoken to about this issue and the answer was none. Tsujimura, proudly related how she had spoken to her military grandfather about the war but failed to tell us how many Korean “prostitutes” he had slept with.

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Tsujimura also tried to suggest that Japan had “civilised” and modernised Korea during its occupation, with one of her arguments being that the number of children being born rose dramatically during that time. Again, she failed to understand why.

My mother-in-law married my father-in-law at a young age, as did many other Korean women, at a time when North Korean agents were kidnapping residents of the South, especially young women. The young women of the South saw marriage as a form of protection against the marauding insurgents from the North, and it is likely that women in colonial times in Korea sought similar protection, as outlined in this quote:

“The Korean cult of female virginity which strictly enforced the norm of girls’ premarital chastity, unwittingly served as an important contributing factor in rendering Korean unmarried women desirable recruits in the eyes of the Japanese authorities. Indeed, Aso Tetsuo (1910-1989), an army doctor, concluded in his report – written after his medical examinations of the women – that unmarried Korean women, rather than Japanese prostitutes, would make better ‘gifts for the Emperor’s warriors.’ The indigenous sexual culture, with its emphasis on what I call ‘virginal femininity,’ thus helped render colonial Korea a prime source of young ‘virgins’ to satisfy the needs of the Japanese military comfort system.” – from The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan by C. Sarah Soh.

So you can see, being an unmarried girl/woman in colonial Korea made you a target.

According to Soh’s book, Japanese historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki found six official documents in the Library of the National Institute for Defense Studies that “clearly implicate the Japanese government in the establishment and maintenance of the military comfort system.”

One of the disturbing aspects of the FCCJ press conference was how Matsuura and Tsujimura sought to turn the issue around as a Korean attack on Japanese. While the statue in Glendale was erected largely at the behest of Koreans, it represents the sex slaves of many nationalities. Tsujimura claimed that Japanese schoolchildren were being bullied by Korean kids in California and asserted that this amounted to “racial discrimination.” Being a historical dunce, she is obviously unaware that the Japanese and Koreans are the same race. More to the point is the fact that Dutch, Australian and many Asian women were victims of the comfort women system. It is not just about Korea and Japan. Jan Ruff-O’Herne is one of those former sex slaves who has spoken out on the issue. Like others, she didn’t want to revisit the past, but Japan’s denials re. the Korean comfort women forced her to speak out 50 years later.

 

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Jan Ruff-O’Herne

 

 

”First it was only the Korean women, and nobody took any notice because ‘they were only Asian women’. But then when a European woman spoke out the world suddenly took notice,” Mrs Ruff-O’Herne said.

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Another constant factor in this debate is the issue of apologies. In 1993, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued a statement that many see as an apology by the government of Japan for the comfort women issue:

 “The Government of Japan has been conducting a study on the issue of wartime “comfort women” since December 1991. I wish to announce the findings as a result of that study.

   As a result of the study which indicates that comfort stations were operated in extensive areas for long periods, it is apparent that there existed a great number of comfort women. Comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities of the day. The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women. The recruitment of the comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters who acted in response to the request of the military. The Government study has revealed that in many cases they were recruited against their own will, through coaxing coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments. They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.

   As to the origin of those comfort women who were transferred to the war areas, excluding those from Japan, those from the Korean Peninsula accounted for a large part. The Korean Peninsula was under Japanese rule in those days, and their recruitment, transfer, control, etc., were conducted generally against their will, through coaxing, coercion, etc.

   Undeniably, this was an act, with the involvement of the military authorities of the day, that severely injured the honor and dignity of many women. The Government of Japan would like to take this opportunity once again to extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.

   It is incumbent upon us, the Government of Japan, to continue to consider seriously, while listening to the views of learned circles, how best we can express this sentiment.

   We shall face squarely the historical facts as described above instead of evading them, and take them to heart as lessons of history. We hereby reiterated our firm determination never to repeat the same mistake by forever engraving such issues in our memories through the study and teaching of history.

   As actions have been brought to court in Japan and interests have been shown in this issue outside Japan, the Government of Japan shall continue to pay full attention to this matter, including private researched related thereto.”

A number of prime ministers and politicians have issued apologies, although they are often vaguely phrased to allow Japan to squirm out of direct responsibility.

The closest the Emperor came was this statement to South Korean Prime Minister Kim Dae Jung in 1996:

“There was a period when our nation brought to bear great sufferings upon the people of the Korean Peninsula. The deep sorrow that I feel over this will never be forgotten.”

