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.

*************************

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.

 

ruff

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.

 *************************

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.

 

abe hitler

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 16 2012

Japan, Korea and the Gangnam void

By Fred Varcoe

There’s something distinctly odd about Japan’s cultural relationship with South Korea. Of course, with around a million Koreans or people of Korean lineage living in Japan (the Koreans would claim around 120 million, but that’s a different story), it should be no surprise that there is a strong link between the two. Head to the area between Shin Okubo/Hyakunin-cho and Kabukicho in Shinjuku Ward and you will be overwhelmed by Koreana. You can’t move for Korean shops, Korean restaurants, Korean pop culture and Korean people.
When I lived in that area between 1987 and 1992, there was nothing there. And I mean nothing. At that time, Japanese culture was effectively banned in South Korea – no pop music, no films, nothing – and it seemed like it was a two-way affair. Japan, too, wasn’t exactly going out of its way to understand the culture of its closest neighbour (despite the presence of plenty of Korean hostesses where I lived).
Following the easing of restrictions on Japanese culture (which was, of course, always available in the bootleg markets of Seoul and other cities), the two countries slowly opened up to each other. Japanese bands were already becoming popular in Korea, while “Winter Sonata” heralded a tsunami of dreadful dramas into Japan. Koreans have become big stars in Japan, while Japanese are free to exploit the smaller Korean market.
Japanese pop fans have realised that Korean bands and stars can out-sing and out-dance the domestic versions (or at least equal the many “Japanese” stars of Korean descent). Other Asian countries have followed suit. The Koreans are everywhere.
PSY is everywhere.

 

 

Who’s he?

The pudgy 34-year-old has taken the world by storm with his quirky dance hit “Gangnam Style,” racking up half a billion views on YouTube and soaring to the top of the charts in the U.K., the United States and a host of other countries. He’s now a worldwide star.
A worldwide star that most people haven’t heard of in Japan.
The anomaly doesn’t make sense. Japan has been mainlining Korean culture for a decade now and doesn’t seem to be able to kick the habit. However, a recent reawakening of the Dokdo/Takeshima island dispute has put the right-wing lunatics back on the street and TV stations have been put under pressure to lay off Korean culture. Even Fuji TV, known as a right-wing channel, was apparently “warned” to be less accommodating to Korean programs and to show more Japanese crap.
Politicians from both countries have fanned the flames in irresponsible ways. South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak’s ill-advised trip to the islands sparked the latest round of insults and many Japanese have been happy to return the insults with their warped version of history. The Koreans are in possession of the islands and aren’t going to give them up. The Japanese have a weak claim to them and aren’t going to do anything to try and reclaim them, apart from fruitless gestures and ineffective legal measures. So the catcalling is just that.
But it may be that there is some discrimination against PSY for being the world’s most visible Korean. Some people claim not to like “Gangnam Style,” but not many. And it should be right up Japan’s alley – great tune, good beat, stupid dance, funny and fun. What’s not to like?

Some say PSY hasn’t promoted the song in Japan. HELLO!!!?! Half a billion people have seen it on YouTube. It shouldn’t need promoting. It’s a worldwide phenomenon; you’d think that any media organisation must report on it. How could they ignore it? But I haven’t seen it mentioned on Japanese TV (which, admittedly, I try to avoid) and when I polled 50 university students, only one of them knew it – or admitted to knowing it.
PSY reportedly was planning on heading to Japan at the end of September and even planning to do a special Japan version of his song (“Roppongi Style”), but the trip didn’t come off. No reason has been given. One theory is that he was concentrating on doing a deal with Justin Bieber’s management in the U.S. But one factor that may be preventing PSY from coming here is a drugs bust in South Korea in 2001. He was busted for smoking marijuana. Apparently, the usual drill for South Korean parents in such situations is to head down to the cop shop, fall to their knees and beg forgiveness for their child. PSY’s parents apparently just shrugged and said, “Yep, that sounds like our son.”
PSY also had trouble with his compulsory military service. According to Wikipedia:

“PSY served his mandatory military service as a technician in a venture firm from 2003 to 2005. After evidence came to light that revealed that PSY hadn’t properly carried out his duty during his service as a technician, he was re-drafted to serve as a soldier in the ROK Army in August 2007. After being discharged in the summer of 2009, PSY said he had learned a lot through this experience. He said he also felt the weight of his responsibility to his wife and twin daughters, born two months before he headed off to the ROK Army boot camp.”

