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Zainichi Korean grandmas' essays filled with passion for life

Kang Yuni (left) and Morinobu Yoshida meet in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward to discuss the publication of halmoni's essays. (Mainichi)
Halmoni write summer greeting cards at their writing class in Kawasaki's Kawasaki Ward in Kanagawa Prefecture. (Mainichi)

KAWASAKI -- In a corner of the Keihin industrial region is the Sakuramoto district of this city, where many people of Korean descent have lived in homes lining the narrow streets since before World War II.

In the town's public welfare facility, literacy lessons are held for old women, or grandmothers, of Korean descent -- "halmoni" as they are known in Korean -- who were at the mercy of a tumultuous history and were robbed of the opportunity to receive an education. Many write about what they feel and think about, and Hwang Tokja is no exception. "Come to Sakuramoto. Let's talk to each other and get along," she wrote to the hate groups that have targeted her community.

How could she write something like that, after her community has been attacked?

Morinobu Yoshida, 27, who was born and raised in Kawasaki, found himself drawn in by the halmoni's messages. In 2015, the year he began working for a publishing company, he learned about the hate demonstrations that were taking place in Sakuramoto, and went to see them for himself. As a college student, he had been horrified to see video footage of hate mongers screaming in front of and at Korean schools in Japan. Yoshida continued to find his way to Sakuramoto, until one day he came upon the messages written by the halmoni at their classes.

At a time when the majority of people seem to do most of their reading on their smartphones, the essays were written by hand sometimes haltingly, and at other times as if the words were dancing. Life shone through them. "I never knew there were people feeling this way in my own community," Yoshida thought. He had not had any experience editing a book, but he felt a strong desire to make the halmoni's messages into a book.

Yoshida had trouble putting the idea into a concrete vision, however, and an acquaintance told him not to waste his time helping some old women make memories. One night when he was feeling helpless, he went out for drinks with a former classmate who was now a Japanese teacher. "It's like a time capsule," the friend said, when Yoshida showed the essays. "The words themselves are interesting. Children who don't know history could even enjoy this 10 or 20 years from now." That was the nudge that Yoshida needed.

Yoshida and the halmoni applied for a grant from a foundation that supports Japanese-Korean exchange, but did not win. But when they tried crowdfunding on the internet, they raised more than their goal of 1.4 million yen in just a month after they began calling for donations.

Kang Yuni, a 30-year-old university research associate, will be working with Yoshida on editing the book. Kang often visited Sakuramoto as part of her research on Zainichi Korean literature, which led her to meeting Yoshida.

When Kang was in elementary school, her first-generation Zainichi Korean grandmother gave her money for New Year's. The small envelope in which the money was in read "otoshidama" -- New Year's gift money -- but one of the characters had been written with the left and right sides reversed. "Grandma can't write." She didn't say it out loud, but she remembers feeling embarrassed about it.

Later she learned that her grandmother had had to quit night school to work -- and had continued to say that she wanted to go back to school. Kang wanted to apologize to her grandmother, but by that time, she was too ill to have a conversation. "I would've loved to have read something written by my grandmother," Kang said.

The title of the book is "Watashi mo jidai no ichibu desu" (I am a part of history, too). It was where the two young editors, who sometimes had strong differences in opinion, came to a smooth agreement. It came from an essay that one halmoni wrote, after having spoken about her life many times to students who came to visit Sakuramoto. The book will include about 50 essays, about themes such as memories of war and the feelings halmoni have today, and will be sold at bookstores nationwide starting November.

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Hwang, who called on hate groups to "get along" with her, recalls all her neighbors being killed and the nearby beach stained with fresh blood during the Korean War. Her family was torn apart. She arrived in Japan at the age of 29, and worked like mad. After pouring out her memories of her grim past, she said, "I don't need any more suffering," and laughed.

Yoshida characterized halmoni like Hwang as "having the kind of energy that's overwhelmingly directed toward living." It is probably because what they have lived through and despite so much conflict and discrimination that they are so tough.

Kang believes that peace is possible if people can use their imaginations and generosity toward others. "I don't care if people are moved by the book," she said. "A tweet saying, 'This sentence is nice' is plenty."

As the number of those who experienced hardships firsthand declines, filling in the blanks between the words written by halmoni, like these two young editors, could provide us with the chance to imagine things we never had before.

(Japanese original by Tatsuya Michinaga, Nagoya News Center, 38 years old)

This is Part 2 of a series.

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