Under the premiership of idiotic revionist Shinzo Abe, there have been calls for Japan to amend the 1993 Kono statement, suggesting there may be doubt about the testimony of Korean women that the statement was based on. And here lies a problem, namely that Japanese politicians are inherently duplicitous and unreliable, so any statements they make are without value.

 

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Japanese protesters show what they think of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

 

The only person who could put an end to the issue would be the Emperor, but he is constrained in his statements by the revisionist politicians and conservative bureaucrats that run Japan.

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 Japan also points out that all issues concerning the war were resolved when the two countries normalized relations and “settled” all outstanding wartime issues. But this was an agreement between a right-wing Japanese government and the South Korean government of military dictator Park Chung-Hee. Park was a proud servant of the Japanese colonial rulers, joined the (Japanese) Manchukuo Army and, according to a report in the Hankyoreh newspaper, even signed an oath of allegiance to Japan in his own blood.

 

park blood

Report on Park Chung Hee pledging allegiance to Japan in his own blood

 

The 1965 treaty was a diplomatic agreement that rode roughshod over the human problems created by Japan’s past. It was about business and money, not about human suffering or individuals. Technically, the two countries resolved their differences and established diplomatic relations, but this is a human issue and the humans involved are still suffering.

This was brought home to me several years ago when I visited England with my Japanese girlfriend. We arranged to visit my friend Debi at her parents’ house. When Debi’s father heard a Japanese was coming to his house – a cute, lovely and kind Japanese – he walked out and refused to return until the Japanese had gone. He had been a prisoner of war of the Japanese in Singapore and the mere thought of hearing Japanese or being in the same room as a Japanese filled him with painful memories.

For him, it was a reminder of the hate and violence he experienced at the hands of the Japanese. The comfort women are reminded of that hate every day not only through their own experiences, but also through the persistent attempts by Japan to deny that such atrocities ever took place. Would Matsuura and Tsujimura call Debi’s father a liar, like they do my father-in-law?

Probably, especially if he was Korean…

 

Korean demonstrators offer advice to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Korean demonstrators offer advice to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

 

 

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Links:

Park Chung Hee signs oath to Japan in blood

Unit 731

Excerpt from book on comfort women (Google books)

Comfort women article

Japan PM denies coercion re. comfort women

Australian ‘comfort woman’ slams Japan

Comfort women article by Suvendri Kikuchi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Oct 6 2012

Dealing with Death

 

By Fred Varcoe

I went to my first funeral when I was 38. It was my father’s. I hadn’t had to deal with death up to that point – and I haven’t had to deal with it much since then.
I’ve paid my respects a couple of times in Japan and South Korea, but I wasn’t particularly close to the people involved, or even knew them at all in some cases. Death was distant; it was abstract. I never felt involved. My recent trip to South Korea to take part in my father-in-law’s funeral brought death back into my life.
There have been a few deaths sort of near me – all my grandparents. But they, too, were distant. I only met my grandparents once a year at best; I didn’t know them so well. I was 8 years old when my mother’s mother died (at 58) and vaguely remember going to say goodbye to her as she lay dying at home. Her husband died 10 years later, slightly out of his mind, while my father’s mother succumbed to cancer around the same time. I hadn’t seen either of them for ages. They lived far away, I was a teen at boarding school and nobody in my family really seemed to make an effort to meet up.
But at 23, with one grandparent left, I made a trek across London to see my remaining grandfather. He was 86, and we went down the pub for some gin and fags. He was good company, alert, funny and as down-to-earth as most Cockneys. He drank pink gin – strong pink gin – and we talked about trivial things. He died a few weeks later. I don’t know how; I don’t know what of. I like to think he had a pink gin in one hand and a Woodbine in the other. But having seen him so recently, I felt connected. I wish I had been more connected to all my grandparents. They were a diverse bunch and had so much to offer.
But it was too late.

The day the music died

Death continued to pass me by. Working in Saudi Arabia in the early ’80s, a couple of colleagues died young: one through an ill-judged experiment with nitrous-oxide, the other – a rampant homosexual –from a mysterious disease. Life went on.

