My Korean Grandmother’s Memories of the Japanese Occupation and the Korean War

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Instead of spending time over Seollal (Korean New Year) with my Father in-law’s side of the family in Suncheon, where I live in the far south of Korea, I headed to Seoul to celebrate Seollal with my mother in-law’s side and stayed at my wife’s grandmother’s house.

I am not a great fan of Seollal and Chuseok, my experience of both holidays is a test of patience as I must sit around all day not doing much, and will-power to stop myself from saying the wrong thing to my various in-laws when they regularly give their two pennies worth on how I should be living my life.  Having tolerated a couple of days of smiling, nodding, and then carrying on, everyone had left except for my wife and I, my mother in-law, and my grandmother in-law, certainly the best of my Korean family (can it be a coincidence they are all women?)

I haven’t spent that much time with my Korean grandmother, but I like her.  She is a sweet old lady, always trying to make me as comfortable as possible and preparing food for me.  She is remarkably similar to my departed grandmother back home, not just in character but also because they both lived through the Second World War.  I was too young to take the opportunity to ask about the war to my grandparents in England, all I really knew it that one of my grandfathers was in the navy and both grandmothers stayed in London and experienced the blitz, hiding in the London Underground system.  This time I had a good chance to ask about both the Second World War and the Korean War and wondered how old my Korean grandmother was when they happened and whether she remembered anything.  It turns out she could recall quite a lot and we sat talking about it together – helped by some translation from my wife – over one of her favourite meals, a take-away pizza.

안좌도 is part of Sinan County in red.
안좌도 is part of Sinan County in red.

During the occupation by the Japanese during the Second World War, she was an elementary school student and she lived on an island near Mokpo called Anjwado (안좌도).  Her family was extremely wealthy, had quite a large house and garden, could afford to have servants, and ate meat regularly, something the majority of Koreans could not do at the time.

The Japanese occupied Korea a long time before the Second World War (1910-1945) but one of the first memories that she can remember of the Japanese is bumping into a Japanese patrol officer in her own garden whilst on her way to the toilet (which was outside).  She described him as stern looking with a smart dark uniform and hat, carrying a long sword.  She said she was terrified and spoke in Japanese to him, explaining what she was doing.  The Japanese insisted on Koreans, and especially youngsters, speaking the Japanese language at all times.  The officer was pleased to hear her speak in his own language and so smiled and let her carry on.  She said it was common for patrol officers to walk the streets at night in this way.

Her other memories mostly revolved around her time in elementary school, which bizarrely, she said most of her time was spent digging holes for the Japanese.  Apparently, this was done towards the end of the war as the Japanese were starting to worry about being captured by the Americans.

The principal at her school was Japanese and speaking Korean was strictly forbidden.  She was one of the principal’s favourites as he knew her family and they were well educated and could speak Japanese well and he often invited her family to dinner in his office.  On one occasion they were not all available so she went on her own.  She recalled how she asked for more white rice because she was hungry and having all white rice was rare for Koreans at the time, even for the rich, it was a privilege mainly of the Japanese occupiers.

Comfort-Women-statue

There is still great controversy in Korea about Japan’s treatment of people during its occupation and the issue of ‘Comfort Women’ is one of the most controversial.  A statue of one of them stands facing the Japanese embassy in Seoul, much to the annoyance of those in Japan.  My wife’s grandmother dodged the bullet when it came to this by virtue of being too young at only 8 or 9 years old, but she does remember young girls of middle and high school age being taken away.  Many were told they would be working in Japan and getting paid but the reality was that some were forced into sexual slavery and others were made to work in factories with no pay.  Of the companies still around today, Mitsubishi were one of the most infamous users of Korean and Chinese forced labour in this way.  She then told me that those that spoke poor Japanese were more likely to be taken away.  I asked her if she remembered any of the Japanese language from that time, because she said that she had been quite fluent, but she said she had forgotten almost all of it, although it was curious that by the end of our conversation she appeared to be able to remember more and more Japanese words and spoke a little bit for us.  Perhaps remembering back to that time awoke some parts of her brain that had laid dormant for many years.  My mother in-law then encouraged her to speak more often about her past to try and avoid dementia.  She told us of the name the Japanese gave her and that she had to use, Ganamono Daerin.  Strangely, at the time of writing, I asked my wife to tell me her grandmother’s name in Korean and she couldn’t remember as Korean people rarely use names in addressing people from their own family, so until we called her mother to find out, we only knew her Japanese name.

