Revisiting Korea-Japan connection

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Revisiting Korea-Japan connection

On Jan. 17, I visited a country village in Japan. Hitaka in Saitama Prefecture is about 70 kilometers (45 miles) from Tokyo Station. It’s a small farming town with a population of 57,000. Here, I took the subway and arrived at Koma Station, whose Chinese characters are the same as Goryeo.

I was curious how the area shares the name with an old Korean kingdom. One worker at the station said that in Japan, the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo is called “Koma” or “Kokori.” He also added that the kingdom of Goryeo is pronounced “Korai” in Japanese.

A pair of jangseung, or Korean totem poles, stood at the center of the square outside the station. It was nice to see the Korean village guardians in Japan. I walked down the country lane to the Koma Jinja shrine.

During the Japanese occupation, Koreans were forced to make shrine visits against their will, and visiting a shrine was never a pleasant experience for me. But the signboard hanging in the shrine read, “Goguryeo,” and it made me look back on the history of the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

In 666, two years before the Silla-Tang alliance defeated the kingdom of Goguryeo, Yak Gwang, or Jakko in Japanese, was sent to Japan as a diplomatic envoy.

Along with 1,799 Goguryeo people who could not go back to the fallen homeland, he settled in barren lands. According to the Shoku Nihongi, an ancient Japanese history text, Jakko was a member of Goguryeo’s royal family and received a family name of Koma no Kokishi from the Yamato court in 703.

In 716, the Japanese court had the Goguryeo natives scattered in the Tohoku region to move to Musashino near the Koma Shrine and established the county of Koma. Jakko became the first county chief, continuing the legacy of Goguryeo, and developed the region. In honor of his accomplishments, a shrine was established. Today, one of Jakko’s descendants is the 60th priest of the shrine.

Koma recently celebrated the 1,300th anniversary of its establishment. The Koma Jakko Foundation of 217 scholars of Korea and Japan, the Northeast Asian History Foundation and the city of Hidaka are planning various events. The town hall hosts frequent Goguryeo costume-making and Goguryeo remains classes. In late April, a monument celebrating its 1,300 years will be unveiled.

Ra Jong-il, former Korean ambassador to Japan and advisor to the Koma Jakko Foundation, said that the 1,300-year relationship is a serious occasion, and the joint celebration should become a chance for the two countries - and the ethnic Korean community in Japan - to be united.

The foundation’s secretary-general, Ha Jeong-yong, added, “Korea and Japan had been in bad terms, but there were times when the two countries got along. I hope to see a new era of friendship.”

The aggravated relationship is showing signs of improvement. How about President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet in the Goguryeo village and place a cornerstone for another 1,300 years of Korea-Japan connection?

The author is a Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 23, Page 30


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