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A series chronicling cultural and educational exchange

South Korea--Bridging a Gulf of History

photo Mr. and Mrs. Ikeda in traditional Korean dress, Seoul, May 1998  [©Seikyo Shimbun]

The recent history of relations between Japan and Korea has been fraught with conflict. The Korean Peninsula was colonized by Japan from 1910 to 1945. During this time, land was confiscated and given to Japanese who were encouraged to settle in Korea, and over 5 million Koreans were subject to forced labor, both in Korea and Japan. Korean language, history and culture were deliberately suppressed. Schoolchildren were penalized if they spoke Korean, and from 1939 Korean people were forced to take Japanese names. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forcibly conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army.

This history has left bitter scars and deep resentment toward Japan. Until 1999, Japanese culture, even including pop songs, was forbidden in Korea. The 2002 World Cup, jointly hosted by the Republic of Korea and Japan, was a breakthrough event, and recent years have seen a boom in Korean popular culture in Japan, but dissatisfaction at Japanese attitudes toward Korea has not yet disappeared.

SGI President Daisaku Ikeda heard from his father as a child about the oppression of the Korean people. In his writing he reflects also on the human suffering caused by the partitioning of the country and the tragic losses of the Korean War. "How deep must be the scars that were left on the Korean people by Japan's barbarous invasion of their land! Why, though united by race, did they have to suffer the tragedy of division?"

Such sentiments have been the driving force of an active commitment to create ties of friendship between the peoples of Korea and Japan and links in the fields of culture and education. Mr. Ikeda's unequivocal apologies for Japan's historic cruelty toward the Korean people and his consistent demonstration of respect toward Korean culture form the basis of these efforts.

Cultural Debt

This attitude is seen clearly in his frequent reminders to the Japanese people of the huge cultural debt they owe to their "elder brother" Korea, stressing that their writing system, rice cultivation, Buddhism, architecture, medicine and traditional arts all came to Japan from Korea.

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[Min-On]

He has also worn traditional hanbok Korean dress at official events during his visits to the country. Korean national dress is highly symbolic of the country's culture and a source of great pride to Korean people, as it has remained largely unchanged over many centuries despite the colonization of the country.

In his speeches to members of the Soka Gakkai and to students of the Soka schools, Mr. Ikeda has discussed the struggles and ideals of Korean heroes such as Yu Kwan Sun, a young female student who helped initiate a protest calling for the liberation of Korea in 1919, but was arrested by the Japanese police, tortured and eventually killed. Friendship between Japan and Korea, he stresses, can only be established upon a clear and correct understanding of history.

From the 1980s, Mr. Ikeda began meeting with key Korean figures in Japan and started to call for a dialogue-based approach to resolving the current Korean situation in his annual peace proposals. He has continued to promote the idea of East Asian integration in order to ensure peace and stability, and to call for the region to become a nuclear-free zone.

photo A friendship evening at Soka University with visiting students from Kyung Hee University, 1998  [©Seikyo Shimbun]

Since 1984, the Min-On Concert Association founded by Mr. Ikeda has invited a series of Korean musicians and performers to Japan. To date, a total of 27 such tours have taken place, including tours by the Korean National Choral Association and the Korean National Orchestra. Recently, the top Korean hip-hop dance group "B-Boy Maximum Crew" performed in 21 locations in Japan together with leading Japanese hip-hop dancers.

In September 1990, Mr. Ikeda visited Korea for the first time, as the founder of the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum (TFAM), which showed key pieces from its collection entitled "Masterpieces of Western Art" at the Joong Ang Ilbo Ho-Am Gallery in Seoul. The exhibition was cosponsored by Korea's leading daily newspaper, Joong Ang Ilbo, and the Samsung Foundation Ho-Am Gallery.

Two years later, TFAM hosted the exhibition "Ho-Am Art Museum Collection: Ceramics of Koryo and Choson" which showcased the 1,000-year tradition of Korean pottery and porcelain, including several national treasures. This exhibition opened a new page in the history of cultural exchange between Korea and Japan.

photo Soka University students visiting Cheju University, 2001  [©Seikyo Shimbun]

In October 1999, the Seoul International Conference of NGOs was cohosted by Kyung Hee University, which asked the SGI to propose a traditional Japanese group to perform at the university during the conference. The Kikunokai dance troupe traveled to Korea to participate; the first time a Japanese cultural performance of this kind had taken place in Korea since the lifting of the official ban on Japanese culture two months earlier, and Korean Prime Minister Kim Jong Pil attended.

Amid the ongoing controversy over how the country's wartime aggressions are treated in Japanese school textbooks, in 1992, the Hiroshima Soka Gakkai Youth Peace Committee organized an exhibition entitled "Japan and Hiroshima from the Korean Perspective," comparing the way the Japanese military's actions and the significance of the atomic bomb are presented in school textbooks in Korea and Japan.

"If Japan reaches out to Korea in friendship, respects Korea and learns from the Korean spirit, it will proceed in the direction of peace and prosperity. On the other hand, if it behaves arrogantly toward Korea, if it fails to acknowledge its great debt to Korea, it will decline and suffer ruin. This view of history must be forever engraved on the hearts of our people."

--Daisaku Ikeda

Beginning in 1997, Mr. Ikeda, as founder of Soka University, established a friendship with Dr. Choue Young Seek, founder of Kyung Hee University. Later that year, an academic agreement was signed between the two universities. Soka University now has exchange agreements with five major universities in South Korea.

In 1998, the first of several Korea Friendship-Culture Exchange Groups from the Soka Gakkai, with 192 members, visited Korea. As a symbol of the desire for a new millennium of amicable Korea-Japan relations, in 1999 a Korea-Japan Friendship Memorial was dedicated at the Soka Gakkai's Fukuoka Training Center.

photo Exchange students from Cheju University visit Soka Elementary School, 2001  [©Seikyo Shimbun]

In May 1999, Mr. Ikeda visited Korea for the third time, for the conferral of an honorary doctorate from Cheju National University. Prof. Cho Moon Boo, president of the university, commented at the ceremony: "Mr. Ikeda is a great friend of South Korea. He insists that Japan is profoundly indebted to our country for her culture, and seeks to build a bilateral relationship that looks to the future through a proper accounting of our tragedy-marred past."

President Cho and Mr. Ikeda have conducted a wide-ranging dialogue on the importance of education, now published in two volumes.

SGI-Korea is now a flourishing organization, despite the fact that in its early years it faced significant opposition and discrimination, being seen as a "Japanese religion." It has around 1 million members and a significant program of volunteer activities to benefit the community, from presenting books to schools and libraries to bringing musical performances to remote islands and holding large-scale environmental clean-up activities.

Mr. Ikeda has now received over 100 awards from associations in Korea, including 11 honorary doctorates.

He has expressed his determination to continue building bridges of friendship over the gulf which still separates Japan and its closest neighbor: "For the sake of the future and generations to come, it is the duty of us who have witnessed the tragedy of the 20th century to expand this current of friendship between Korea and Japan into a mighty river like the Han that never ceases to flow."

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[©Seikyo Shimbun]
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