Volume 3 Number 5
Up From a 'Down' Via Korea
01 May 1990

After two days, I saw that it was not enough to read history in books: I had to accept that I was part of it, and identify with the pain and joy of all human beings. I felt much more at peace after that.

I come from a middle-class family and graduated from the most prestigious university in Japan.

After I had been doing research in structural engineering at university for some five years, my work was nominated for an academic prize. I reached the finals but did not win. Although I knew with my mind that my thesis was the poorest, I found it difficult to accept. I felt depressed, aimless and frustrated. I could not find any enthusiasm for my work, and I did not know what to do. Sometimes I was tempted to commit suicide.

I started to blame other people. Everyone was wrong except me. My university did not provide adequate facilities for research, I said, and my students were so idle that I did not have time to study. When I was feeling `down' I would blame my wife because she could not have children - even though I had known this before I decided to marry her.

I wanted to go away and find a solution. So during the summer vacation I went to Korea, Japan's nearest neighbour and former colony, where I found some temporary work. Relations between the two countries were sensitive and most Japanese tended to ignore Korea and only think of the USA and Europe - a situation which persists to this day.

Through a friend's introduction, I went to work on a bridge engineering project with a professor at Seoul University. The professor had earlier studied in Japan for some years, my friend told me, and had at that time spoken strongly against Japanese colonialism.

During my first week in Seoul everything went well. The professor and everyone I met was kind and friendly. But on 15th August, my wife and I got talking with a youth on a bus. I was very happy because it was a fine day and we were returning from an enjoyable trip out of the city. Because the youth was reading an English magazine, I chatted with him in English.

Strong feelings
Suddenly, a middle-aged man stood up and spoke angrily to the youth in Korean. When I asked what the man was saying, the youth translated, `Young man, have you forgotten this special day? 15th August is when we became free from the Japanese occupation. How can you speak with a Japanese in English on this day. This is Korea. Let him speak Korean.'

I replied, `I have only been here a week. I'm learning Korean but one week is not long enough. English is a kind of international language, so why can't I speak it?'

Still angry, he explained that his uncle had been taken to Japan and had finally died after doing forced labour.

I had read about such things in books. But this was the first time that I had come face to face with the reality.

After this incident, I could not look up as I walked in the streets. I felt that people might be concealing strong feelings against me.

I felt frustrated. The facts of the past were facts, but they had happened in my parents' time. If the Koreans did blame me, I thought, I could easily go back to Japan. I arrogantly felt that I had kindly offered to come to a country where few of my countrymen liked to come.

However, I saw that unless I could resolve my feelings, I would never again be able to visit Korea, nor any other foreign country.

After two days, I saw that it was not enough to read history in books: I had to accept that I was part of it, and identify with the pain and joy of all human beings. I felt much more at peace after that.

Before I went to Korea I had said to myself that I would not like to marry a Korean. As I stayed on in Korea, I came to realize that I had been prejudiced against Koreans. I could trace this back to an incident when I was still at high school. One of the girls in my class was a Korean who used a Japanese name. My mother told me this almost as if it was something not fit for me to know.

However, my prejudice completely vanished when I got to know Korea better. I was touched by the way that the professor befriended me and accepted me as a fellow researcher. I see now that the professor's kindness and care led to my change of attitude. In fact, he is now `my uncle in Seoul'.

When I returned to Japan, my horizons had been expanded but I still felt frustrated with my work.

Later, my wife and I spent four months in Europe. One day, while driving on holiday in Scotland, I suddenly thought, `I may be at the best time in my life. I am fit, I have a wife, and I have leave while a colleague is taking my place at the office. How much I have to be grateful for!'

In Rome, I saw some of the ancient buildings. Even so long ago our predecessors could build such huge structures. I realized that my contribution to structural engineering was tiny. I had felt that I was important but suddenly I felt privileged that I had the chance to live in this world.

New energy
Back in Japan, I felt the need to devote myself to something. Earlier in our marriage, we had been asked to adopt a baby from a Catholic family who had more children than they could cope with. I had refused, saying I was elite. But now my wife and I started to foster a child who had lost his home. After that, I felt new energy and enthusiasm.

When I told my wife that I no longer felt depressed or apathetic, she said that she had been praying all along that I would find the answer. Now I understand that when we are loved, we can change. That means that I must love others whom I want to see change.

I began to take on many responsibilities in the university and in the community. We have now taken on a second foster child from a Cambodian refugee family who have settled in Japan.

Masahiro Kawaguchi is a professor at Nihon University, Japan.

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