When We Hide the Sky: Lessons Learned From Korea and Japan’s Pasts

By Kellyn Gross

One of the first Korean proverbs that I heard in the initial months of my living in Gangwon Province was sonbadageuro haneuleul gariryeohanda. Or in English, don’t try to hide the sky with the palm of your hand.

A colleague at the time had difficulty explaining the literal sense of the proverb to me, but the gist I got was that though one can cover the sky from view with her hand, the sky still remains—its existence unending even if you can’t see it.  More figuratively, you can’t deny the obvious or hide from yourself and your past misdeeds.  Life has a way of making us face ourselves no matter what, and it’s foolish to think otherwise.

I’ve taken this proverb to heart since being a part of the ISC media team, and its theme rings true whether we’re touring a historical site in Jeollanam Province or witnessing a protest in Seoul.  When I visited the Donghak Peasant Revolution site in Jeongeup, Jeollabuk Province, and subsequently Japan last month, I contemplated how historical and political events are either forgotten through time or obscured through mal-intention.  This is particularly true in regard to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.  Radiation from Fukushima continues to worry the Koreans whom I interact with daily, and the ecological emergency brings to the fore deep-seeded conflicts between Korea and Japan.

The Donghak armed rebellion of 1894 was led by aggrieved followers of the Donghak religion.  Followers were sick of being religiously persecuted by their government and intruded upon by Christian missionaries, whereas peasants were tired of leading impoverished lives while wealthy yangban[1] wielded power through unjust taxes and fines. Their calls for social reform were successful as they united the peasantry to defeat feudalistic government troops in southern Korea. However, that success was short-lived in that it was a catalyst for the Sino-Japanese War—a battle between China and Japan for dominance over Korea. The corrupt Korean government was unable to defend itself from the rebellion, so the Joseon king requested troops from China.  Japan countered with its own 8,000-man invasion of the peninsula and ultimately gained control.

These neighboring imperial powers reduced Korea to a battleground, and Japanese military men captured peasant army leaders to torture, behead and put on public display.  The Meiji government had imposed the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1876, which forced Korea into dependence upon Japanese agricultural products.  Now as it purged the Donghak revolutionaries, it had begun its second colonial expansion into Korea—a harsh and oppressive period that remains a significant part of the Korean psyche to this day.

Japan and Korea have interacted for the last 1,500 years, with Japan subjugating Korea twice in history, from 1592 until 1598, and from 1910 until Japan’s defeat in 1945 during World War II.  Under Japanese Imperial rule in the 20th century, Koreans endured cruel cultural assimilation.  The Korean alphabet was banned, and history was distorted to validate Japanese colonialism.  Koreans were forced to take Japanese names and speak only their colonial master’s language.  Farmers were forced off their lands, while agricultural workers languished as tenant farmers.  Buildings were taken for colonial government usage, and Korean businesses were given to Japanese officials.  Daughters from poor families were forced into factories to pay taxes, and later into prostitution as sex slaves for the Japanese army during the Pacific War.  Japanese labor shortages during World War II brought Koreans to the island, mostly through coercion into dangerous jobs and appalling living conditions. Even more Koreans were involuntary soldiers for the Japanese military, shipped to all corners of Asia to die on behalf of the Rising Sun.

The rap sheet of abuse, violence and injustice done by Japan against Korea is long and troubling.  Some of my Korean coworkers and friends view Japan as a constant threat because of its imperial past.  Recent provocative remarks about sex slavery made by Japanese prime-minister Shinzo Abe don’t assuage this perception.  His administration’s policies and the conflict over Dokdo are evidence that many political disputes in East Asia are unresolved, and territorial concerns stemming from colonialism continue.

A Japanese actress and martial artist named Marie whom graciously hosted me during my visit to Osaka had scant things to say about Korea.

Oh, I really like Korea! I recently visited Daejeon to see my Korean friend.  He’s in the military.  But I was expecting most Koreans to know English, and they really didn’t.  I had a difficult time communicating because I know little Korean except annyeonghasayo and mashisoyo.  Korean food is delicious, but they put chilli pepper paste in everything. I do like the Korean plum wine you gave me!

The week before I flew to Japan, my middle and high school students expressed disgust and dismay at my Chuseok[2] holiday plans.

Kellyn Teacher, you like Japan? I hate Japan! They hate Koreans. They want to take Dokdo. 

You’re going to Japan? Aren’t you scared? What will you eat? Everything is contaminated with radiation.

Upon my return, my coworkers and acquaintances didn’t mince words

Weren’t Japanese people mean? And you didn’t eat the sushi, did you?  I haven’t eaten tuna since Fukushima.

I can’t visit Japan. My husband’s family would never forgive me.

Japan is so sterile that it’s scary! What do they have to hide?

I never delved further than chili pepper paste when broaching the subject of Korea to Japanese people.  Conversely, when Koreans take Japan to task for its wrongdoings, I generally just listen in silence until the subject changes.  Because although Japan’s past imperial atrocities aren’t ambiguous, its present reality today is.  Nothing underscores this more than the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that rocked the island, and the unfortunate corporate and governmental response to the catastrophe.

When we toured the Donghak Peasant Revolution sites, irrefutable historical facts of Japanese imperialism made it easy for me to lambast the country as villainous.  And my contempt wasn’t just reserved for the Japanese perpetrators and chinilpa[3]—their names etched on the museum walls and in our tour guide’s memory.  I felt disdain for the entirety of Japan that day. Unfortunately, I was trying to hide the sky with the palm of my hand, mistakenly obscuring contemporary truths by my hate for an unjust past.

