In the latest article from “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series by The Times that documents lesser-known stories from World War II, the author Alexander Chee looks back at the dark legacy of the Japanese occupation of Korea — and a once-unknown personal connection to it.
“I first learned about the decades-long Japanese occupation of Korea in 1985, when my grandfather told me he still dreamed in Japanese. “Granfy’s first language,” he said, referring to himself, as he often did, in the third person by his self-chosen nickname. He regularly spoke of the superiority of Korean language and culture, such that I expected him to bring it up at every visit.
And so this revelation startled me. He didn’t explain this to me, either. I wanted to ask questions, but given how painful it seemed for him to tell me this, I remember thinking questions could wait. How could it matter enough to me, to who I was, to put him through that?
We were in his home in Seoul, a house near Changdeokgung Palace — you could see it over the wall from his roof. My father had just died, and my brother and I were there to visit him and then travel on to our family’s ancestral shrine and pay our respects. This new fact joined other details learned on that trip, from our visits to museums and historic sites: The Seokguram Buddha in the coastal city of Gyeongju, for example, whose forehead once bore a massive diamond, stolen by Japanese soldiers; the palaces of Korea renamed by the Japanese as “gardens” and converted to public parks, many of their buildings destroyed.”