I never considered myself Japanese-American. I always identified as “Half-Japanese.” I was born in Japan and moved to the states when I was about three years old. I always felt stripped of my Japanese culture, feeling forced to spend my time in a country that I didn’t like as much as the country I used to be able to live in. Japan had Pocky and Hello Kitty and Curry, what more could you ask for as a kid! While moving to America was complicated and dealt more with my mom’s health than me, it was harder to understand that when I was young.
Growing up in America, also meant I learned I was an enemy in WWII. I learned about the horrific events the Japanese were involved in, and eyes seemed to scan the room and land on me. Every time I have learned about what the Japanese did, whether it was to the US, China or Korea, I completely shut down and tuned out. It was uncomfortable for me.
This trip is the first time where I have been able to confront the things Japan has done in their past. This week in South Korea, we went to the Saodaemun Prison Museum which mainly focused on when Japan occupied South Korea and imprisoned citizens who fought for independence. I saw the kind of twisted torture they put Koreans in; I was disgusted, but not mad at myself for the first time, nor embarrassed.
The prison had the torture devices and explained how each of them were used. For example, there was a box with thick wooden needles sticking out where they would force a prisoner into and then shake and kick the box. Another form of torture included a little cupboard-like structure that was too thin and small for someone to lean or be comfortable in. They would have Korean prisoners stand in these spaces for hours. The creativity behind the torture was so apparent and heartbreaking. The worst part of it all was watching small Korean school children running around the museum playing on these torture devices, laughing and taking photos. Parents and teachers didn’t seem to mind or hush them and I wondered where the solemn atmosphere was. It was eerie to watch this prison and these torture chambers, essentially, become a playground. I felt even more guilty for those that were tortured and felt sorry for the things Japan, this identity I defended and yearned for, had done.
In the following days, we also learned a lot about the comfort women and Japan’s neglect regarding an official apology. These comfort women were sent to Japan to be sexually exploited, enduring a different kind of emotional and physical torture than those in the prison, but equally as painful. Their lives were halted and it was nearly impossible to recover even when returning to their lives back home. Beginning for 1992, every Wednesday there have been demonstrations protesting outside the Japanese embassy in Korea where the memorial stands. As a class, we went to observe the demonstration and I felt so much more heartbroken when I saw a comfort woman right in front of me. Her strength to come out about her past was powerful and I hope that she felt all of the love from those in the crowd there to support her.
My own journey coming to terms with my Japanese identity in spaces where Japan made mistakes was incredibly important to me. While we read in class that most South Koreans think negatively about Japan, my conversations with locals have proven the opposite helping me come to terms with my irrational guilt.
Later that week, our class also had the opportunity to go to the DMZ and step foot into North Korea for 5 minutes. We went to the DMZ the day after North Korea announced that America, particularly Donald Trump, had declared war on North Korea. We were nervous for the craziness that would come of visiting the DMZ and even more nervous of the heightened tensions. Yet, when we got there, things felt calm and normal. Our preconceived notions were changed, and we were once again reminded that we don’t always know everything; We were also reminded to be open-minded and to truly take in what we learn from our experiences abroad.
Our first class, Asia in Motion has officially come to an end, and I am sitting here in a cafe hours away from my flight to Japan, so sad thinking about leaving Seoul. I was surprised by all Seoul had to offer, their cafes, food, shopping, and commotion that I love and feel I thrive in. I will be back, hopefully, sooner than I think!