She would mention frequently how cruelly the Japanese treated Koreans back then, I suppose this is a common theme in war and colonisation anywhere.  Atrocities that were well known to my Korean grandmother at the time were beatings and murders of Korean men, women, and children, the previously mentioned taking away of women and girls to Japan for sex or slave labour, and medical experiments that were run on Koreans as well as some other nationalities in Asia.  This, and the general aim to suppress and destroy much of Korean culture caused a festering hatred underneath the polite and respectful face the Korean people had to show for their Japanese superiors.  After the war ended, some Japanese stayed behind in Korea, either because they were unable to get away or because they had built a life for themselves there and wanted to try and blend in with the Korean population.  She said that some were able to go undetected but most were found out and were beaten or tortured to death by Korean people seething with anger over years of painful occupation and that this could be seen or heard about quite often in the months after independence.

Not long after Koreans breathed a sigh of relief after having rid themselves of their Japanese oppressors another war came around.  Now at middle school grandma Kim (her family name) was still a resident of her island of birth off the coast of Mokpo but her brother had been sent to study in a high school in  Seoul.  When the war came to Seoul his only option was escape and he did so on foot.  He walked for over two weeks from Seoul to Mokpo and luckily came across one of the family’s servants who organised a boat for travel to Anjwado the next morning.  When he arrived he was disheveled, homeless looking and malnourished, but the family were surprised and delighted to see him because they had feared the worst when they had heard the news about Seoul.

The Busan Perimeter
The Busan Perimeter

During the first surge the North Koreans swept down the peninsula rapidly while the Americans, South Koreans, and other allies were getting their house in order.  The North Korean tactics of full frontal assault – without too much care for losses in their own ranks as long as progress was made – almost had them take-over all of the South (once they were stopped, however, these methods began to hurt them in the long term).  At one stage the Americans and South Koreans only held a small corner of the Korean peninsula in the South East and a stand was made along the Busan perimeter.  As it turned out her family were incredibly lucky to survive this time.  The island next to hers, Amtaedo (암태도) was apprehended by the communists.  Some residents and the servants of richer families switched sides and gave up or killed those that stood on the other or were too late in defecting.  My Korean grandmother told of how they would drown the children and babies in pots of water.  It was shear luck that this wasn’t my grandmother in-law’s fate, one of the two islands fell into communist hands, hers did not.  The tide then started to turn in the war and the communists began to be pushed back, they never made it to her island.  She was somewhat  isolated from the worst of the war after that and her family was able to maintain their wealth.

This gave me a brief glimpse into some of the pain the Korean people have experienced at the hands of the Japanese and in the Korean War.  The fact is though, that even before this Korea had a long history of invasion from other countries and fighting within their own.  For many years Koreans have called themselves the people of ‘한 많은 역사’, this is roughly translated as the people having experienced many examples of unfairness, grief, suffering, and despair (한, Han) in their history.  This is undoubtedly true, and I think it does explain much of the defensiveness about their culture they exhibit sometimes and certainly their strong dislike of the Japanese.

The concept of ‘한’ (Han) does seem to run deep in the Korean mindset.  It may be a part of what it is to be Korean but, in my opinion, it is not something that helps the people all that much.  Dwelling on the past is not often a useful exercise, learning from the past and building a better, more peaceful future is what is most important.  One wonders if ‘한’ is a factor to this day in many disputes revolving around Korea and whether these feelings of unfairness and despair are still motivating much of what is going on in the North.  I was struck, however, that in my grandmother in-law’s case, she did not appear to be too animated or filled with hate when she was telling us of her experiences.  It seemed as if she had moved forward with her life, not forgot what happened, and maybe forgave to some extent.  Then again, maybe it was easier for her as her family really came out relatively unscathed from both wars.  Perhaps it is not so easy on those people who lost loved ones or were victims of some of the vilest atrocities and suffering these wars undoubtedly meted out.  As with so many things, moving forward and forgiving offences against you is something much easier said than done.

