Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Hanygul writing came into its own at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Western science and literature entered Korea and the traditions of Korea's past were under attack from every direction. Korea's ancient relationship with China ended in 1895 and Korean intellectuals renewed their search for authentic Korean avenues of expression. The idea of writing novels was new in Korea and the first "modern" novel, entitled Tears of Blood (Hydlui nu) by Yi Injik (1862-1916), was a blend of romantic Chinese-style storytelling and modern ideas, told in themes of modernization, the thirst for modern knowledge, and the quest for individual and national liberation.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: By the time of the 1894 reforms, enough social and intellectual change had occurred to suggest the beginnings of a division between traditional and modern literature. But, just as conservatism did not favour sudden changes in the political and social structure, literature too faced a period of transition toward its modern transformation. Schools were established by the educational ordinance of 1895, and the organization of learned societies and “enlightenment” movements followed soon after. Vernacular publications, the Tongnip sinmun (“Independent”) and the Cheguk sinmun (“Imperial Post”), along with the establishment of the Korean Language Institute and the scientific study, consolidation, and systematization of Korean grammar, also helped open the way for the modern literary movement. [Source: Du-Hwan Kwon, Peter H. Lee, Encyclopædia Britannica]

The first literary forms to appear after the 1894 reforms were the sinsosol (“new novel”) and the ch’angga (“song”). These transitional literary forms were stimulated by the adaptation of foreign literary works and the rewriting of traditional stories in the vernacular. The ch’angga, which evolved from hymns sung at churches and schools in the 1890s, became popular upon the publication of the “Aeguk ka” (“National Anthem”) by Yi Yongu and “Tongsim ka” (“A Boy’s Mind”) by Yi Chungwon in an issue (1896) of the Tongnip sinmun. Songwriters still used such traditional verse forms as the sijo and kasa or a song form, the predominant pattern of which (seven and five syllables) showed the influence of popular Japanese songs (shoka). Most songs denounced corruption in the government and stressed independence, patriotic fervour, and modernization.

Three distinctly traditional elements were inherited by the sinsosol. First was the basic moral stance of reproving vice and rewarding virtue. Owing to the prevailing atmosphere of the “enlightenment” period, advocates of modernization were cast as virtuous while the wicked were cast as conservative. Second, the development of the plot was governed by coincidence, and events that lacked causality were nevertheless arbitrarily connected. Finally, the dialogue and the accompanying narrative were fused into one expository structure. The pioneering aspects of the sinsosol, however, were that it was written wholly in prose, whereas a considerable part of traditional fiction had been in verse, and the sinsosol tried to depict a plausible human existence with backgrounds and events that more closely resembled reality than was the case in traditional fiction, which tended to follow certain model stories with their established plot lines and stereotyped characterizations. Writers of sinsosol also tried to unify the spoken and written language. Typical writers and their works are Yi Injik, Kwi ui song (1907; “A Demon’s Voice”); Yi Haejo, Chayujong (1910; “Liberty Bell”); and Ch’oe Ch’ansik, Ch’uwolsaek (1912; “Colour of the Autumn Moon”). In their works these writers advocated modernization, a spirit of independence, contact with Western countries, study abroad, the diffusion of science and technology, and the abolition of conventions and superstition.

Korean Literature During the Japanese Colonial Period in the 1910s and 20s

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: The modern literary movement was launched by Ch’oe Namson and Yi Kwangsu. In 1908 Ch’oe published the poem “Hae egeso pada ege” (“From the Sea to Children”) in Sonyon (“Children”), the first literary journal aimed at producing cultural reform. Inspired by Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Ch’oe celebrates in clean masculine diction the strength of the young people who will carry out the necessary social and literary revolution. The poem’s inventions include the use of punctuation marks, stanzas of unequal length, and reference to the sea and children, hitherto little mentioned in classical poetry. Neither Ch’oe nor his contemporaries, however, could escape the bounds of traditional prosody or succeed in modernizing traditional forms of speech and allusion. In his stories, which dealt with the enlightened pioneers who championed Western science and civilization, Yi Kwangsu adopted a prose style that approximated the everyday speech of common people. Yi’s reputation was established by Mujong (1917; “The Heartless”), the first modern Korean novel. [Source: Du-Hwan Kwon, Byong-Wuk Chong, Peter H. Lee,]

