Can South Korea and Japan Overcome Their Divisions? - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Can South Korea and Japan Overcome Their Divisions?

Few publicly displayed artistic masterpieces languish in more profound obscurity than “Rakuchū rakugai-zu,” or “Scenes in and around the Capital,” a 17th-century pair of painted sixfold screens hidden away in Osaka’s seldom-visited Nanban Bunkakan Museum. Situated well off the downtown Kita-ku ward’s beaten track, the Nanban gallery only opens in May and November, and those visitors who do make their way to this modest private museum are invariably funneled towards the Namban Byōbu, another Momoyama-era folding screen depicting the Portuguese vessels, Jesuit missionaries, and Christian church halls that were still a novelty in Sengoku-period Japan. But it is the nearby Rakuchū rakugai-zu, with its sublime panoramic view of Kyoto — the former capital of Japan — and its environs, upon which we shall now fix our gaze.

Here stretching out before us is a roving bird’s-eye view of the former Japanese capital in the midst of its resplendent golden age. The painter of the panorama, an anonymous but clearly accomplished member of the Kanō school, has dispensed with strict geographical accuracy, adjusting the location of various Kyoto landmarks to fit them comfortably within the 12 panels of the paired screens, and the calendar likewise seems to have been compressed so that the springtime sakura blossoms vie for our attention with the scarlet blaze of maple trees in autumn-tide, while in another part of town the raucous mid-summer Gion Festival is in full swing. This is a fanciful, but spiritually accurate, representation of the Kyoto of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the samurai who unified Japan and reconstructed the capital along the lines of China’s imperial city of Ch’ang-an, and the Kyoto of Matsuo Bashō, the poet who heard the two-tone call of the cuckoo, kyoo-kyoo, thought to be the voice of the dead yearning for another chance at life, and wistfully wrote:

kyō nite mo

kyō natsukashi ya



Here in Kyoto,

hearing the cuckoo’s cry,

How I long for Kyoto.

So dizzying is the spectacle presented by “Scenes in and around the Capital” that our overtaxed eyes and occipital lobes soon long for some relief, which can be found near a bend of the Kamo River, where the north–south streets and east–west avenues give way to an open space half concealed by billowing golden clouds. Three spectacular works of religious architecture populate this corner of the first painted screen: the gargantuan double-roofed Great Buddha Hall of Hōkōji; the Sanjūsangen-dō, an elongated temple containing 33 bays and 1,001 sculptures of Kannon (Guanyin), the thousand-armed goddess of mercy; and the Toyokuni-jinja, a Shinto shrine dedicated to Toyotomi Hideyoshi after his death in 1598. And just in front of the Tokoyuni shrine, almost completely wrapped in a mantle of clouds, we can just make out another, much smaller shrine, called the Mimizuka, an unassuming edifice, little more than a heap of earth surmounted by a stone monument — or so it would seem to the casual observer.

The Kyoto so painstakingly depicted in the 12 panels of the Rakuchū rakugai-zu cityscape was almost completely destroyed in the 1788 Great Kyoto Fire, and visitors to the old Japanese capital will find the Great Buddha Hall of Hōkōji much diminished after a series of earthquakes, lightning strikes, and all-consuming conflagrations. It is something of a miracle, then, that the Sanjūsangen-dō, along with its serried life-size standing statues of Senju Kannon, has survived to the present day, as has the Toyokuni shrine, which remains popular with pilgrims seeking to commune with the spirit of the feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The Mimizuka has likewise persevered, hemmed in though it now is by the surrounding homes, playgrounds, shops, and restaurants. The English historian Stephen Turnbull has called this unassuming shrine “Kyoto’s least mentioned and most often avoided tourist attraction,” and indeed the Mimizuka seems still to be under something of a pall, just as it was 400 years ago when the Rakuchū rakugai-zu painter discretely concealed it beneath a clouded veil.