PSY has been labelled “K-Pop” but he’s not really part of the K-Pop setup. He’s not pretty, he’s not slim, he doesn’t look like he’s been surgically modified and he’s not young – generally prerequisites for success in Japan (and Korea). But he does have talent and has been successful over the years. More to the point, he’s funny and an iconoclast. He gets irony, which the Japanese haven’t managed to invent yet. Maybe the Japanese just don’t get him.

 

Apkujong (no) style

“Gangnam Style” parodies the young, rich and stupid who flash their brand names in the meat markets of Seoul. PSY should know; he’s one of them. Well, he’s a rich, Gangnam boy. Actually, Gangnam is a large area south of the Han River in Seoul. The ground zero for the rich dicks PSY parodies is Apkujong. Here’s what I wrote about Apkujong for The Japan Times 10 years ago:
“Apkujong
Part of the Gangnam area, but merits an entry in its own right as it’s the trendiest part of town. Or, to put it in the vernacular, it’s full of tossers with more money than taste and posers with no taste at all. Apkujong is a little bit Ginza, a little bit Regent’s Street, a little bit Beverly Hills. … While you will still get your hamburger joints (McDonald’s, Kentucky, Hard Rock Cafe, etc.) and family restaurants (Bennigans, Thank God It’s Friday), you can find several classy eating establishments, bars and cafes. Of course, there’s nothing more irritating than seeing a bunch of clueless dorks with cash pretending they’re better than everyone else, but if you can ignore the cream of South Korea’s jerks, you can find some decent food in the area. Apkujong is BIG on fashion designers. You have been warned.”


According to an AP report: “ ‘The song explores South Koreans’ ‘love-hate relationship with Gangnam,’ said Baak Eun-seok, a pop music critic. The rest of South Korea sees Gangnam residents as everything PSY isn’t, he said: good-looking because of plastic surgery, stylish because they can splurge on luxury goods, slim thanks to yoga and personal trainers.
‘PSY looks like a country bumpkin. He’s a far cry from the so-called Gangnam Style,’ Baak said. ‘He’s parodying himself.’ ”

Well, good luck to him. PSY obviously can do without Japan. Japan, on the other hand, desperately needs someone like PSY who can recognize and parody the buffoonery in Japanese society and politics and entertainment. We don’t need no Beat Takeshi, as Pink Floyd might have said. It’s another brick in the wall that Japan loves to live behind.
The world’s gain is Japan’s loss.

 

English Translation of “Gangnam Style” (from the web):

Oppa is Gangnam style
Gangnam style
A girl who is warm and human during the day
A classy girl who know how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee
A girl whose heart gets hotter when night comes
A girl with that kind of twist
I’m a guy
A guy who is as warm as you during the day
A guy who one-shots his coffee before it even cools down
A guy whose heart bursts when night comes
That kind of guy
Beautiful, loveable
Yes you, hey, yes you, hey
Beautiful, loveable
Yes you, hey, yes you, hey
Now let’s go until the end
Oppa is Gangnam style, Gangnam style
Oppa is Gangnam style, Gangnam style
Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady, Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady oh oh oh oh
A girl who looks quiet but plays when she plays
A girl who puts her hair down when the right time comes
A girl who covers herself but is more sexy than a girl who bares it all
A sensible girl like that
I’m a guy
A guy who seems calm but plays when he plays
A guy who goes completely crazy when the right time comes
A guy who has bulging ideas rather than muscles
That kind of guy
Beautiful, loveable
Yes you, hey, yes you, hey
Beautiful, loveable
Yes you, hey, yes you, hey
Now let’s go until the end
Oppa is Gangnam style, Gangnam style
Oppa is Gangnam style, Gangnam style
Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady, Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady oh oh oh oh
On top of the running man is the flying man, baby baby
I’m a man who knows a thing or two
On top of the running man is the flying man, baby baby
I’m a man who knows a thing or two
You know what I’m saying
Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady, Oppa is Gangnam style
Eh, Sexy Lady oh oh oh oh


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

 ****

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.

