Despite tension, Japanese women make Korea homeKayoko Itoh, now 81, remembers meeting her husband in 1944 on Kagoshima, Kyushu island, where he was brought from Korea and forced to work at an air force base where Kamikaze pilots left for suicide missions. Ms. Itoh also worked at the base as a secretary. At the time, Japan was fighting destructive battles in an all-out effort to dominate Asia through its powerful military.
She fell in love with her husband, and they started living with him before they were married.
“I couldn’t have a wedding ceremony because of the war,” sid Ms. Itoh, who was then only 20 years old.
Because of relentless bombing by U.S. planes, they lived together, hiding in a village near her childhood home.
She didn’t know her husband was Korean until after the war was over.
“He said, “I going back to Joseon,’” she said, in reference to the Korean word for the country. At the time, the couple had a nine-month-old son. Ms. Itoh promised her parents that she would come back in three years. Her parents were opposed to her leaving for Korea. She settled in Seoul, and has been living here ever since.
When Japan’s 35-year colonial rule ended in August 1945, it presented hard choices for Japanese and Koreans living in the other’s country. Despite Japan’s barbarous rule over the peninsula, many Koreans and Japanese had nonetheless wedded and started families, ignoring the political tensions and attempting to lead normal lives.
Many Japanese women left their country, sailing across the Straits of Korea, following their Korean husbands for love. They have lived in Korea ever since, a small forgotten legacy of Japan's colonial rule.
But their lives have not always been easy living in a country where anti-Japanese feelings have surged lately over a long-running territorial dispute over the Dokdo islands along with inaccurate textbooks by Japanese publishers that gloss over Japan’s aggressive behavior in the early 20th century.
In a tiny run-down apartment in Daebang-dong, Dongjak district, in Seoul, a handful of these Japanese women gather. On one side of the wall in a bedroom, more than 1,000 paper-folded cranes were hanging on strings along with other Japanese-style decorations.
The women look tiny with their hunched backs and wrinkled faces that wear time’s passage.
They are part of Buyong-hoe, an association of Japanese wives who live in Korea. The majority of the women met their husbands in Japan and were married before Korea’s liberation. Many Korean men went to Japan to study or find work, or they were brought to Japan and forced to work in factories and mines during the war.
Korean-Japanese couples numbered 459 in 1926 and 527 the next year; increasing to over 1,000 annually in the 1940s, according to Choi Seok-young, a history professor at the National Folk Museum of Korea. At one point, Buyong-hoe had as many as 3,000 members, but many members have since passed away.
“One day [after Korea's independence on Aug. 15, 1945] my husband told me that he was returning to Korea, so I followed him,” said 86-year-old Shizuye Katsuda in perfect Korean. She has lived here over 60 years but said that when she first came here, adapting to Korean culture was difficult.
“The hardships at first were indescribable,” Ms. Katsuda said. “I couldn't speak a word in Korean, and didn’t know Korean customs. And the floor was too hot to step on.”
Unlike Japan where straw matting is used on a floor, floors in Korean houses were sometimes heated to the point where people were burned. Ms. Katsuda said, however, “Nobody said a word to me for being Japanese.”
Ms. Katsuda said she did not change her nationality because her parents refused to remove her from the family registry. She now lives in a small, greenhouse-like hut in Seoul. Since she has not given up her Japanese citizenship, she along with other overseas Japanese receive a small pension from Japan’s government.
“They fell in love with each other and got married voluntarily,” as opposed to arranged marriages which were more common at that time, said Choi Byung-dae, 76, a long-time sponsor of the Busan and Daegu Buyong-hoe offices. Mr. Choi spent more than 40 years working for the Japanese consulate in Busan. “Because Korean men are handsome,” he added, chuckling.
But 78-year-old Tsune Aoki contradicts that claim. “Because there were no men!” she emphasized, explaining why she married a Korean man. Ms. Aoki ― a tough old lady with a loud, guttural voice and hearty laugh ― said most young Japanese men were unavailable because they were in the military.
She said she met her husband in her hometown on Hokkaido island. Her husband, who was from North Jeolla province, smuggled himself onto the island and was working in a factory. She was only 18 years old. “I knew nothing then,” Ms. Aoki said.