There is a very good reason, mind you, that the Mimizuka shrine is not just ignored but actively avoided, and it can be found deep underground, where below the grassy hillock are entombed the remains of some 38,000 Korean and 30,000 Chinese noses, cleanly sliced away from their original owners during the catastrophic Japanese invasion of the Korean Peninsula that took place between 1592 and 1598. Originally and more accurately dubbed the Hanazuka, or “Nose Mound,” the monument’s name was changed by the Confucian scholar Hayashi Razan to the purportedly more euphonious, less precise, but equally disconcerting Mimizuka, or “Ear Mound.” Kyoto’s macabre nose shrine is only the most prominent of its kind; near Bizen lies the “Thousand Nose Mound,” for instance, while others can be seen near Fukuoka, Kagoshima, and Okayama. The presence of these gruesome monuments dotting the Japanese landscape becomes less surprising, though no less disturbing, when one learns that Korean noses attained the status of legal tender during the bloody reign of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

As the invading Japanese army encountered fierce Korean resistance, further bolstered by Ming Chinese reinforcements, Hideyoshi behaved as frustrated conquerors all too often do. Speaking to his soldiers, he ordered:

Mow down everyone universally, without discriminating between young and old, men and women, clergy and the laity — high ranking soldiers on the battlefield, that goes without saying, but also the hill folk, down to the poorest and meanest — and send the heads to Japan.

The average human head, however, weighs roughly ten pounds, and such quantities of Korean and Chinese soldiers and civilians were being slaughtered that common sense dictated that noses, coming in at only eight grams or so, would represent a suitable and far more efficient substitute for intact craniums. The disembodied chunks of human flesh could then be submitted en masse to “nose collection stations,” where clerks recorded the new owners of the noses, salted them, packed them, and exported them to Japan.

It was calculated that, by the time Japanese forces withdrew from Korea in 1598, precisely 214,752 noses had been dispatched across the Sea of Japan, where they could be exchanged for copper, silver, and gold coinage. But all those body parts had to be put somewhere, hence the need for the Mimizuka and the other nose mounds scattered across the Japanese archipelago. Buddhist monks were then brought in to pray for the repose of the massacred souls whose noses had been spirited abroad. At the time, the chief priest, Saishō Jōtai, regarded this practice as an instance of Hideyoshi’s “great mercy and compassion,” though centuries later the Korean scholar Kum Byong Dong would deem it “a uniquely deceptive Japanese logic to say that ‘we enshrined the spirits after killing these people.’” The proximity of the nose mound to the temple of Kannon — the bodhisattva tasked with conveying the dead to their rebirth in the Pure Lands — may lend credence to Jōtai’s position, while the proximity of the Mimizuka to Hideyoshi’s personal shrine does make this accumulation of the grisliest-possible spoils of war seem a bit trophy-like. There is some spiritual triangulation at work here, and ultimately the true meaning of the Mimizuka remains open to interpretation, forcing us to acknowledge the wisdom of Nicolás Gómez Dávila’s axiom that “history buries, without solving, the problems it raises.”

As recently as the 1960s, the Mimizuka site bore an official plaque helpfully explaining to visitors that “one cannot say that cutting off ears or noses was so atrocious by the standards of the time,” which one must admit is not entirely inaccurate. Recall how it was said after the Mongols destroyed the city of Zhongdu, “that the bones of the slaughtered formed white mountains and that the soil was still greasy with human fat,” and that after Timūr Gurkānī’s sack of Baghdad some 120 towers of rotting skulls were erected in celebration of the splendid victory. The Indian historian Kishori Saran Lal estimated that the Muslim invasions of the Indian subcontinent resulted in a population loss of between 60 and 80 million people. Was Hideyoshi any worse than such world-famous conquerors as Genghis Khan, Timūr the Lame, or Muhammad of Ghor? Any Buddhist will tell you that we are “born into the threefold world, a burning house, rotten, and old,” and that the cycling of the great wheel of history is lubricated with human blood. Yet the atrocities perpetrated in Korea by Japanese invaders are not safely confined to the distant past, and more recent wounds are harder to treat in a philosophical manner or as mere abstractions.