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “A decade later, the novelist Yi Kwangsu (1892-?) took Korean fiction to a new level with his The Heartless {Mujong), a romantic story about the clash between traditional and modern lifestyles, the generational conflict of true love versus arranged marriage, the experience of studying abroad, and the need to sacrifice patriotically for the Korean nation. Yi Kwangsu was a "nationalist," one whose work inspired resistance against Japanese colonial rule and contributed to the March 1, 1919, Independence Movement in Korea. The failure of the uprising against Japan in 1919 left Korean intellectuals in a quandary about whether to accept Japanese rule or continue what appeared to be a hopeless resistance. Many writers became "cultural nationalists," looking for ways to preserve "Koreanness" and the consciousness of Korean culture through study and "self-strengthening." In the 1920s, Korean intellectuals founded a variety of literary journals, trading ideas through short stories and novellas that were influenced by comparable movements in China, Russia, and the West. Translators introduced Korean readers to the works of Western writers from Dostoevsky to Tolstoy to Zola, creating a niche for criticism and pessimism, things that seemed to belong in any view of Korean society at the time.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

The movement for literary naturalism was launched in the 1920s by a group of young writers who rallied around a new definition of universal reality. Yom Sangsop, the first to introduce psychological analysis and scientific documentation into his stories, defined naturalism as an expression of awakened individuality. Naturalism’s purpose, Yom asserted, was to expose the sordid aspects of reality, especially the sorrow and disillusionment occurring as authority figures are debased and one’s idols are shattered. Many works of naturalist fiction were first-person narratives in which writers presented themselves as the subjects of case studies. The disharmony between the writer and his society often induced the writer to turn to nature; the land and simple folk furnished themes and motifs for some of the better stories in the Zolaesque tradition, among them “Pul” (1925; “Fire”) by Hyon Chingon and “Kamja” (1925; “Potato”) by Kim Tongin.


Manhae (1879-1944), or Han Yongun, was a Korean Buddhist (Son) monk during the era of Japanese colonial occupation (1910-1945). Manhae is a political and cultural hero in Korea, and his works are studied by college students and school children alike. He is considered one of the fathers of the Korean independence movement

Robert Pinsky wrote in the Washington Post: Manhae was “an important figure not only in poetry but also in religion, culture and politics. An American poet reads with a gasp that Manhae, a monk who profoundly influenced Buddhist thought and practice, was also a coauthor of the Korean Declaration of Independence. As Han Yong-un, he was also a founding modern poet. So here are significant accomplishments comparable to those of Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, all credited to someone born in 1879, the same year as the American businessman-poet Wallace Stevens. [Source: Robert Pinsky, Washington Post October 30, 2005]

“Everything Yearned For” is a collection of 88 love poems, evocative of the mystical love poetry of Rumi, and even reminiscent of the work of Pablo Neruda. Though Manahe’s poetry can be read allegorically on many levels—political and religious—it is completely unlike any other poetry in Buddhist or secular realm. The first poem, “My Lover’s Silence,” narrates the lover’s departure and establishes the enduring themes of the work: the happiness of meeting, the sadness of separation, the agony of longing and waiting, and, most of all, the perfection of love in absence that demands the cost of one’s ongoing life, as opposed to the relief of death. The Korean word translated in these poems as “love” and “lover” is nim, though nim has many and broad interpretations. Understandably, the identity of Manhae’s lover, or “nim” has been the subject of much speculation.

Manhae writes in his own preface: “Nim” is not only a human lover but everything yearned for. All beings are nim for the Buddha, and philosophy is the nim of Kant. The spring rain is nim for the rose, and Italy is the nim of Mazzini. Nim is what I love, but it also loves me. If romantic love is freedom, then so is my nim. But aren’t you attached to the lofty name of freedom? Don’t you also have a nim? If so, it’s only your shadow. I write these poems for the young lambs wandering lost on the road home from the darkening plains.”