 

 

****


Sep 25 2012

Slash and Burn: Getting a ‘faceover’ in Korea

 

 

By Fred Varcoe

I’ve often wondered why so many South Korean actresses look the same. A South Korean friend once told me that 80 percent of the girls in her high-school class had had cosmetic surgery. And this wasn’t the middle of Seoul; this was smalltown Korea. Cosmetic surgery is huge business in Korea.

But I never expected to experience it myself. Probably because I’m not Korean. For many, having surgery is a routine thing to do. My wife’s had stuff done and her sister and even her mother. I didn’t notice.

At least, I didn’t notice until I checked old photos. My wife had quite significant bags under her eyes and my sister-in-law looked positively worn out. Surgery has taken at least 10 years off their faces; they look great. So they decided that it was my turn next.

I hadn’t thought about it, but they told me I had too many wrinkles around my eyes and my face was getting too lumpy. I got a new pair of glasses and could see they may have a point. And, to be honest, I had thought my face was turning to jello.

But not enough to splash $5,000 on a refit. So my sister-in-law blackmailed and bribed me. “Do it for your daughter,” she said. “She doesn’t want a daddy that looks like a granddaddy. And I’ll pay.” Convincing arguments – so I said yes.

The clinic was at the top of a fairly non-descript building with a vacant shop on the first floor. We were shown into a glass-panelled waiting room. A couple of women staff members looked at my face and talked to my sister-in-law (a lay expert). I got the go-ahead.

A very attractive young lady came in and put big dobs of cream on spots on my face. She was nice. I wish I’d had more spots, but she left.

Then I went to see a doctor. Nobody was speaking English. The doctor prodded my face, consulted with my sister-in-law and said OK. After further relaxation time in the waiting room, I was led to another room and told to take my shoes off and lie down on the surgical table. The doctor came in, told me to close my eyes and started to nuke my face with a laser. You could smell the flesh burning and feel the heat of the laser, which felt similar to the laser that nearly erased Sean Connery’s bollocks in Goldfinger. But after attacking my eight spots, I was led back to the waiting room again, bollocks safely intact.

Then it was time for the main show.

Cosmetic surgery, my arse! The results may be cosmetic, but the surgery is very real.

I’ve had lots of doctors cut me up on the operating table, but I was always asleep. Not this time. I was taken to an realistic-looking surgery, told to take off my shoes, given a pajama top that was too small for me and placed on the operating table. Two big lights shone down at me. First the nurse took my blood pressure. It was high (157/84). My unhealthy lifestyle, I thought. They wrapped the outside of my head and placed a cover over my upper torso that left a hole for my face. Then the nurse started washing my face with iodine.

All this time, my sister-in-law was present to act as interpreter – in Japanese, which didn’t help much as her Japanese is much better than mine. The doctor came in and I was told that they would thread a needle into my skin to allow the areas to be anaesthetized. It might be painful, he added, teaching me the Korean word for pain (paekum). As I was to be cut in four places (two sections of about 3 cm above each eye and two sections right beneath each eye, each about 6 cm), they did this four times. It felt like a big needle being threaded through my skin (mainly because that’s what it was) and it hurt like fuck.

Boom, boom, boom went the beat of my heart. Seriously. Was it my body or my mind reacting to this abuse?

Soon after, I felt the pressure of the scalpel, followed by the flow of blood as they opened up my face. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen after that – and I still don’t know what happened. But it took a long time. I was told they cut out about a centimetre of face from under my eyes, but they were also putting stuff in. There was a machine that seemed to inject something (glue, cement, landfill, botox – I don’t really know, but I suspect botox) into the holes cut in my face. When they did it below the eye, it pressured the eyeball and was very uncomfortable.

I became anxious. My blood pressure rocketed again and my heart was pumping so hard it felt like it was only a matter of time before it burst through my chest. The doctor was so concerned, he recalled my sister-in-law from the waiting room to try and get me to calm down. Eventually, my heart stopped trying to burst through my ribs, but I really wanted the machine to stop injecting me with stuff, because it hurt every time it did.

Finally, I guessed that they were doing some sewing. It was a huge relief. I didn’t want to be skewered or cut or cemented or traumatised any more. And I wanted to make sure the doctor hadn’t glued or sewn my eyes shut.

