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(Yonhap Feature) First civic museum on Korea's colonial past looks beyond showing history

All Headlines 06:00 August 27, 2018

By Kim Seung-yeon

SEOUL, Aug. 27 (Yonhap) -- At the foot of Mount Nam, just north of the site of the old Yongsan U.S. garrison, sits Haebangchon, one of the oldest neighborhoods in central Seoul.

A century ago, it was the site of the Gyeongseong Gokoku Shrine, the "local branch" of Japan's Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to its war dead, including convicted war criminals.

About 1.5 km west of the shrine, Shinkwang Girls' High School used to be a prison camp where the imperial Japanese army held captive prisoners of war of the Allied forces during World War II. Nearby was its major military training ground, one of Japan's earliest establishments in the short-lived Korean Empire before it made Korea its colony in 1910.

The U.S. military base -- now moved to Pyeongtaek -- and great ethnic diversity in Itaewon are what have defined modern day Yongsan. But few know the town as a vestige of Japan's 35-year occupation of the peninsula.

And 73 years after liberation, the district is about to add another place on its map related to the lesser-known part of its history, as an independent history museum that primarily deals with Korea's colonial past is set to open Wednesday.

The Museum of Japanese Colonial History in Korea will display some 70,000 antiquities and bibliographical materials from the colonial period.

Unlike existing public museums that highlight anti-Japanese movements in the colonial period, it aims to shed more light on people's livelihoods at the time of foreign suppression, Kim Seung-eun from the Center for Historical Truth and Justice (CHTJ), which runs the museum, said.

"We had no colonial history museum that encompasses all aspects of the colonization, especially from the perspective of ordinary people who lived through the agonizing years," Kim, head of the CHTJ's documentation division, said in an interview on Monday.

This photo provided by the Center for Historical Truth and Justice on Aug. 27, 2018, shows an inside view of the Museum of Japanese Colonial History in Korea, located in Yongsan, central Seoul. (Yonhap)

The museum is located on the second floor of the CHTJ's new building, a few blocks away from the Shinkwang high school.

Wednesday also marks the 108th anniversary of Gyeongsulgukchi, the National Humiliation on the Year of Gyeongsul, the year that the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty, forcibly sealed by Emperor Sunjong of Korea, was proclaimed by Japan.

The most representative among the collection is the original Declaration of Independence, a statement announced by 33 Korean activists on March 1, 1919. It was the first public resistance that became a trigger for other anti-Japanese movements, which were violently cracked down on by the Japanese. The museum will exhibit its copy for preservation.

But a large portion of the collection consists of items once owned by ordinary Koreans, such as letters, propaganda, war posters to recruit conscripts, family pictures, diaries and documents held by the Japanese military police regarding ways to suppress their colony.

The museum's main exhibits will focus on these personal items, Kim says, which have far more value than any other outstanding artifacts.

She cited as an example two photos donated to the museum by the family of a Korean victim of wartime forced labor. They show a young man posing in front of the factory where he was taken just after he arrived in Japan. He wrote a message to his family saying he would return home with a lot of money. That was the last they heard from their father.

In 2005, the family finally found closure to the question left unanswered for decades. A Japanese activist working with the institute discovered paper trails of the father from old state pension logs. The record showed he died at the labor camp.

"Would the father have ever imagined those photos would be the last present for his family? His children never knew they would only remember their father by the crinkled pictures," Kim said. "We want to show something great and marvelous is not a museum artifact. Any record of someone and his or her experience, good or bad, is history."

The CHTJ, an activist research institute founded in 1991, is best known for its work on the Biographical Dictionary of Pro-Japanese Collaborators. It took the nation by storm in 2009 upon the publication of the three-volume encyclopedic series containing information on 4,389 individuals who sided with Japan during its colonial reign.

How to define collaborators, known as Chinilpa, remains a complex issue that often sparks heated ideological division. After the war, the ruling government of the U.S.-supported South overlooked cleaning away the remnants of the pro-Japanese establishment. Many of the powerful and privileged at present are descendants of Chinilpa.

An exhibit shows items related to Japan's forced mobilization of Koreans for World War II at the Museum of Japanese Colonial History in Korea, located in Yongsan, central Seoul, in this photo provided by the Center for Historical Truth and Justice on Aug. 27, 2018. (Yonhap)

And many if not all of them tend to advocate the viewpoint that, simply put, Japan's colonial rule helped modernize Korea and that siding with them was inevitable for survival.

The CHTJ's stand against this vindication theory has put itself at odds with governments under conservative presidents. The release of the biographical dictionary was made possible after hundreds of citizens, enraged at the state denial of funding for the project, donated 700 million won (US$624,000) to bankroll the project.

As for the museum, it took 11 years for the CHTJ to complete the 5.5 billion-won project. Renowned Catholic priest Song Gi-in fueled the move with his 200 million won donation, followed by over 4,800 citizens who paid a combined 1.5 billion won. Of the funds raised, 103 million won came from 800 Japanese people.

The CHTJ was able to raise 3.3 billion won in total, which it calls the "power of people."

"We owe the rest to the bank," Kim chuckled.

Limited finances remain a bugbear as the museum will need more funds to upgrade the storage and archives. The staff and a handful of volunteers have been practically digitalizing the massive collection manually. They've completed about 60 percent so far.

"We are trying to come up with best ways for conservation over the long haul, such as promotions to secure more regular sponsorships," Kim said. "We figured it's best if we do our jobs (without state support). The state has its own part to play, and we have ours."

The museum is planning various events as part of efforts to extend its reach to the general public. Next month, it will host a series of field trips within Yongsan. Museum staff will walk with participants to explore unknown historical sites.

Tours designed specifically for Japanese visitors will run from October through December.

"We want it to be an active museum, not only exhibiting items but acting to raise awareness," Kim said. "We'll keep throwing questions, how we can interpret and overcome the shameful past, through the traces we've pieced together."


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