Friday, December 30, 2016

Guryongpo: Looking back at Japanese colonialism in Korea

Monument to the nine dragons

Last April I went out to a little town near Pohang called Guryongpo (구룡포). If you look at a map of South Korea, you can see a little bit on the southeast coast that sticks out, kind of like a little thumb. The very point of that is Homigot, one of the easternmost points of the coastline, where thousands of people gather every year on New Years to watch the sunrise (presumably while trying not to get hypothermia.)

Just south of Homigot is Guryongpo, a little fishing village. There are a few beaches around there that are nice in a rugged way (or at least they seemed rugged on a rainy day in April) and of course plenty of restaurants serving fresh seafood. While I've never been in the summer, Guryongpo is supposed to have some of the nicest beaches in the summer for swimming.

According to an official Korean tourism site, Guryongpo gets its name from a mythical event that occured during the Silla Period, under the reign of King Jin-heung (540-576 CE.) The story says that a large storm brought nine dragons into heaven (where those dragons were prior to the storm is anyone's guess.) Thus the etymology of Guryongpo (gu = 9, ryong = dragon, po = beach.)

However, the main attraction for me was a little Japanese neighborhood that offers a glimpse into Korea's colonial period. It's now called the Modern Culture and History Street (근대 문화 거리) and attracts a decent number of tourists not only for its historical value, but also thanks to the famous Korean drama that was filmed there back in the 90's called Eyes of Dawn. I haven't seen it yet, but after reading a description I definitely plan to. The story centers around three people who live through the colonial period, WWII and the Korean War, so it sounds like a really interesting look at a turbulent period of Korean history through the modern Korean perspective. For a very spoiler-filled description of the drama, click here. Or click here for a brief but less spoiler-y version.

One of Korea's most famous and successful TV dramas, parts of which were filmed in Guryongpo

The Japanese settlement of Guryongpo started in the very early 20th century as people from the over-fished areas of Wakayama and Okayama Prefectures in Japan began to migrate there. According to this blog, by 1912 as many as 50 households had set up in the area, however this article on migrant fishing villages gives the number of Japanese households in Guryongpo in 1910 as 192, or a total Japanese population of 815.

Walking through the Japanese neighborhood of Guryonpo

Japanese style mailbox, which I think this was added for the sake of the TV drama

The wood paneling you see here is typical of a Japanese style building

Guryongpo was actually one of many similar villages along the coast in that area that became hubs for Japanese fishing and migration. This was encouraged by the Japanese government for several reasons, including access to fishing and to develop a strong Japanese presence that helped establish the Japanese occupation of Korea which lasted from 1910 until 1945.

Imagining of olonial era Japanese migrants, on display at the Hashimoto house in Guryongpo

These Japanese migrants were responsible for big improvements in the Korean fishing industry. They brought with them better equipment and technology and developed what are still some of Korea's largest fishing ports, such as the ones in Pohang, Guryongpo and the Tongyeong area. The Japanese also helped to industrialize Korea in general during the occupation, setting up things like cinemas and bringing over new technology like cameras and radios. That said, Japanese occupation was extremely strict during the first decade especially and during the war led to human rights atrocities like the "comfort women", wherein thousands of Korean women were forced into sexual slavery.

Walking through the streets of the Japanese village in Guryongpo forces you to think about what life must have been like back then. It's a little difficult to imagine. The part of me that loves Japan saw a lot of beauty and nostalgia in the Japanese houses, especially the Hashimoto house which has been well-restored and transformed into a museum. But it's impossible to ignore the ugly side of Japanese imperialist history.

The restored Hashimoto house in Guryongpo

A niche in one of the main rooms holding seasonal decorations

A colonial-era Japanese style kitchen

The 2nd floor hallway with sliding doors and decorative wood panels typical of that era

Tatami room showcasing a Japanese tea set, kimono and instrument

Garden next to the house, looking more Korean now with its kimchi pots

The video below includes a short interview with a Korean resident who still remembers the Japanese occupation:

The neighborhood had a Japanese Shinto shrine on the hill overlooking the bay, which unfortunately was torn down in 2008 because of supposed structural problems. A Korean style Hanok house was put up in its place, which looks a little garish with its bright paint next to the more somber Japanese style buildings in the neighborhood. However, you can't really blame the Koreans for wanting to replace a painful reminder of the colonial period with something new and distinctly "Korean."

Location of the former shrine, now with a Hanok style building

The steps leading up to the shrine originally listed the names of the Japanese donors that helped develop the town, but after the Korean liberation, they were turned upside down and encased in concrete. Eventually they were replaced by the names of donors that helped build a monument to Korean patriotic martyrs called Chunghongak.

Staircase leading up to the former site of the shrine. I would translate the characters as "Entrance to the monument for the loyal dead".

Now when you climb to the top of the hill, you can see not only the new Hanok building, but a huge sculpture of nine dragons looking out over the ocean, in honor of the legend that gave Guryongpo its name.

The Japanese neighborhood of Guryongpo isn't big, but there have been efforts to restore it and I really enjoyed the feeling of walking through a part of Korea's history that you rarely see. If you go, the Hashimoto House is definitely worth a visit, and of course don't miss climbing all those steps up the hill to see the dragons and a great view of the town.

If you're curious to read more or want to know where I got my information, check out these links:

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