[NOTEBOOK]Breaking down walls

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[NOTEBOOK]Breaking down walls

Yeokdosan, pronounced Rikidozan in Japan, was a hero who restored the Japanese people’s crumpled pride after Japan’s defeat in World War II. Watching Yeokdosan pulling out his karate chop and mowing down a huge wrestler from the war’s victor, the United States, the Japanese experienced some vicarious satisfaction. Only after his death was it known in Japan that he was a Korean, born in South Hamgyeong province. This year marks the 40th anniversary of his death. A variety of events to commemorate his death are actively under way in Japan.
A Korean-Japanese businessman in his late 50s said, “In my childhood, I heard from my father that Yeokdosan was a Korean. I wanted to brag about him to my school friends. But I never uttered a word about the fact. I was afraid that my Korean origin might be disclosed.”
Until very recently, a substantial number of ethnic Koreans in Japan have concealed that they are Korean. They were afraid of discrimination and contempt. It took more courage for them to publicly say, “I am Korean,” than for homosexuals to come out of the closet.
But things began to change some time ago. Ethnic Koreans began to “come out.” The Japanese’ perception of Koreans has turned for the better so that they did not have to conceal their ethnic origins. A man even said, “A 32nd of me is Korean.” That is, his 6th great-grandfather’s wife was Korean. He said, “In the past, I was ashamed of the fact that Korean blood runs in my body, but now I can make it public without shame.”
Even a few years ago, employees of Korean businesses stationed in Japan received a guideline that they must brush their teeth before meeting the Japanese. It was to get rid of the smell of kimchi and garlic the Japanese hated.
But things are different these days. Korean restaurants are the best places for business. Korean food with the strong smell of garlic is thought to be the best dish to promote their well-being. A countless variety of kimchi is on display in supermarkets in Japan.
Until now, most Japanese people have felt superior or were thoroughly indifferent to Koreans. But then one day, all of a sudden, they began to approach Koreans.
Of late, I often meet Japanese people who ask me to be a Korean conversation partner, offering treats. Some insist on my singing a hit song of a Korean singer, whose name I don’t know, in a karaoke room. This scene could hardly have been imagined when I studied at a university in Tokyo five years ago.
What could have made the Japanese change so much? It seems to have something to do with co-hosting the 2002 World Cup and hanryu, or the “Korea boom” represented by the Korean drama “Winter Sonata.”
The common response of Japanese fans on Korea is, “When it is looked at with interest, Korea is a far more attractive country than we have thought. We have been too ignorant of Korea so far.” It seems clear that Japanese people have begun to open their hearts toward Korea. It is, then, our turn to open our hearts.
It is overly regressive to be so desperately competitive or grudging as to say to national soccer players on their way to overseas games, “If you are defeated by Japan, throw yourselves in the straits of Tsushima.” We cannot lay the foundation for genuine reconciliation before we open our hearts and take an understanding attitude toward them.
Of course, I know this is a hasty expectation. Japan still has a lot to do before Korea breaks down the wall around its heart. Nevertheless, there are certainly things that we can do.

* The writer is the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Yeh Young-june
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