Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Wandering Ghost in Kyoto

It's been 3 weeks already since I returned from my visit back to Japan. It was an unsettling experience to wander as a visitor through the town I called my home for over 5 years, a place where almost every street corner held some old memory. I had many things to do, such as meeting old friends, co-workers and clients, shopping for items I can't find in Korea, and filing my tax return. But despite my busy schedule, I was struck with a feeling of being aimless and adrift.

No longer having either a home address or a place of work (I stayed with a friend in Hirakata), I spent much of my free time wandering past the old sightseeing spots of downtown with my map in hand, snapping photos of the autumn foliage just like a regular tourist. It had only been 3 months since I moved away, yet already the whole place felt palpably different to me. Walking through a quiet neighborhood near twilight on the first day, it occured to me that this must be what newly-dead ghosts feel like.

I visited my old neighborhood, and even let myself into the entryway of my old apartment building using my old key code, which still worked. My umbrella, which I had left behind at the foot of the stairway, was still there. On my way out a woman walked in and took her mail out of what used to be my mailbox; already my old apartment had found a new tenant.

Over the next few days I visited my former grad school as well as the school where I used to teach. I ran into some old friends and former teachers; most of them were unaware that I had moved and simply exchanged bored pleasantries. They don't realize that I'm a ghost, I thought wonderingly.

Perhaps being a ghost in Kyoto made me more aware of the presence of the town's other spirits. One in particular seemed to be stalking me throughout the week. I'd always known that Sakamoto Ryoma, one of the most famous heroes of the Meiji Restoration, had been assassinated in Kyoto, somewhere near the Shijo-Kawaramachi intersection; but although I must have walked by the spot a dozen times, I'd never noticed the little marker until I happened upon it during my recent visit. There was a sign which said Sakamoto had been attacked on that spot in 1867 by a gang of anti-reformists, and that his remains were entombed at in Kyoto at Ryozen Gokoku Shrine. In all my years in Kyoto, I had never heard of this shrine, and I thought noncommittally that it might be worth looking up later on.

Then, a few days later, I was walking through the Kiyomizu area of southeast Kyoto, idly thinking I might like to revisit Kodaiji temple, when I saw a sign advertising some sort of WWII memorial 300 meters uphill. Having nothing better to do and curious about what sort of war memorial they might have built in the largely pacifist city of Kyoto, I followed the signs and found myself at none other than Ryozen Gokoku Shrine.

This shrine appeared to do double-duty as Sakamoto's final resting ground and the major site in Kyoto for WWII memorials. A winding path led up the hill past several interesting statues, plaques and other memorials to various units from Kyoto which had served in the war. Of particular interest was the memorial honoring Dr. Radhabinod Pal, an Indian jurist and apparently the only judge serving on the International Tribunal for Japanese war crimes who ruled all defendants to be not guilty, on the grounds that he believed the tribunal to be illegitimate. As a result, he seems to have become something of a hero to the conservative movement in Japan.

Dr. Pal's memorial at Ryozen Gokoku

Other plaques along the path listed the names of all Kyoto residents killed in action in the war, along with some plaques inscribed with poems by their surviving comrades and other plaques emphasizing the sacrifice of individuals caught up in the war.

Plaque reads: The Showa era, from its beginnings in the worldwide Great Depression, through the Manchuria Incident of Sept. 18, 1931, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 7, 1937, and the Nomonhan Incident of May 12, 1939, led up to the outbreak of the Great East Asian War with the powers America and Britain on Dec. 8, 1941, which, by its end on Aug. 15, 1945, had developed into a great conflict which gambled the fates of all our people, over an enormous battlefield covering half the world, in which over 4 million soldiers fought a bloody struggle against the overwhelming might of the Allied armies. During this time our homeland was burned to the ground by repeated air raids, 100 million people were made ready for an ultimate battle on the homeland, the atomic bombs were dropped, and the Soviet Union entered the war, before at last the Emperor's decision to accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration brought 15 years of terrible war to a close.
This war took the lives of 2.5 million of our people, and remains an extremely tragic and painful memory. Those who returned alive had to live with the stain of defeat, overcoming indescribable shame and suffering, and dedicated themselves on behalf of their fallen comerades to the recovery of the homeland, achieving unparalleled development. When considering the peaceful condition of our homeland today, and recalling our memories of bygone days grown thin with the passing of history, we must remember the cause for which those born into that generation sacrificed their youth, education, work and family, which was the belief that theirs was a fateful struggle to deliver Asia from colonialism. This truth will be born out by history...

A Vietnam Memorial-style list of Kyoto's war dead

After the war memorials, the path led further uphill into a wooded area filled with tombstones, where finally I saw the resting places of Sakamoto Ryoma and his deputy Nakaoka lying side-by-side. Most of the crowd skipped the war memorials and came directly here. It was clear from observing the visitors that Sakamoto has become sort of a patron saint of young Japanese men and manliness. There were stone tablets where visitors could scribble little messages and doodles in magic marker. I saw several which said things along the lines of "Please help me to be a more awesome man!" Also more thoughtful entries such as this one, which reads "The Japan of today exists thanks to you."