One death while I was there did affect me. In December 1980, I bought the Arab News in downtown Taif and took it home. As I entered my bedroom, I glanced at the front page; John Lennon had been assassinated. I was stunned. Perhaps I was more shocked by the fact that I took it personally. It sounds trite, but it was like a part of me had died that day. But it was true. I had grown up with The Beatles. I had bought Please Please Me at the age of 7. I even went to see the movie Help! with my paternal grandmother, another down-to-earth Londoner. The Beatles wrote the soundtrack to so many young lives. We were all emotionally involved.
Fast-forward 22 years to another musician who helped write the soundtrack to my life. Warren was an acquaintance who became a great friend. Like his hero Ray Davies of The Kinks, Warren wrote stories into music – great English pop songs. I used to visit him in Holland when he lived there in the early ’80s. Holland buzzed, and we had a lot of fun. So much fun, it dominated our conversations for the next 20 years. Warren had two Top 10 hits in the U.K. with Bucks Fizz and five minor successes in Japan (I was his agent). He was always first on my list of people to see when I went to the U.K., but with limited time on visits home, I didn’t always see him. At 55, he went to sleep one night and didn’t wake up.

 

Warren on stage in Holland (with ex-Gruppo Sportivo bassist Eric Wehrmeyer)

 

It was like being robbed of my memories. Talking about our rock ‘n’ roll days in Holland kept those days alive, kept us young, kept us alive. Is this what happens? Your friends die and bits of your life just drop off with them? We hadn’t finished reminiscing; that part of our lives still felt so close. Is it now?

A week to the day after Warren’s death, I became a father. Suddenly, life had new meaning. My life. But now I realize the enormity of what I’ve done and nothing horrifies me more than to think that I might not be around to help my daughter grow up. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t expect to live to an old age.

 

Goodbye, Grandad

My Korean father-in-law didn’t have that problem. One of his daughters died young in a car accident, but he had six reserves plus a son. There was a lot of life in the Lee family. A week after his death, there still is.
But saying goodbye to this man – as dignified and well-grounded as my paternal grandfather, who died at exactly the same age, 86 – was a mixture of the grand and the grotesque. And for the first time since I attended my father’s funeral, I was a participant.
With my father’s death, the remoteness was still there. My father died while I was in Japan and I’d been living overseas for 14 years. It took me two days to get home. I didn’t have to deal with the everyday stuff of death. I got home and the funeral was arranged. I saw no dead body. I didn’t feel involved. My mother, brother and sister had to deal with everything; I just had to fly home. On the morning of the funeral, I played golf. Did I appear cynical? I hope not. Golf clears the head and my head needed clearing. I was hiding behind an emotional wall. It wasn’t going to get to me yet. To get to the crematorium, I drove my rental car. I didn’t want to be part of a procession. I was almost in denial as to all of this being real.
But then we were in the crematorium chapel with my father’s coffin on the rollers ready for his final journey to the incinerator. It all came home to me. This was my life. Death was suddenly real. The priest was talking about my father. After a short service, a curtain shielded the coffin as it rolled toward the burners. A door closed. Goodbye, Dad.
And then we were out in the sunshine, drying our tears, saying goodbye to the living, driving home. What do we do now?
Party, of course. Good food, a lot of Champagne and we were living life again. Perhaps it was too easy, too quick. The Koreans have to work a lot harder for their closure.

The long goodbye
My wife’s father died at around 4 a.m. on a Monday morning. I managed to get my wife on a plane to Busan at 2 p.m. on the same day and she was in Daegu by 6. By then, her family were several hours into the ceremonials. They had delayed dressing the body – in front of the family – until she arrived. I’m not sorry I missed it. Curiously, the first things her parents had shown me the first time I went to their house were the clothes they would be dressed in after they were dead. I was under the impression that I would have to help dress the body. This wasn’t the case, partly because I was traveling a day behind my wife, but mainly because the mortuary staff did that. The wife told me it was done very well and with great class. “My father looked very dignified,” she said.
Due to work obligations, I arrived 24 hours behind my wife. I figured that by the time I arrived in the early evening the whole family would soon out of mourning mode and into the food and alcohol.
Wrong!
I was hustled into the mourning area in the basement of a small hospital to pay my respects before the altar that had been set up. You could barely move for flowers.

 

 

I was soon on my knees.
“You have to do two and a half bows,” my brother-in-law informed me.
Well, what’s that? OK, two on my knees, head touching the floor; I get that. But a half bow? Do I get half up and get down again? Or do I get all the way up and bow halfway. I’ll opt for B, Bob. Eerrrck! Wrong! But no big deal.
I was handed a black suit to replace the black suit I was wearing (“It’ll get dirty,” I was told.) and given an oversized white shirt and black tie, identical to the suits and shirts and ties worn by the other five sons-in-law and my wife’s brother. I had to wear a strange tall yellow hat and armband made of linen, which had a single black line running around it. The brother’s had two black lines. South Korea is a Confucianist country; everyone has their rank. I felt like the corporal of death.

