A Hall of History Forgives Nothing

S. Korea's Independence Hall leaves Japan smarting over its occupation

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a valley an hour and a half from the South Korean capital of Seoul, it's easy to understand why Imperial Japan's era of colonization and aggression remains unforgotten and unforgiven.

The statues, monuments, and pavilions that make up South Korea's Independence Hall, including displays on Japanese interrogation methods that seem inspired by Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, may do more to nurture animosity than explain history.

Lim Jin Mook, a 10-year-old seeing the exhibits with his parents, says the life-size dioramas leave an impression. "When I saw the torture scenes, I felt the Japanese were really bad," he says. He's not interested in visiting Japan, either. "I might see more scenes like that."

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If little Jin Mook had come to Japan over the weekend, he would not have seen torture, but he might have witnessed how history continues to contort the relationship between the two most industrialized countries of Asia and America's main allies in the region.

Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and South Korean President Kim Young Sam, meeting in southern Japan, tried to focus on the positive. But before they could begin talking about their future - such as the World Cup soccer competition the two countries will co-host in 2002 - they had to talk about the past.

Mr. Hashimoto apologized at the summit's opening because his spokesman had made comments a day earlier that hinted at a social rationale for the Japanese military's use of sex slaves during World War II. Most of the women forced into front-line brothels were Korean.

The comment demonstrates to many Koreans that the Japanese government has never convincingly apologized for the brutalities its soldiers committed when Japan invaded and colonized the Korean peninsula, the Chinese region of Manchuria, and other parts of Asia. In recent years, Japanese prime ministers have said apologetic things, but conservative politicians and academics have often made comments that undermined the impact of the official contrition.

But at the same time, many Japanese object to the lopsided renditions of history taught by institutions like Independence Hall, which was dedicated in 1987. A series of pavilions documents Koreans' struggles against the peninsula's many invaders, but the focus is mainly on the modern period of Japanese dominance, which stretched from the end of the 19th century until 1945. The brutality and cultural imperialism of the Japanese is carefully illustrated, with larger-than-life photographs of torture victims.

The language of the explanatory placards sounds more like propaganda than history. One exhibit about an independence movement that the Japanese stifled in 1919 honors "the national spirit of independence and self-reliant defense which must be perpetuated for all time." Park Geol-Sun, the hall's chief of education and public relations, says that the displays "are not a museum of colonial rule." The hall "commemorates the sacred spirit of forefathers and their fight," adds Mr. Park.

As a result, the hall overlooks significant aspects of the period. There is little about anti-Japanese activities organized by Communist Koreans and no mention of Koreans who collaborated with the Japanese. The hall is partly a response to the North Korea's charge that South Korean governments have included collaborators.

Nor is there any significant acknowledgment of the ways in which Japanese colonizers modernized the peninsula, a point many Western historians recognize. "I admit that those things happened," says Hoei Fujisawa, a professor of education at Kanazawa University in Japan, referring to colonial and wartime atrocities. "But that is not the whole story."

Mr. Fujisawa, who led an effort in the early 1990s to harmonize Japanese and Korean textbooks, has seen Independence Hall. "If people look at those displays," he says, "they are forced to believe that all Japanese are that brutal."

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