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I am an Englishman currently living in South Korea with my wife, who is Korean. We live in a small city in the far south of the country, away from the major more westernized hubs of Seoul and Busan. My situation has given me a unique insight into the culture of South Korea and I am interested in writing about my experiences. The cultural differences between the Far East and the West run so deep and it is fascinating to be caught up in the middle of it all.

22 COMMENTS

  1. This article was great!! I am researching the Japanese occupation of Korea for my National History day project and this is very helpful! My grandmother was just like your mother in law and she said this was just how she felt (except in english, so it was much easier to understand for me) Thank you so much!

  2. I am reading 'So Far From the Bamboo Grove' by Yoko Kawashima Watkins. She was a young Japanese girl living in Northern Korea during the war. I am researching the Japanese occupation because I am unclear of how the war exactly came about. I am reading this book for the second time, first time to my children and want to provide them with accurate accounts of the war. Thank you for your well written article.

  3. Thanks a lot! My homework is due very soon and I finally found this Website! You saved my Life! I sent this to myself because you are my saviour!

  4. Hello Christopher. I’m living in Korea for 7 years now in Seoul, and my experiences and conclusions about Korea are very different than yours. In Seoul, everything is subjected to ”
    빨리 빨리 culture” and money is rapidly extinguishing all remnants of what was until recently called Korean culture and mindset. With the destruction of the family that have stricken the entire world and inevitably Korea, young Koreans (just like their foreign peers) run through life with the speed of light absolutely aimless. Just to illustrate the weakening of so called Korean culture, In increasing numbers I’m seeing young couples kissing and touching on the streets while just until recently it was considered improper. My fiancee’s mother is filling a lawsuit against her because she wants to extort money from her due to inability to take care of herself.

    Because of this, I actually find that ‘Korean culture’ is in fact a “quasi-superficial” set of customs that everybody repeat mindlessly without ever understanding why and what are they doing it in the first place.

    What remains of Korea today is just a vague memory held by elderly heartbroken people who cannot comprehend what’s going on around them…

    • Actually, I think I disagree. Korea does in fact remember the hard times we have gone through — and you can tell through the movies that are being made about our elder generation, which are massive hits today in Korea. Our country has gone through many hard times that not many countries in the world have gone through. But we have been able to get through hard times. There are many revolutionary people in Korea that fight truly for our people and for our country. And if your country, wherever it may be, has gone through such history with the same bravery and audacity, please inform me of so. But please do not degrade our current generation, because other countries aren’t doing any better.

    • It is hard to make any sense of your mindless blabber…. please be more concise if there was any real point to what you just wrote.

      Sincerely.

      • don’t you understand? korea is the only country in the world that has had suffering. dont try to tell me about YOUR COUNTRY “wherever it may be”.

    • This is a very interesting view of yours. Stating that the Korean culture is being forgotten and is diminishing, to especially the new generation, is quite a new concept in my mind.

      Yes, Seoul has a quite busy and buzzed environment, but I don’t think Koreans are forgetting about their culture and tradition. Just because young Koreans are kissing each other and people are working harder to a better future for themselves, doesn’t guarantee that they forgot their culture. In fact this ‘빨리 빨리 culture” you were talking about, I feel, actually takes on the mindset of Korean tradition. Koreans pride themselves by being hard workers, in fact young Korean students are probably the hardest working students I ever met. I have family that live in Seoul and my cousins stay until midnight at school, studying to achieve their dreams. This “busy mindset” actually got Korea to succeed globally, and if Koreans didn’t “try hard”, South Korea wouldn’t be the modern country that it is today.

      On another note, culture itself, I feel, can be created and developed. Just because the new era of “K-pop”, “K-drama” and technology is booming and young Koreans are running around the city kissing, does that necessary mean that it is horrible and that they’re forgetting the past? This is a bit weird, cause my grandparents, who lived in the period of war, actually watch K-drama and a lot of the K-drama are focused on that seoul “빨리 빨리 culture” and they don’t complain at all?

      I myself was born in South Korea, but I don’t live there or visit frequently. My family still stress on to me the importance of Korean culture and we even chat with our relatives in Korea regularly and especially on Korean holidays. My sister and my relatives were educated on Korean history and they, YOUNG KOREANS, were actually the ones who taught me about Korean history. There are countless movies about this period of time, one was released recently that was actually screened on cinemas in Australia, where I live. This proves that Korea is actually trying to spread Korean history not only nationally, but internationally and most importantly NOT FORGETTING IT.