 

No, really, it suits you…

In the small altar area, there were seven cushions lined up on each side. Not quite seven brides for seven brothers; there were seven brides for the lone brother and six brothers-in-law. Position was determined by age. I was married to daughter No. 4, so I was fifth in line (the brother was first, of course). The women were lined up in similar order opposite their husbands.
The altar had a smallish picture of the deceased and lots of food and flowers. The primary floral tribute had been provided by the chairman of one of South Korea’s chaebols, an impressive tribute and one of significance. Big wheels are turning.
Mourners flooded in. Mourners were not only those who knew the deceased, but also those connected to the family, so colleagues of the son, sons-in-law and daughters. Some came in groups; others individually. As they entered the mourning area, the family lining each wall would chant “Igo, igo, igo” non-stop, a call to the spirit of the deceased. The chief mourner in the visiting group would make an offering of alcohol and light a stick of incense, followed by the requisite two and a half bows. Then, all the mourners in that group would turn to face the male relatives and both sides would fall to their knees again in a humble bow. Then, they would make to get up, but invariably fall to one knee to offer a message of condolence after being introduced by whoever they knew among the family. They would then put an envelope containing money in a box ($55,000 passed through that box over the three days!). Some would then leave; others would eat and drink at the restaurant adjoining the altar area. They were soon replaced by other mourners. In fact, this had been going on for well over 30 hours by the time I arrived. Nobody had gone home. On the day I arrived, the procession of mourners didn’t finish until after midnight. At 1 a.m., the family ate. Most grabbed two or three hours sleep on the floor. The marathon was not over yet.

 

Waiting for more mourners

The first ceremony of the final day came at 5:45 a.m. The ceremonies were now getting more heart-wrenching for the family. Another ceremony was held in front of the coffin before it was loaded into the massive black Cadillac hearse for a journey to the old man’s home. Another ceremony was held in the yard there with one of the elders from the village leading the prayers.

 

 

Up to this point, things had been moving and dignified; the old man was being sent off with love and affection.

Then we got to the crematorium.

 

At the crematorium

The coffin was unloaded into what appeared to be the tradesman’s entrance. The family was directed to a waiting room. People could watch TV. Soon, we were hustled into a glass-walled viewing room. Beyond the window was the coffin. Beyond the coffin was a line of a dozen doors to what looked like industrial furnaces. It was horribly stark.

 

A door opened and the body was shoved through. It was quick, sudden and shocking. Family members yelped in shock. The furnace door closed and everybody was hustled out to wait.
We waited for over an hour under a hot midday sun. We did lunch. We drank beer. We waited some more.
I went back to the waiting room as it was cooler there. I noticed a bank of TV monitors, each one placed above a photo of those being “processed.” You could watch the furnace doors open and the ashes being wheeled out on a trolley. The picture was fuzzy, thank God.
But then the monitor told us furnace No. 4 was ready and we were hustled back into the glass-walled viewing room. The door opened and a tray of bones was dragged out. The women screamed for their father. Everyone looked on in disbelief.
Originally, the family thought they would stick with tradition and bury the old man on a hill near their house. But South Korea is losing its cultural markers. Modern times require quick and easy solutions to life – and death. The dead don’t need to take up space on a hill.
One or two bones were still identifiable. Two crematorium staff swept everything into a box and brought it over to where the family were watching in a state of shock. I stood well back, holding my daughter for comfort. Everyone was distraught. This was no way to create a final memory of a man revered by his family. This was processing, not healing, not loving, not even remembering. Who’d want to remember this?
The bones were crammed into an urn and handed over. Thanks for your patronage; have a nice day. Er, recommend us to your friends…
The family drove back past the old man’s house and village and up into the hills to a Buddhist temple where his ashes would be enshrined and where the family could find spiritual salvation. Religions require belief and everyone wanted to believe that father was on a journey, and his journey would end peacefully in a sacred place. It was sunny and 33 C; no one had any energy left. A Buddhist priest gave the family the spiritual sustenance they sought. We said our last prayers for the old man’s final journey, bowed to the ground one more time to say goodbye and headed home.

Final resting place

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Later that night, a magpie – a symbol of good luck in Korea – flew onto a wall of the house. He gave the impression he belonged there and looked paternally at the family members clustered behind an open window. He flew into the house and perched high up in the living room. Nobody said anything, but everyone thought the same thing. How could you think otherwise?
After refusing to leave, the fearless widow Lee grabbed the bird and ushered it out. It flew away into the night. She watched it go, saying a final, silent farewell.
Sorry, you don’t live here anymore.

 

 

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