Manhae’s Poems

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: Manhae published Nim ui ch’immuk (1926; “The Silence of Love”), comprising 88 meditative poems. Han sought insight into the reasons why he and his country had to endure Japanese occupation, and he found Buddhist contemplative poetry the lyric genre most congenial to this pursuit. The nature and folk poet Kim Sowol used simplicity, directness, and terse phrasing to good effect. Many of his poems in Chindallaekkot (1925; “Azaleas”) were set to music. [Source: Du-Hwan Kwon, Byong-Wuk Chong, Peter H. Lee,]

“Manhae’s Poems of Love and Longing” translated by Francisca Cho was the winner of the Daesan Foundation Literary Award. The following is one poem in it: “My Song” by Manhae

My song has no fixed rhythm,
so it has nothing in common with normal tunes.
This doesn’t grieve me,
because my song should be different.

Melody smooths out the defect of songs.
Melody grinds up unnatural songs with human delusions.
To set genuine song to music dishonors its nature.
Music blemishes my song, just as making up your face disfigures it.

My song makes the god of love cry.
My song squeezes youth into rare, pure water.
My song enters your ear and becomes heaven’s music;
It enters your dream and becomes tears.

I know you hear my song across the distant fields and mountains.
When its pitch stumbles and falls silent,
my song enters your sad, quiet thoughts and vanishes.
When I think of you listening to my song,
my heart pounds with exhilaration and draws out the notes of silence.

Robert Pinsky wrote in the Washington Post: Manhae's poems are sometimes read allegorically; couched as love poems, they are traditionally interpreted as being about Korea as well. Here is "Cuckoo," from the volume of English translations recently published by Francisca Cho:
The cuckoo cries its heart out.
It cries and when it can cry no more,
It cries blood.
The bitterness of parting is not yours alone.
I cannot cry even though I want to.
I'm not a cuckoo, and that bitterness can't be helped either.
The heartless cuckoo:
I have nowhere to return, and yet it cries,
"Better turn back, better turn back." [Source: Robert Pinsky, Washington Post, October 30, 2005]

Regret, exile, discomfort. Manhae dramatizes these feelings by the way his poem expels its own terms in a series of negations: "I'm not a cuckoo," "I have nowhere to return," "I cannot cry." The situation can be understood as personal, erotic, historical or all of the above, but always negation is near the expressive center.

Repeatedly in these poems, longing is expressed by the negative. "I haven't seen your heart" says the refrain of a poem called "Your Heart." "Don't," urges the refrain of "First Kiss." "It's not for nothing that I love you," declares "Love's Reasons." Even a poem of devotion has the refrain "Don't Doubt": "If you doubt me, then your error of doubt/ and my fault of sorrow will cancel each other." And here are some lines from "Don't Go":
That's not the light of compassion from Buddha's brow;
It's the flash from a demon's eyes.
That's not the goddess of love who binds body and mind,
and tosses herself into love's ocean, caring nothing
for crowns, glory or death;
It's the smile of the knife.
The refrain of that poem is "Turn around — don't go to that place. I hate it."

The negative, in certain ways, is near the heart of poetry itself. By implication of tireless yearning, the art of poetry says to politics: No, you are not all there is, there is also the human body. To the human body, poetry implicitly dissents: No, you are not all there is, there is also spiritual yearning. And to spiritual yearning: No, you are not all there is, there is also sexual pleasure. And to sexual pleasure: No, you are not all there is, there is also politics.

In Manhae's poem "Come," images of a peaceful garden turn into images of death as a refuge. Here is the concluding stanza:
Come into my death, my death is always ready for you.
Should anyone chase you, stand behind my death.
In death, emptiness and omnipotence are one.
Love's death is at once infinite, everlasting.
In death, battleship and fortress become dust.