All in all it was one of the more interesting historical sites I've seen in Kyoto, and I found the bizarre non-sequitur of WWII stuff thrown in with Sakamoto Ryoma intriguing. It further supports my belief that no matter how long you live in Kyoto, you can always stumble across something else worth seeing.

Sakamoto Ryoma's shrine, looking out over Kyoto from a wooded hillside

Thursday, December 10, 2009

North Korean currency reform

The North Korean news feed has been pretty repetitive lately, but one item making the rounds this week struck me as something unusual. The DPRK government has suddenly announced a major currency revaluation, printing all-new bills and making people exchange their old ones at a 100:1 rate. Not only that, people are severely limited in how many old bills they can exchange.

Reports say this move is aimed at weakening private markets and cracking down on the growing middle-class, two things that the regime sees as threats to its control. People who have managed to save some money through private enterprises, which the government had grudgingly allowed in recent years to supplement faltering state distribution, will now lose most of their savings, thus bringing everyone back to the same level.

It seems this move is provoking an unusual amount of anger from the people. Reports say that some are even torching their useless bills in frustration, a big no-no in North Korea where it is a serious crime to so much as fold a bill that has a picture of the Leader on it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Internet Censorship in Korea

Update (06/15/2011): It has come to my attention that a substantial number of people find this blog entry by googling "KCSC warning translation." I'm always willing to give my public what they want (within reason), so without further ado I give you my translation of the KCSC warning page:

KCSC Warning
Concerning the blocking of illegal/harmful information (websites)
We advise you that the information (website) you are trying to access provides content which is illegal/harmful and access to this information (website) has been blocked.
This information (website) has undergone deliberation by the Korea Communications Commission and has been legally blocked in accordance with the laws related to the establishment and operation of the Korea Communications Commission. Any inquiries should be directed to the responsible agencies listed below.
CategoryAgency in ChargePhone
Security threatsCyber Police Agency1566 - 0112
GamblingCyber Police Agency1566 - 0112
Game Rating Board(02)2012-7877
PornographyKorea Communications Commission(02)3219 - 5286, 5155
Illegal drug salesKorea Food and Drug Administration, Pharmaceutical Management Division(043)719-2658
Illegal sales or false advertising of foodstuffs Korea Food and Drug Administration, Food Management Division(043)719-2058
Illegal  sales or false advertising of cosmetics Korea Food and Drug Administration, Cosmetics Policy Division(043)719-3407
Illegal sales of medical equipmentKorea Food and Drug Administration, Medical Device Management  Division(043)719-3762
Illegal sales of athletic promotional ticketsNational Gaming Control Commission(02)3704-0538
Illegal horseracing buying agenciesKorea Racing Authority(02)509-2164

You're welcome.
My original blog post is as follows:

I've returned from a week-long trip to the Kansai area. The purpose of this trip was mainly to visit friends and to file my tax return, which when delivered will more than make up for the cost of the trip. Also on my to-do list was a trip to the bookstore to stock up on Korea-related books in Japanese, for my future research purposes and for staying up to speed with reading kanji; and to save some items from DPRK-friendly websites that I can't access from Seoul.

As one of the odd holdovers from the dictatorship period, South Korea still restricts internet access to all DPRK propaganda sites as part of the National Security Law. These sites are freely visible from computers in Japan, despite Japan's much more hostile attitude toward the North Korean government. In South Korea, if you tried to visit, for example, the official KCNA website, or the Japanese-based site of Chosen Soren, in the past you would get the standard browser error warning. Sometime recently this must have changed, because now I get a scary-looking KCSC warning page.

The result is the same, I can't access the hyperbolic DPRK-praising websites which provided me so much amusement when I was living in Japan (the blocks can probably be avoided by using a proxy site, but the fact that it's illegal is enough to dissuade a poor immigrant like me). Aside from their entertainment value, I hope to use the articles in research to point out subtle changes in the tone of the rhetoric in response to outside pressures and events. So now that I live here in South Korea, I have to take the opportunity whenever I'm outside the country to download the juiciest tidbits from these sites for later perusing.
I always wonder how South Koreans feel about the fact that their country shares space on the small list of (mostly very repressive) nations which restrict access to internet sites for political reasons. It's surprising that this law has survived the 10-year period of the "Sunshine Policy" when the ROK wanted to warm up ties with its neighbor and worked very hard to promote friendly relations while curtailing any activity that might upset the North.

Recently, I tentatively asked one of my Korean friends what she thought of this, and she said she was not aware that the sites were restricted but she thought it was a good idea, since young people might stumble upon them and be suckered in by the DPRK propaganda machine. I'm floored by this view that young Korean people might be so naive and impressionable as to be swayed by the sort of clumsy rhetoric and sour-grapes name-calling on these websites (The Japanese are preparing to invade! The Americans are secret vampires who want to eat our children!). I suspect the reason the law survived is more a matter of the ROK not wanting the wider public to get on these sites and realize just how ridiculous and illogical their northern neighbor has become. It might lead to, I don't know, a lot of excessive pillorying by comics, movies and TV shows, and then the DPRK would get upset and expect the ROK government to do something about it.