When Korea once again fell into Japanese hands as a result of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and then, in 1910, was annexed into the burgeoning Japanese empire, colonial authorities cracked down on Korean-language newspapers and schools, tore down sites like Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung royal palace, and made off with tens of thousands of artifacts. Still worse, “from 1910 to 1921,” according to Hong Beom Rhee, author of Asian Millenarianism: An Interdisciplinary Study of the Taiping and Tonghak Rebellions in a Global Context (2007), “between the Terauchi Government General and the Saito Government General, the Japanese burned and destroyed more than 200,000 volumes of Korean history, mainly ancient, which had greatly influenced Japan and China.” Japanese soldiers went so far as to drive “thousands of stakes into the ground at spots geomancy experts determined were springs of life energy,” requiring post-occupation Korean soldiers, equipped with landmines, to search for and remove those metal stakes designed to “disrupt Korea’s ‘life force.’” This was cultural devastation on a quite literally geological scale and was meant to leave a lasting mark.

And leave a mark it did, separating the two countries, to borrow T.S. Eliot’s phrase from Murder in the Cathedral, “through a curtain of falling blood.” Disputes predicated on historical grievances are constantly arising, as in 2018, when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay compensation for the alleged use of forced laborers during wartime, leading to Japanese retaliation in the form of export restrictions. And, in January of 2022, when Japan announced its seemingly anodyne plans to nominate abandoned gold and silver mines on Sado Island as UNESCO World Heritage sites, it was met with a furious reaction from the South Korean Foreign Ministry, which accused the Japanese of ignoring “the painful history of forced labor for Koreans” on the island while demanding the immediate withdrawal of the recommendation. The Japanese government has continued to insist that “labor due to ‘recruitment,’ ‘official mediation,’ or ‘conscription’ does not equate to the ‘forced labor’ stipulated in treaties on forced labor,” and that “[r]eferring to these types of work as ‘forced labor’ is inappropriate.” An emotional argument is thus met with a semantic-legalistic response, and we see how, to again cite the inimitable Nicolás Gómez Dávila, “history allows for understanding, but it does not require absolution.”

There have been attempts to reconcile these differences, particularly with respect to the plight of the comfort women forced into military brothels during the Second World War, an issue that has stirred Korean emotions ever since the collapse of the Japanese Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in 1945. The Japanese government has argued for decades that, just as with the conscripted laborers of Sado Island, “no evidence was found that the Japanese army or the military officials seized the women by force.” On December 28, 2015, the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the former South Korean President Park Geun-hye nevertheless reached a supposedly lasting agreement on the subject, involving a “most sincere” official Japanese apology, a payment of one billion yen to a fund supporting surviving comfort women, and a South Korean acknowledgment that the Japan-ROK Claims Settlement and Economic Cooperation Agreement of 1965, combined with the additional payment, had “finally and irreversibly” resolved the matter.

It did nothing of the sort, alas, and only two years later, the subsequent South Korean President Moon Jae-in was arguing that “the reality is the majority of our people cannot emotionally accept the comfort women agreement” before moving to shut down the Japanese-funded comfort women foundation. Meanwhile, the global proliferation of Pyeonghwaui sonyeosang, or “Statues of Peace” commemorating the collective ordeal of the comfort women, has proven to be another thorn in Japan’s side. Japanese civil society groups have opposed such memorials, successfully in Freiburg, Germany, and unsuccessfully in places like Glendale and San Francisco, and, in the most recent battleground, Berlin, pro-statue groups like Korea Verband and Omas gegen Rechts are squaring off with Japanese state officials and the pro-Japanese South Korean civic group End Comfort Women Fraud, who oppose the presence of a comfort women memorial in a Moabit neighborhood park. As South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk-yeol, and Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, seek to fasten “the first button of a new Korea-Japan relationship,” the troubling legacy of Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula is still making its presence felt.

