Along the banks of Yeoido Island, near the National Assembly in Seoul, stand a grove of cherry trees that soon will be celebrated as they come into bloom.
The trees are rather beautiful, carrying with them the promise of love if one catches a cherry blossom caught in the breeze. During my visit to the Cherry Blossom Festival in 2006, I was one of the lucky ones to catch a blossom on the wind and my students from Daebang SDA Language Institute congratulated me. I was assured that I would be lucky in love.
As we drove along the street lined with pink blossoms that blended harmoniously with the blue skies and green trees and grey buildings in the distance, the students shared with me the desire some Koreans have for destroying these trees. The cherry trees were not a natural part of Korea, they said. They were planted by the Japanese who came to Korea during the Occupation.
The late 19th Century was turbulent for the Great Korean Empire. Both of her allies had been engaged in war with Japan, resulting in defeats for the Chinese and the Russians, enabling the Japanese to move forward with plans to colonize Korea. The end came in 1910 with King Gojong being forced to abdicate his throne.
With it began the near destruction of Korea as a nation and as a people. During the 35-year occupation, the Japanese tore down parts of the ancient city walls in order to build new roads, new buildings, and bring Seoul into the 20th Century. However, Koreans were forced to stop speaking Korean, adopt Japanese names, join the Japanese military, earn a Japanese education, and forget that Korea ever existed. It was during this time that the beautiful cherry trees were planted in Korea.
The trees are a bitter reminder to elder Koreans who still remember living as a Japanese but who were treated as less than third-class citizens. They may have adopted Japanese names, but the Japanese never let them forget they a totally defeated people.
The year 1945 brought with it the defeat of the Japanese at the end of World War II as well as the liberation of Korea by Soviet Russia and the United States. Though the Japanese were gone, their cherry tree legacy remained. With each passing year there are fewer people living who remember the Japanese Occupation. The younger generations have heard the stories in history class, perhaps even learned a thing or two from a family member who had a friend or a loved one imprisoned in Seodaemun Prison, or who was a “comfort woman” to the Japanese army, or who was injured or killed during an uprising. They know why the trees are hated.
“Winter Sonata” was a Korean drama that became hugely popular in Japan, resulting in flocks of Japanese tourists to visit Chuncheon. The cherry blossoms lining a road leading to Soyang Dam became one of the key attractions for tourists who remember seeing it featured so prominently in the drama. I wonder how the Japanese view the cherry blossoms left in Korea.
There were times when the Korean government showed displeasure with the Japanese over the “whitewashing” of Japan’s role in WWII, and the Japanese government still denies or is silent about some of their atrocities. Does the regular Japanese citizen understand the point of view of older Korean citizens regarding the cherry blossoms? Do they care?
The trees are allowed to stand and give forth their blossoms year after year. Some people have learned to hold the historical grudge and their hatred continues. Others have learned to accept things the way they are and live and let live. I wonder if there are Koreans who have allowed the cherry blossoms to become a symbol of forgiveness of the sins committed by an occupying army.
Winds of strife will blow steady this year. As the cherry blossoms are caught on the breeze, may we never lose the promise of love and the forgiveness that love requires of us.