Then it was all over. I could open my eyes. They didn’t feel happy. The doctor said everything had gone fine. The nurses smiled and took their time cleaning me up, which was the only nice part of the whole two-hour procedure. They gave me a mirror. I looked like Dr. Frankenstein’s first experiment and it seemed I had about 50 stitches in all.

 

 

Before

 

 

My sister-in-law came in. She was enthusiastic, but then spotted a problem. They hadn’t botoxed my forehead as she had requested (it was a bonus procedure). The doctor came back armed with a new syringe and jabbed it into my forehead about 10 times. Thankfully, that was the last procedure. I just wanted to go home and see my daughter.

But she was none too pleased seeing Daddy all bashed up. I told her Daddy had been to see a doctor and his face was painful. I saw a look of worry pass across her face. She wasn’t impressed with the results, but reassured by Mummy, she accepted Daddy’s latest disfigurement.

 

After

 

Daddy wasn’t too sure either, despite the enthusiasm of my wife and her sister. The stitched up scars looked ugly (they always do, of course) and the lasered spots were covered with skin-regeneration tape. I felt like I should be in a circus. But my wife and her sister had already decided we should go on a family trip to Daegu, Pohang and a temple or two. As I wasn’t allowed to drink alcohol during my recovery, I was one of the designated drivers (the other designated driver drank anyway). So, everyone else in Korea would be allowed to view the taped-up foreign monster. My wife had provided me with a pair of sunglasses that covered most of the scars, but I still had a large dressing under each eye. It was hard to eat chewy stuff like meat, so I ended up eating less and drinking less. I was allowed to remove the dressing after a couple of days, but my face was jaundice yellow.

The stitches came out six days after the operation and were removed by a very pleasant nurse who was very deft with the scissors. When I’ve had stitches out before, I’ve almost passed out, so I wasn’t looking forward to it. It took around 20 minutes and I managed not to pass out, just. Everyone was pleased with the results, but for me, it was still too early to tell. Eleven days on, my face was nearly clear and the scars less red, but my face felt tight. One of my friends said it seems like I can’t smile any more. The wrinkles in my forehead have gone.

More likely, they’ve just been paralyzed. According to Wikipedia, “Botulinum toxin is a protein produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, and is the most powerful neurotoxin ever discovered.” It doesn’t repair your body, it just stops it working. So your frown doesn’t disappear, your frown muscles are zapped so they don’t have any choice but to stop frowning. I had a fair amount of trouble opening my mouth properly when I tried to eat. Six months later, most of my face is working again, but no botox means no youthful veneer. So if I don’t want a forehead that looks like the ocean outside my front door during a typhoon, I gotta go back for more “jab-a-syringe-in-the-ageing-foreigner” torture.

Maybe I’d be better off just adopting a healthy lifestyle.

You’re right; too late.

“Nurse!”

See, it worked…


Jan 19 2011

Out with the old

From www.photomichaelwolf.com

Text from Kyoto Journal 55

(A stunning little piece. It could equally apply to other places [I was thinking Korea]. Enjoy.)

“On one of my walks through Beijing, I discovered the chair shown on the previous page. It stood in front of a small shop where one could buy, amongst other things, delicious dumplings and soy milk. The shop owner, a young, rather fat man, was sitting on the chair as if it were a throne. And what a wonderful chair it was, propped up on one side by an old spingle and two bricks, and on the other its weak leg was splinted with a piece of wood and some plastic string.

“I set up my camera and tripod and proceeded to take some photographs. As so often when I work in China, a large crowd of people gathered behind me and bombarded me with questions. ‘Why are you taking photographs of that chair; it’s so ugly’ people asked me. `You are making fun of China,’ an older woman hissed as she held her hand in front of my lens. I turned to her and explained: ‘This is an old chair which has had a long and hard life. When I look at it, I do not see an ugly chair. I see a chair with a strong character, like a person who has lived for 80 years and has not given up the will to live even though life has been hard.’ The woman looked at me and shook her head: `I don’t believe you. You are a foreigner who is trying to show how backward the Chinese are. Why don’t you take a picture of a new chair?’

“I finished taking the portrait of the chair, packed up my equipment and walked on. Later that day, I walked by the shop again in order to have another look at the chair. It was gone. When I asked the owner where it was, he said: ‘After you left, the public security police came and smashed it into 100 pieces. They said it was shameful for China and that I should buy a new one.’

(Thanks to Michael Wolf for permission to run this.)