      I don’t know about you, but I think that the older generation actually are proud of how Korea is doing right now. Many of them lived through times of war and poverty, and seeing their children and grandchildren being busy, earning money or studying, and actually doing something with their lives makes them happy. There are still respect to the older generation, if Koreans “forgot” their traditions, why would they be still using respective names for their grandparents? And your argument about how the Korea traditions are “repeated mindlessly” is a bit obscure. Children learn mannerism and traditions from Prep! I learnt all these things when I was five! Do I and the rest of the young population in Korea think that traditions are pointless? All these customs we were taught are based on respect, so that the society can function easier.

      I understand why you have a view on how the younger generation are “forgetting” the culture, maybe because your fiancee’s mother is filling a lawsuit against her (and I don’t even understand what this has got to do with anything, this has got to do with personal circumstances), but I don’t think you were exposed to the big picture, and are quite narrow-minded in what you saw in Seoul. It’s like a person saying that all Americans are obese and eat fast food all day and “What remains of US today is just a vague memory held by healthy eating heartbroken people who cannot comprehend what’s going on around them…” I probably could have picked a better example but i’ve been spending too much time ranting on about this.

      Also, I agree that some kids may forget about the culture because they don’t want anything to do with it, but of course there’s going to be kids who want to go against it! It’s like saying that theres no teenagers who want to rebel against their teacher and not do homework. There’s always going to be people who oppose to things, it’s called human nature and own ideas.

      I only responded to this comment just because by the way you phrased it, you seem to think that the WHOLE of Korea have just turned their back on the traditions cause that is DEFINITELY not the case. I just wanted to show a different opinion to this topic as a 15 year old Korean that is living overseas and hopefully you read this (although your comment was like two years ago lol) cause I honestly wasted so much time on this instead of doing homework. :l

      PS. I’m not saying that my opinion is superior to everyone because everyone has an opinion, but I just don’t think this “black and white” view is accurate.

  5. the worst condition for the people was be under a puppet government of the westerner aggressor nation in asia. the next, was under western colonists directly. and the next is to be under japanese occupation. and finally, a puppet of japan. but because of japan’s resistance to western imperiialism in asia, many asians had the opportunity to incubate their own domestic resistance, like the peasant troop under mao zedong, and korean resistances under the kim family.

    • “like the peasant troop under mao zedong, and korean resistances under the kim family.”

      Thats intereseting Mao’s resistance was toward Japan with the help of the Western community and kim was also with Japan don’t recall them rejecting Western help.

  6. Lovely article! I was wondering if I can use the picture for my presentation on South Korea’s war? I also wanted to know if the picture on the top was from the Korean War or from the Japanese rule.

  7. This reminds of me but to a less brutal extent of the british who were far more cruel to the irishman in that they decimated more than 50% of their population by rape and sold slavery of their irish close neighbors. These irish were sold as slaves all across the new world including america, they were treated much worse than african black slaves because the white man was seen as physically inferior to them, which translated to slave value,so the irish were sold for a fraction of the price often little girls as young as 8 into sexual slavery or brutal labor and were branded, no laws were passed in which these these people were safeguarded for being culled tortured and maimed. Sad history.

  8. Hi. Sorry, may I please know the name of your wife’s grandmother? I kinda need it for my paper. Please. It’s okay if you message it to me through email if you don’t want to post it here. Please.

  9. While my grandmother was still very young when the war ended, her house was burned down in nearby Jeolla-bukdo by the Japanese. She too quickly went from rich to poor. I feel it is sad that Korea has westernized to the point where everyone just thinks of K-Pop when asked about Korea. This history should be much more respected, and these peoples’ stories should be told. My grandmother recently asked me to write about her stories, and I am more than glad to because I hate how people think of Korea these days. And now when she returns, she has to buy $400 worth of clothing in order to not look “poor”. It’s all about class and face lifts, which should change. I hope more of the younger Korean generation decides to write about their grandparents’ history, rather than talk about how much they love K-Pop. Nearly every older Korean, from the dry cleaners to deli owners, from New York to Vancouver have a history that should not be forgotten.

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