Korean Literature During the Japanese Colonial Period in the 1930s

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: The Mukden, or Manchurian, Incident (1931) and the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 induced the Japanese military authorities to impose wartime restrictions. The grinding poverty of the lower classes at home and abroad, especially in the Korean settlements in southern Manchuria, was the chief concern of the writers of the New Tendency movement, which opposed the romantic and “decadent” writers of the day and later became proletarian in spirit. Writers of the class-conscious Korean Artist Proletariat Federation (KAPF), organized in 1925, asserted the importance of propaganda and regarded literature as a means to establish socialism.

Modern Korean literature attained its maturity in the 1930s through the efforts of a group of talented writers. They drew freely upon European examples to enrich their art. Translation of Western literature continued, and works by I.A. Richards, T.S. Eliot, and T.E. Hulme were introduced. This artistic and critical activity was a protest against the reduction of literature to journalism and its use as propaganda by leftist writers.

The first truly successful poet of modern Korea was Chong Chiyong, who was influenced by William Blake and Walt Whitman. Paengnoktam (1941; “White Deer Lake”), his second book of poetry, symbolically represents the progress of the spirit to lucidity and the fusion of man and nature. A poetry of resistance, voicing sorrow for the ruined nation with defiance but without violence or hatred, was produced by Yi Yuksa and Yun Tongju. In Yi’s poem “Cholchong” (1939; “The Summit”), he re-creates the conditions of an existence in extremity and forces the reader to contemplate his ultimate destiny. The poetry of Yun Tongju, a dispassionate witness to Korea’s national humiliation, expresses sorrow in response to relentless tyranny.

Korean fiction of the 1930s took shape in the void created by the compulsory dissolution of KAPF in 1935. Barred from all involvement with social or political issues, some writers returned to nature and sex; others retreated to the labyrinth of primitive mysticism, superstition, and shamanism; still others sympathetically portrayed characters born out of their time, defeated and lonely. In the early 1940s the Japanese suppressed all writings in Korean. Censorship, which had begun with the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, was intensified. Korea was liberated in August 1945, and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was established three years later. The literary scene experienced the revival of the controversy between left and right that had raged in the late 1920s and early 1930s. There were frantic groupings and regroupings, and most of the hard-core leftist writers, such as Yi Kiyong and Han Sorya, were in North Korea by 1948.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “This form of "realism" helped writers like Kim Tong'in (1900-51) and Yom Sangsop (1897-1963) write about Korea as they saw it, with all the cruelties that came from Japanese colonialism and the mass ignorance that afflicted their own people. Yi Sang (1910—37) wrote about the inner mind of Koreans, plumbing the depths of psychology and selfabsorption. In the 1937 novel Peace under Heaven (T'aepyong Ch'onhd), Ch'ae Mansik (1902-50) uses humor to present a selfish protagonist named Master Yun who is constantly scheming to get ahead but is constantly undone by his own flaws, bad choice of friends, and people who take advantage of him. In a manner reminiscent of the Chinese writer Lu Xun's character Ah Q, Ch'ae makes Master Yun a metaphor for the hapless Korean people under Japanese colonialism. These works welled up out of a national soul that had been shattered by the death of the monarchy and the Japanese conquest.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Korean Literature After the Korean War

