Discrimination gives birth to a miracle
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
On April 22, 2018, a celebration was held in the Utoro section of Uji City, southeast of Kyoto. Residents held a barbecue party looking back on the hard times their ancestors and descendants from Korea suffered as they celebrated the opening of city housing.
On April 30, the villagers celebrate another monumental event — the opening of the Utoro Peace Memorial Museum. It marked a new beginning for marginalized ethnic Koreans who survived poverty, eviction threats and discrimination over the last 80 years. The memorial in Chinese characters used the word “pray” instead of “commemorate” to underscore the aspirations for peace in the future, not the bitterness from the past. The longing suggests how much they wish to overcome a past that was the opposite of being peaceful.
Utoro was a symbol of discrimination against the Zainichi, or ethnic Koreans in Japan. A large number of Koreans were mobilized as construction workers for a military airfield in Utoro in 1941 while Korea was a colony of Japan. The project was suspended when Japan was defeated in the Pacific War. Abandoned and having nowhere else to go, Koreans went on living in Utoro amid persistent threats of eviction and other forms of discrimination.
The city is finally hoping for a better future. The scars of 80 years may not disappear soon, but people want to move on. The museum opening could be a new start for them.
The museum is a plain three-floor, 450-square meter building with exhibition and performance halls, as well as a storage facility. At the front of the building sits a recreation of a temporary dormitory for Korean workers on the construction site.
Families of 1,300 Koreans lived in a tiny shabby quarter of less than 10 square meters. Living conditions were meager after the war. Those who could not afford to return home had to remain and survive day by day. The Japanese government and city authorities chose to ignore them. It was only in March 1988 when the town had a public water system. Until then, people had to pump water for drinking and washing. Health conditions inevitably were deplorable.
The residents finally raised their voices in the late 1990s when a property developer who purchased the land sought a court order to force them out. When Japan’s top court made a final ruling on the eviction in 2000, the residents and supporters from South Korea, Japan, and other places formed a united front, and the issue was brought to the United Nations in 2001. Upon a warning from the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights that the forced eviction violated human rights, residents gained the courage to pursue a housing development project and a memorial museum with the help of the Korean and Japanese governments in spite of their history of discord and ill feelings.
Various events are planned for the opening. The museum will exhibit the records of mobilization of Korean workers, daily things Koreans lived on, documents in court battles against the forced eviction, and residents’ interviews. By recalling the past, they wish to dream of a future of coexistence. The neighborhood, however, remains vulnerable to the deteriorated relations between South Korea and Japan over historical issues.
Choi Sang-koo, director general of the Korean International Network (KIN), who took the lead in the fundraising for Utora residents and the building of the museum, worried the museum could be a target for hate crimes. There was an attempt to set fire to the museum last year. Hate stems from obliviousness to history.
Utoro is an ongoing concern. It sends a strong message to our society. It demands fundamental contemplation of discrimination and peace, beyond differences between the two countries. Rha Kyung-soo, a professor at Gakushuin Women’s College, noted that the Utoro issue drew international attention because it was universal issue. “Citizens must not let their thoughts and conscience stop at their borders. By breaking the wall within oneself and the walls called racism and sexism as well as other discriminations, we would be leaving a society with a value to our descendants, and that is the meaning of the fight for peace,” said the professor.