Friday, September 14, 2012

Namsan: Of vanished history and unfulfilled plans

A few days ago my friend Hamel sent me many of the links to photos that follow, and that got me started on this post, so I tip my hat to him. The photos at this blog post have dozens of photos and maps of the Chosen-jingu on Namsan - the central Shinto shrine in Korea - during the colonial period. It was built in 1925, and its construction caused life to become more difficult for Koreans in general, and Christians in particular:
The beginning of this new colonial situation may be dated to the erection of the central Shinto shrine for Korea in Seoul in 1925 and the enforced attendance at the shrine's ceremonies by students and ordinary citizens. This was not the first Shinto shrine erected in Korea. Probably the first Shinto shrine in Korea was erected to Amaterasu omikami in Inch'on in 1883. Shrines such as these, however, were intended for the use of Japanese residents in Korea and were not officially considered to be State Shinto shrines. Shrines given the latter designation were not considered legally to be religious structures but were said to be places for the performance of patriotic rites associated with the ancestors of the imperial family and the nation. With the construction of the Chosen-jingu in 1925, the religious situation changed dramatically. It was plain that in the future, all Koreans could called upon to perform a "patriotic act" at one of these shrines. By the end of the colonial era in 1945, there were a total of 1,140 shrines associated with the State Shinto cult. Thus, during the colonial era the shrines of an allegedly non-religious (ie. patriotic) cult became prevalent throughout Korea, visibly reminding Koreans of the fact of the colonial domination of their country.
This domination could mean bowing while you were on the streetcar and it passed near the shrine, or it could mean being made to walk up the many stairs to the top to bow before it (something students were subjected to often). This became a major issue for Christians, with some churches refusing to bow and being punished for it, and others acquiescing (in one case saying that they weren't bowing, they were just taking a closer look at their shoes). The photos below are from 'Seoul Through Pictures' volumes 2 and 3.

Here's a shot of the torii and stairs leading up to the shrine (near Namdaemun).

A closer view of the stairs can be seen here. Below is the shrine itself; Seoul Station can be seen at the bottom of the hill about an inch in from the right.

Of the 1,140 shrines built in Korea (some of which are pictured here), all but a handful (such as this one in Gyeongju) were destroyed after liberation. (In fact, this 1965 Donga Ilbo article says that according to Government General figures, 134 Shinto shrines or other 'enshrinements' were destroyed or burned between August 15 and September 8, 1945 (when the US forces arrived to accept Japanese surrender)). In the Joseon Shrine's case, the buildings at bottom left of the photo above were destroyed before the Korean War, but the others survived through the war, as this color photo taken during the war reveals. The same photographer has a shot taken at the same time of the stairs (with the torii removed) which were by that time known to foreign visitors and soldiers as the '1,000 steps,' a tourist landmark at the time.

The Korean government found new uses for the area after the Korean War, such as turning it into a park, as can be seen here:

A color photo taken in 1959 from a different angle is here. Standing in the middle of the park is this ever so modest statue of Syngman Rhee, which was put up while he was president:

Here's a view of the area from the air in 1958:

It's easy to see how imposing it was and how it loomed over the city.

One of the things I was reminded of when looking through these photos - which prompted this post - was this 1959 ceremony which took place in front of Rhee's statue:

This was the groundbreaking ceremony for the new national assembly building.

I wondered if there were still plans for the building that could be found, and then remembered the existence of a site called 'Google,' and a search turned up this:

This building was all set to go, but in 1960, president Rhee was overthrown by a student uprising and his statue was torn down (part of it is currently in someone's backyard). Plans remained to build the new national assembly until Park Chung-hee's Coup in May 1960, and in December of that year the plan was canceled (the assembly would remain in what is now the Seoul Metropolitan Council building (across from city hall) until the new assembly building was completed on Yeoiudo in 1975).

Instead, in 1969 the area on Namsan came to house a park dedicated to Kim Gu, an Ahn Jung-geun memorial hall, and other statues and memorials to Korean patriots. It's don't think it's too hard to figure out why tributes to two of Korea's best known anti-Japanese assassins independence fighters would be placed there. In addition the '1,000 steps' (actually, according to Ohmynews, there were 384 steps) were removed. I'd be interested to see if there was any other justification used for removing them other than erasing an unpleasant part of the past.

The area also had park space and a fountain built, and became home to the Korea Children's Center, which was completed in 1970. The building then housed the National Library of Korea from 1974 to 1988, and now houses the Seoul Education Research Institute, and because of where it is placed and it's distinctiveness, the building still stands out in Seoul's landscape today.

The building and the park feature prominently in the 1975 Lee Man-hee film "A girl who looks like the sun," which is worth watching because many locations around Seoul feature as backdrops, and for its featuring of the youth culture of the day (it even has the original version of Shin Jung-hyeon and the Yupjuns' Mi-in (which is different from this better-known version) on the soundtrack).

I'm not sure if those steps would have been part of the original steps to the Joseon Shrine or not - as this picture shows, the area where the main section of the stairs was has been changed so much as to be unrecognizable. Which is really too bad - I imagine the park would be far more accessible if the stairs were still there. On the other hand, I can understand how people who were likely forced to walk up those stairs many times to bow and honor the emperor of their colonial overlords might see them - and the entire area - as a scar upon the city, and relish the idea of banishing them to the dustbin of history.


monty_internetty said...

If Poland can keep a truly awful place as Auschwitz open as a museum, then surely Korea could keep a few relics of Japanese occupation as a reminder lest they forget. I can imagine that in a few generations time there will be a lot of Korean people pissed off with Japan but without really understanding why.

kushibo said...

I also wonder what the park would be like if the original steps were still there, but the Japanese left such a negative impression on Korea that that was probably infeasible.

The park, however, is anything but inaccessible. There are two well paved roads, and beautiful wooden and cement stairways and trails that run on either side of it. It's actually very nice, and I go there a lot because it is in my backyard.

Lately, they've been trying to restore the old city wall in an area of the park that extends westward toward the Hilton Hotel.

Walter Ulreich said...

Just wrote about the Chosen Jingu in my blog:

Found a very sharp 1932 Photo from top of the stairs towards the town.
I live on the opposite side of Nansam hill.