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: The single overwhelming reality in Korean fiction after the Korean War was the division of the country. The 38th parallel torments the conscience of every fictional protagonist created after 1950, for it is a symbol not only of Korea’s trials but also of the division of humankind and of the protagonist’s alienation from himself and his world. Some attempted to capture the images of the people in lyrical prose. Others delved into the conscience of the war’s lost generation or into the inaction, self-deception, and boredom of the alienated generation of the 1960s. Some studied the defeat and disintegration of good people. Others investigated the ways in which modern society negates freedom and individuality. Outstanding among writers of the roman-fleuve is Pak Kyongni, the mother-in-law of the poet Kim Chiha. Pak’s multivolume T’oji (1969; “Land”) has been acclaimed for its commanding style and narrative techniques.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “In North Korea, literature had to glorify socialism and the myths of Kimilsungism. In the south, left-wing writers were blacklisted. Mature writers like Oh Yongsu who had already established reputations in the 1930s led with stories about the goodness of common farmers. Kim Tongni (1913-) wrote about the "soul" of Koreans, a kind of "humanistic nationalism" expressed largely through religious undercurrents and critiques of modern materialism. Hwang Sunwon (1915-) is Korea's most-translated novelist, with several anthologies of his own in English. Hwang is a more romantic writer, concerned with the beauty of the human world and the expression of human feeling. Contemporary Korean fiction [hyondae munhak) is the work of writers who were born too late to experience life under the Japanese or even to remember the Korean War and who received their educations in the Korean language. Their writing used more han gul and fewer Chinese characters and referred to life in the divided Korea of their own experience. They were the first to tackle the subject of the Korean War, albeit within limits imposed by the South Korean government. Thus they wrote about suffering and victimization, painting the North Koreans as the villains, and later broadening their criticism to assign responsibility to the United States and the distortions that had been forced on Korea by the international Cold War. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Social and political criticism landed certain especially outspoken writers in trouble with the military governments that followed the 1961 coup d'etat. Under Presidents Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan the government closed down literary magazines and blacklisted writers regarded as unfriendly to the regime. Some writers became known for underground writings that were passed around campus and read by members of literary societies. When the pressure eased in the late 1980s and South Korea underwent "democratization," there was a trickle and then a torrent of contemporary literature reviewing and revising the national consciousness of what had happened in the 1940s and 1950s. Cho Chongnae's epic The T'aebaekMountains (T'aebaek sanmaek) renewed the discussion of the Korean War as a struggle between common people and privileged elites. Set in southwestern Korea in the late 1940s, it revolved around attempts by patriotic left-wing Koreans to resist the division of the country through separate elections for governments in Seoul and Pyongyang. That period in that area of the country had been a time of endemic violence and brutality, and Cho's novel was a popular starting point for a reassessment of the horrors of the Korean War era.

“When it came to literary protest, no figure stood out more than the poet Kim Chiha, who flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. Kim Chiha fell into disfavor as a protester against the government of President Park Chung-hee in the 1960s. As a writer, he became known for the way he mocked the greed of Korea's emerging business class as well as for criticizing the government. His first attack was in the form of a poem called "The Five Bandits," representing the ruling elites of Korea at the time: a rich businessman, a congressman, a top-ranking bureaucrat, an army general, and a cabinet minister. There is also a government prosecutor who is supposed to arrest the "bandits" but instead acts like their faithful servant. They play golf and drink and keep mistresses, raking in money while talking in government slogans meant to make other people do all the work. In other poems such as "Groundless Rumor" and "Gold-Crowned Jesus" he scorned the injustice and materialism that accompanied the government's policies of dictatorship in the name of national security, materialism in the name of economic development, and accommodation with Korea's former colonial master Japan in the name of progress. For his pains Kim Chiha was accused of associating with Communists, then of actually being a Communist, and for engaging in antistate propaganda. He was virtually silenced by a very long term in prison—but not before becoming a hero of the Korean democratization movement.

“Five Bandits” By Kim Chiha

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ The pattern of South Korean development under Park Chung Hee and his successor in the 1980s, Chun Doo-Hwan, met strong resistance from students, laborers, farmers, religious organizations, and others who felt that Korea’s export-led growth (often conditioned on cheap labor) benefited the wealthy, corporations, and the state while exploiting the majority of the populace. One famous poetic expression of discontent came in the form of a satirical poem, “Five Bandits” (Ojok), written by Kim Chiha (Kim Ji-ha, b. 1941) and published in 1970. Kim’s poem adopted stylistic features of p’ansori, a traditional mode of oral performance that often had its own ribald and satirical elements; such use of traditional folk culture would become central to oppositional movements by the 1980s. For this and other poems, Kim was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured as an alleged North Korean agent; later, in 1974, he would be sentenced to death for advocating rebellion, though he was eventually released because of heavy international pressure on the Pak government. [Source: :Asia for Educators Columbia University, ^^^ ]