As cruel as it once was, the problem today isn’t Japanese imperialism as much as the global institution of unfettered capitalism.  And although the international community should continue to hold Japan accountable for its actions, all nations and organizations should be.  Otherwise, mainstream public discourse focusing solely on past wrongs will allow for current issues to be generalized and overshadowed—or in the case of the US military presence in Korea and Japan—largely escape scrutiny altogether.

With the help of military might, technological advances, and a slew of free-trade agreements over the last two decades, chaebols[4], keiretsu[5] and multinational corporations alike are the new oppressors of the Korean and Japanese citizenry—if not the world.  You don’t hear much about their true agendas on the evening news or in the dailies, but they have a long, troubling and indefinite rap sheet as well.

Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, my Osaka host can’t trust her food, nor can she trust her government.

Korea is smart to ban Japanese fish imports.  If I were them, I would do the same.  I wish my own country would actively address the environmental contamination from Fukushima.  Instead, the government lets TEPCO lie to people.   

The Tokyo Electric Power Company knowingly made missteps and lied about them.  The Japanese government shares blame because the nuclear industry has little to no independent oversight with the revolving door between governance and business.  As a result of the nuclear explosion, 1,600 deaths have been directly related to the evacuation from Fukushima Prefecture since 2011. As of two months ago, more than 40 children from the prefecture have been diagnosed with cancer.  Officials say it could be another 30 years before residents can return to their homes, and local farmers may never be able to tend to crops there in their lifetime.

I agree with Marie that Korea is justified in banning seafood from the Fukushima region of Japan.  My students and coworkers have valid concerns about eating contaminated fish.  But that Japan is facing this tragedy shouldn’t be excused merely as an inevitable consequence of their colonial past.  Instead, it’s most immediately emblematic of government malfeasance and corporate greed—problems that exist in Korea as well.

According to a Reuters’ article from October 9, the Korean government indicted 100 people over faking safety certifications for parts in its nuclear reactors.  Those indicted include a top former state utility officer and the vice-president of the Korea Electric Power Corp (KEPCO).  Their bribery charges emphasis how the Korean nuclear industry’s lack of transparency has led to corruption among safety officials.  Japan’s nuclear industry has the same pitfall.  Yet despite the safety and political concerns highlighted by Fukushima, the Korean energy ministry’s latest intention to decrease the country’s dependence on nuclear energy is an earnest promise at best.

Nuclear power plants produce a third of Korea’ electricity, and the scandal has prompted four nuclear reactor shutdowns that have resulted in huge problems for Korea’s chicken farmers.  In the heat of summer, farmers were struggling to keep their animals cool with the power shortages.  Many resorted to buying 30-million-won generators; no doubt some heading even closer to financial ruin.  An investigation into the corruption may reduce later pressing energy concerns and quell people’s fears, but the overarching problem is more serious and far-reaching than merely arresting a few troublemakers.  Korean anti-nuclear activists have warned that their government routinely focuses on expanding the nuclear industry at the expense of safety for citizens.  They say it will take more than avoiding rising energy costs to adequately address and solve this issue.

In the meantime, each country’s nuclear industry tries to limit renewable energy like solar power, whether through controlling public discourse or maintaining their towering reactors under the guise of “peaceful nuclear energy.”  Nonetheless, the Korean proverb will undoubtedly hold true.  Corporations and governments are foolish to think that they won’t be confronted by their misconduct.  And if the public can’t hold them responsible at present, history will determine the true verdict over time.  After all, it was the second and fourth edicts of the Donghak’s reform program to: (2) investigate the crimes of venal and corrupt officials; and (4) discipline those yangban in or out of office whose conduct is improper.”  The tenth edict of the reform program was also to “severely punish those who collaborated with the Japanese.”  Essentially, “those guilty of collusion with the Japanese in their aggressive designs be punished.”  Many developments to this end have occurred in the last decade, with an increasing public call since the democratization movement of the 1980s to prosecute prominent Japanese collaborators and set history right.

Only time will tell if public outrage toward nuclear power will spread beyond Korea’s anti-nuclear community, bringing just as much necessary attention to the potential of a nuclear disaster in Korea’s own backyard as it has to Japan’s failure at Fukushima.  Otherwise Park Geun Hye’s conservative government and its entrenched media will continue to deflect public attention to Japan when there are more pressing concerns at home.  And as individual citizens, we must remember how life invariably unfurls so as to uncover our dirty deeds to the light of day.  Consequently, confronting our entangled and messy personal and social realities is necessary, if not inevitable.

I believe people in my immediate life in Korea, and my acquaintance Marie in Japan, are on the path to doing so.  It just has required putting hands down and marveling at the sheer expansiveness of our shared sky—as well as accepting our common existence, imperfections and all.  And as the Donghak members prophetically proclaimed back in 1894, However startling the action we take today may seem, you must not be troubled by it. For as we felicitously live out the tranquil years ahead, each man secure in his occupation – when all the people can enjoy the blessings of benevolent kingly rule, how immeasurably joyful will we be!”  Yes, however startling the action we take today may seem, don’t try to hide the sky with the palm of your hand.  Tomorrow’s possibilities are endless if we stop denying today’s troubles.  We’ll even be better for it.

[1] An upper class, landowning aristocrat.

[2] The Korean harvest festival and major three-day holiday.

[3] A pejorative word for a Japanese collaborator during colonial times.

[4] Korean business conglomerates.

[5] Japanese informal business groups.


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