Ms. Aoki said her family checked her husband’s record to see if he had previously been married, but they never discriminated against him because he was Korean. “They never uttered the word, josenjing,” the term for Korean people, Ms. Aoki said. "They were very nice to him because they never expected that Korea would one day become independent.”
Akiko Matsumoto, 81, met her husband while she was living in Pyongyang. Her father was an army officer, and her family was relatively well off. After graduating from Sudo Middle School located in Yongsan, central Seoul, she started working as a typist for a Japanese bank, Cheoksan Bank.
That’s when she met her husband. He had graduated from Kaesong University and even spoke English.
“I wanted to go back to Japan [after the liberation], but I already had a baby [with a Korean man] and could not return. I could not leave him here,” said Ms. Matsumoto, vice president of the Seoul chapter of Buyong-hoe.
“In the beginning, my parents objected to me marrying a Korean man and so did my siblings. My brothers and sisters were against it, saying they didn’t want to become related to Koreans,” she said.
Her first child was born just before the liberation on Aug. 15. He later opened a machine laundry business in the 1950s with the proceeds from the sale of her parents’ house after liberation, employing more than 150 workers and doing laundry for American soldiers.
Because Ms. Matsumoto and her husband spoke Japanese at home, she was slow to learn Korean. Other Japanese women decided not to speak Japanese in public. “I followed my son to an elementary school,” she said. “There I started learning the Korean alphabet.”
Husako Kunita, a sharp 90-year-old, found a convenient way to smooth over the potential consternation: She didn’t tell her parents.
“I lied [to my parents] that he was from a distant region in Japan,” said Ms. Kunita, who has been the president of the Busan chapter of Buyong-hoe for more than 40 years. It was not until a few years later that her parents found out that he was Korean. "It was no problem after my husband and parents got to know each other.”
Ms. Kunita met her husband, a native of South Gyeongsang province, in her hometown, Shikoku island, the smallest of Japan's four main islands, when he was a student in a university there. In 1944, Ms. Kunita paid a visit to her in-laws with her husband, but she never thought that she would not return to Japan for almost two decades.
After Korea gained independence in 1945 at the end of World War II, there were no diplomatic ties with Japan until 1965 when President Park Chung Hee signed a normalization treaty. The treaty included a one-time lump sum payment and loans from Japan as reparations for its colonial rule.
“They came to Korea because they fell in love with Korean men, but they could not even speak their name [for fear of persecution],” Mr. Choi said. “There were so many sad stories to tell before the restoration of the diplomatic relationship.” They were called jjokbari, a derogatory term for Japanese.
Busan police tried to forcibly send Japanese wives back to Japan, leaving their family behind in Korea. “After independence, the police pressured my husband to send me back to Japan,” Ms. Kunita said. “I was saved because of my husband, but those couples who were discovered by the police had to bid farewell to each other.”
In 1996, with the help of a Korean-Japanese philanthropist, 14 Japanese wives returned to Japan for the first time in decades. Ten of the women had not been to Japan since Korea became independent.
“When they arrived at the airport, they burst out crying from the bottom of their hearts,” Mr. Choi said.
Many felt certain oddities of being back in a culture they had left long ago. Japanese food seemed too sweet, and she wanted to eat kimchi, Ms. Matsumoto said. Korean words slipped out during chats.
“When I visit my younger siblings in Japan, sometimes in the middle of conversation Korean words would come out of my mouth without thinking,” Ms. Katsuda said. “Then my family asks ‘What did you say?’ and I say ‘You don’t need to know.’”
These days, Japan’s relationship with Korea has hit a low. Strong anti-Japanese sentiments have surfaced, and South Korea has been undergoing a stern reflection on how it was treated by Japan and what implications it has today. The dispute over distorted history books by Japan and arguments over the Dodko islands have put both countrys at diplomatic loggerheads, threatening to spill over into ever-increasing economic ties.
“These days I feel painful because of the controversy,” Mr. Choi said, adding that Korea and Japan’s relationship was cozier before the controversy broke out.
The Japanese wives agree they are too old now to really care about the disputes. “Korea and Japan can split the two islands,” Ms. Katsuda said jokingly.
But as they have made Korea their home, the concerns of their host country are not entirely ignored, as they have raised families under influences of both Japanese and Korean culture.
“I don't know why the relationship between Korea and Japan got to such a bad point,” Ms. Kunita said. “I wish a better future for Korea because I have my children here.”
by Limb Jae-un