One passage from “Five Bandits” (1970) By Kim Chiha goes: “The spring sun was warm, the day pleasant, the wind gentle, the clouds floating by. The five bandits, each brandishing a golf club, each determined to win, set out to display their miraculous skills. The first bandit stepped fourth, the one called the business tycoon, wearing a custom.made suit tailored of bank.notes, a hat made of banknotes, shoes made of banknotes and gloves knitted of banknotes, with a gold watch, gold rings, gold buttons, a gold necktie pin, gold cuff links, a gold buckle, golden teeth, golden nails, golden toenails, and golden zippers, with a golden watch chain dangling from his wiggling ass. [Source: “Sources of Korean Tradition”, edited by Yong-ho Ch’oe, Peter H. Lee, and Wm. Theodore de Bary, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 403-405; :Asia for Educators Columbia University, ^^^ ]

“Now the second bandit steps forth with his cronies from the National Assembly. Here come hunchbacks, alley foxes, angry dogs, and monkeys. Hunched at the waist, their eyes are as narrow and slanted as Ts’ao Ts’ao.1 Lumbering, rasping, covering their hairy bodies with the empty oaths of revolution, coughing up mucus, raising their golf clubs high into the sky like flags, thunderously yelling slogans, rolling on viper.colored jagged floors:
Revolution, from old evil to new evil!
Renovation, from illegal profiteering to profiteering illegally!
Modernization, from unfair elections to elections unfair!… [1 Ts’ao Ts’ao (155.220), Emperor Wu of Wei. Generalissimo and chancellor during the declining years of the Later Han dynasty; he was known for ruthlessness.]

“Now the third bandit emerges, looking like a rubber balloon with viperous pointed eyes, his lips firmly closed. Portraying a clean government official, when sweets are offered, he shows that he doesn’t like them by shaking his head. Indeed, it must be true. But look at this fellow’s other face. He snoops here and smiles there, stout, impudent, sly; his teeth are crooked and black from an over indulgence in sweets, worn out until they could decay no more.

“He sits in a wide chair as deep as the sea, before a desk as high as the sky, saying “no thank you” with one hand and “thank you” with the other. He cannot do possible things, but he can do impossible things; he has piles of documents on top of his desk and bundles of money under it. He acts like an obedient shaggy dog when flattering superiors, but like a snarling hunting dog to subordinates. He puts public funds into his left pocket and bribes for favors done into his right pocket. His face, a perpetual mask of innocence, conveys purity — the purity of a white cloud. His all.consuming passion is asking after the wellbeing of madams of deluxe restaurants.

“The fourth bandit steps forth, a big gorilla. He is tall, reaching almost to the heavens. The marching column of soldiers under his command is as long as China’s Great Wall. He has white tinted eyes, a tiger’s mouth, a wide nose, and a shaggy beard; he must be an animal. His breast is adorned with colorful medals made of gold, silver, white copper, bronze, and brass.

“Black pistols cling to his body. He sold the sacks of rice meant to feed the soldiers, and filled the sacks with sand. He stole the cows and pigs to be fed to the soldiers, and gave a hair to each man. No barracks for the poor enlisted men in a bitterly cold winter; instead, hard labor all day to keep them sweating. Lumber for the construction of barracks was used for building the general’s quarters. Spare parts for vehicles, uniforms, anthracite briquettes, monthly allowances, all were stolen. In accordance with military law, soldiers who deserted their units because of hunger and desperation were arrested, beaten and thrown into the brig, and harassed under orders. University students summoned for military service were assigned to the general’s quarters as living toys for his wanton wife. Meanwhile the general enjoyed his cleverly camouflaged life with an unending stream of concubines.