It was in 1990 that a Korean Buddhist monk by the name of Pak Sam-jung ventured to Kyoto and conducted a solemn rite atop the Mimizuka, hoping to comfort the spirits trapped therein and guide them back home to Korea. Seven years later, on the 400th anniversary of the original dedication of the mound, another ceremony was held to “appease the spirits of those who were killed and mutilated,” though whether this tacitly cast doubt on Pak Sam-jung’s spiritual prowess was never addressed. At the time of the 1997 ceremony, Mimizuka groundskeeping volunteer Shiro Shimizu told a reporter that “as a Japanese, I feel badly for what we did to the Korean people, and so I try to do something to make up for it,” adding that “the lesson for today is that we should respect human life,” and that “in times of peace, this would never have happened.” He concluded, “I hope we will always be able to maintain peace.” Perhaps the Mimizuka was starting to represent not a ghastly endpoint but the possibility of a new beginning.

When it came to later crimes carried out by the Japanese military, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East found:

When it became apparent that Japan would be forced to surrender, an organized effort was made to burn or otherwise destroy all documents and other evidence of ill-treatment of prisoners of war and civilian internees. The Japanese Minister of War issued an order on 14 August 1945 to all Army headquarters that confidential documents should be destroyed by fire immediately. On the same day, the Commandant of the Kempeitai sent out instructions to the various Kempeitai Headquarters detailing the methods of burning large quantities of documents efficiently.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi, for all his faults, made no effort to spoliate evidence of his atrocities, instead preserving it in Kyoto for all to see, providing not just a monument to militaristic expansionism but also a valuable aide-mémoire. His macabre shrine thereby serves some purpose in the modern age, allowing for lessons to be learned and, additionally, for ceremonies to be conducted for the benefit of those Korean and Chinese spirits who found themselves unwillingly consigned to the Kyoto earth. Perhaps Saishō Jōtai was half right in praising Hideyoshi’s enshrinement of the Mimizuka, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

The novelist Yukio Mishima, in The Decay of the Angel (1971), the fourth and last installment of his epic Sea of Fertility tetralogy, wrote: “History knew the truth. History was the most inhuman product of humanity. It scooped up the whole of human will and, like the goddess Kali in Calcutta, dripped blood from its mouth as it bit and crunched.” This is the sort of history that engenders bitter grievances and blood-soaked revanchism, which can lead, say, a dictator like Putin to lob cruise missiles into peaceful cities like Vinnytsia and Odesa in a mad bid to recreate a lost empire that was, even in its reputed heyday, a despotic prison of nations. But Mishima, in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956), also described history another way: “The past does not only draw us back to the past. There are certain memories of the past that have strong steel springs and, when we who live in the present touch them, they are suddenly stretched taut and then they propel us into the future.” This is the sort of history which can allow, say, Polish and Ukrainian delegations to draw on their shared heritage while commemorating the 79th anniversary of the Volhynian massacre, adopting the slogan “Nie o zemstę, lecz o pamięć wołają ofiary,” or “the victims do not call for revenge but for remembrance,” as they set aside past differences to confront the ongoing Russian Rashist menace. History as a set of ravenous steel jaws or strong steel springs — a great deal depends on the choice between the two.

A “curtain of falling blood” will not always divide South Korea and Japan. Economic and security cooperation between the two nations is an absolute necessity, given the threats posed by both an unpredictable North Korea and a China currently pursuing a policy of rampant militarization in the South China Sea. Just as Poles and Ukrainians quickly forgot about historical grievances about whether Przemyśl should be Peremyshl or whether Lviv should be Lwów in the face of Russia’s onslaught, Japanese and South Koreans will likewise quickly forget disputes over comfort women or the contested sovereignty of the Liancourt islets when faced with China’s increasingly overweening geopolitical and ideological ambitions. Nothing focuses the mind or puts things in perspective quite like an existential threat. And all the while the Mimizuka will remain in Kyoto, serving as an understandably obscure but nevertheless vital reminder not merely of man’s inhumanity to man, but also of the power the monuments of the past have, when treated respectfully, to promote understanding and propel us forward into the future.

Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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