Aging Japanese Women Find a Resigned Solace in South Korea - The New York Times
New York Times
6th June 2016
GYEONGJU, South Korea — She spends hours a day watching the Japanese broadcaster NHK. Her bedside table is stacked with Japanese magazines and figurines in kimonos. The walls bear pictures of Mount Fuji.
Shizue Katsura, 96, is among 19 Japanese women who are spending their final days in an unlikely place: a nursing home in South Korea, where lingering sentiment has helped keep the women in obscurity. “There is no use looking back on my life,” Ms. Katsura said.
“Home is where you are living. Japan is a foreign country to me. ” Thousands of Japanese women like Ms.
Katsura married Korean men during Japan’s colonial rule, which lasted from 1910 to 1945. When World War II ended and Korea was liberated, many stayed with their husbands in Korea, while others fled back to Japan, fearing violence from those looking to avenge the brutal colonial rule. Or, as in Ms.
Katsura’s case, they followed their husbands from Japan to Korea. Once in Korea, these women often discovered that their husbands’ families had found them Korean spouses in their absence. Many also lost their husbands during the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 until 1953.
By the time many tried to return to Japan, it was too late. Japan and South Korea did not ties until 1965, and, even then, some of the women had no relatives to sponsor their return and resettlement. Emotions run high when South Koreans talk about their country’s historical disputes with Japan, especially the enslavement of Korean “comfort women” in brothels for Japan’s Imperial Army during World War II.
But society has paid little attention to these Japanese women, some of whom were abandoned by their families in both countries and had to live with neither a Korean nor a Japanese passport. “When they arrive here, they all have Korean names,” said Song the head of the nursing home, Nazarewon, which takes its name from the biblical Nazareth. “One of the first things we do is to call them by their Japanese names.
When this happens, they are in tears, as if they are getting their life, their identity, back. “Once we give their real names back, it’s amazing how quickly they regain their Japaneseness, the decorum, the way they fold their hands before them when they greet others,” Ms. Song said.
While sitting in a wheelchair, Ms. Katsura perked up when telling a visitor how she met a “kindly” Korean man more than seven decades earlier, when they worked in a power station in her hometown, Ebetsu, near Sapporo in northern Japan. But she became taciturn when asked about her life in South Korea.
Her husband died of alcoholism decades earlier, she said. She once raised tobacco and livestock in southwestern South Korea, and then sold vegetables in the capital, Seoul, before failing health forced her to move into the nursing home nine years ago. “My son, he died early,” she said, declining to elaborate.
A South Korean philanthropist named Kim was operating orphanages in Gyeongju in southeastern South Korea when he traveled to Japan and saw what looked like Korean women protesting in front of the Japanese emperor’s palace. They turned out to be Japanese women with South Korean passports demanding that Japan help them regain their citizenship and return home. Mr.
Kim opened Nazarewon in 1972 as a way station for these women, providing them with lodging, as well as legal and financial aid. A total of 147 returned home through Nazarewon, the last one in 1984. Nazarewon has since become a nursing home for women who either could not or did not want to return to Japan and had no family support.
After 70 years in South Korea, some women preferred living here to ending up at a nursing home in Japan. “They like umeboshi,” Ms. Song said, referring to the ubiquitous Japanese dish of pickled plums.
“But they can do without it, but not without the Korean kimchi. ” More than 80 women have died at Nazarewon during the past 35 years. The average age of the 19 current residents is 92.
Many suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and were not available for interviews. The nursing home’s existence rankles some South Koreans. “I still get angry calls, asking: ‘What do you think you are doing? Don’t you know what the Japanese did to our comfort women? ’” Ms.
Song said. “I hope what we do here will, in its small and silent way, help heal the ties between the two nations. ” Chiyo Yagi, 90, said she was a nurse in the Fukuoka prefecture in southern Japan when she fell in love with a Korean translator who would bring injured Korean workers from the nearby Lizuka coal mines to her hospital.
When they were married, her father did not attend the wedding. Ms. Yagi, too, did not like to talk about her life in South Korea, though her callused and crooked fingers appeared to reflect a life of menial labor.
“Korea is a better place for me to live because I at least have a daughter here,” she said. “My daughter comes to see me once a year. ” Japanese journalists have visited Nazarewon since a book about the women there was published in Japan in the early 1980s.
A church in Japan and the Japanese Embassy in Seoul have provided aid to help Ms. Song operate the nursing home. Japanese tourists who visit this city, the seat of the ancient Silla kingdom and home to numerous Buddhist temples and pagodas, often stop at the nursing home.
But their numbers have declined sharply in recent years, as relations between South Korea and Japan have cooled over a territorial dispute and the issue of the comfort women. On a recent afternoon, Nazarewon was shrouded in silence. Women sat motionlessly in wheelchairs, gazing at NHK on a large screen.
A few played a card game, counting their scores in Japanese but otherwise speaking Korean. Azaleas blossomed in the front yard. “I don’t know anything about politics,” said Ms.
Katsura, who declined to discuss relations. “What I do know is that if you do well to others, they will do well to you, too. That’s true between people, between nations.
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