“Now the last bandit and his cronies step out: ministers and vice ministers, who waddle from obesity, sediment seeping from every pore. With shifty mucus.lined eyes, they command the national defense with golf clubs in their left hands, while fondling the tits of their mistresses with their right. And, when they softly write “Increased Production, Increased Export and Construction” on a mistress’s tits, the woman murmurs “Hee.hee.hee, don’t tickle me!” And they jokingly reproach: “You ignorant woman, do national affairs make you laugh?” Let’s export even though we starve, let’s increase production even though products go unsold. Let’s construct a bridge across the Strait of Korea with the bones of those who have starved to death, so we can worship the god of Japan! Like slave.masters of olden times, they drive the people to work harder and longer, with the beating of burst drums and the sounds of broken trumpets, with one aim in mind: to increase their own wealth.”

Koreans Shamed for Having an Interest in Japanese Poetry

Reporting from Seoul, Choe Sang-hun wrote in the New York Times: “Rhee Han-soo has spent a lifetime pursuing a passion that he refuses to discuss even with his closest friends. Mr. Rhee, an 82-year-old retired dentist, is one of a small group of Koreans who still write traditional Japanese poetry — a pursuit that many people of his generation consider just short of sacrilegious because of the indignities inflicted on their country during Japan’s colonial rule. “Here, people look up to you if you write poetry in English and publish it in America or England,” Mr. Rhee said. “But if you write Japanese poems, they despise you or dismiss you as a fool.” [Source: Choe Sang-hun, New York Times, March 27, 2008]

“Mr. Rhee has published thousands of haiku, minimalist 17-syllable poems, but only in Japan. Like other Koreans who grew up under Japanese colonial rule, from 1910 to 1945, Mr. Rhee was forced to learn Japanese, rather than Korean, at school. When the Japanese withdrew after their defeat in World War II, many of these Koreans found themselves without a true mother tongue — ashamed to speak Japanese but unable to read Korean well. Some like Mr. Rhee could not shake their love of the Japanese arts, including poetry and traditional music, which they learned as children.

“The best known of the obscure group of Korean writers of Japanese poetry was Son Ho-yun, who died in 2003 at the age of 80. She had published six volumes of tanka, Japanese poems of 31 syllables, in Japan and had been invited to a New Year’s poetry reading at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Once, a Korean editor who was invited to speak at one of her book parties humiliated Ms. Son by reproaching her for writing Japanese poetry. “No sooner do Koreans eat sushi or buy Japanese chocolate for their kids than they bad-mouth the Japanese,” Mr. Rhee said. “Both Koreans and Japanese are too narrow-minded when it comes to dealing with their neighbors. How are we going to catch up and compete with Japan without studying Japan?”

“Mr. Rhee is a regular at the Seoul Haiku Club, where since 1993 about 20 Koreans and Japanese living in Seoul have met twice a month, to read and write haiku. “I know that writing haiku is not a proud thing for a Korean to do,” said Takeshi Ushijima, a Japanese chemical factory executive who heads the club. “So I am grateful to our Korean members for trying to appreciate Japanese culture. They make me feel ashamed that I am not trying as hard to learn Korean poetry.”

“Ms. Son is thought to have been the last tanka poet in South Korea. It is unclear how many South Koreans write haiku. Fewer than 10 Koreans, most of them in their 70s and 80s, regularly contribute to Japanese haiku magazines, said Kwak Dae-ki, 52, director of the Korea Haiku Institute, which he founded two years ago. Since 1997, Mr. Kwak has been the host of an annual haiku competition that attracts more than 1,000 submissions from about 200 Koreans. Last year, he also staged a competition in “K-haiku” or haiku written in Korean.

“Akita Kitade, the Japanese author of a biography of Ms. Son, said Ms. Son was introduced to tanka when she won a scholarship to a Japanese university in 1940. Ms. Son sat in the front row of her first poetry class and did not realize that the other Korean students had boycotted it, refusing to learn a poetry form said to exemplify the Japanese national spirit. Although her native country ignored her poems, she gave five of her six volumes of poetry the running title of “Rose of Sharon,” for the South Korean national flower. “She kept stubbornly to Korean themes in her poems,” Mr. Kitade said. “There is a poem where she describes how she and her husband, when they were refugees during the Korean War, slept hugging each other to keep warm in winter. It’s hard to find such passion in Japanese poems, which tend to be more self-possessed and even cold.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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