Seodaemun Prison was a forcibly built Japanese detention center constructed by the Japanese colonialists during the Japanese occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945. They used the prison essentially to lock away any Korean nationalists who were fighting to liberate Korea from Japanese occupation. The prisons basement was used as a torture chamber to interrogate inmates who may have had information about the Korean Liberation Movement. Some of the torture devices and methods used are on display at the now aptly named Seodaemun Independence Park, which was the first stop on our school trip yesterday. Some of these methods included locking Korean inmates in boxes lined with nails and shaking the boxes, the classic water torture making inmates believe they were being drowned, putting in mates in coffin like boxes with no room to stand or sit properly, putting sharp needles underneath inmate’s fingernails and all other sorts of debauchery. (I must highlight the fact that while torture shouldn’t be used under any circumstances these inmates had not committed any crimes apart from fighting for the illegal occupation of their country to stop.)
So, naturally, taking a bunch of elementary school children who could never possibly conceive of such atrocities to this prison was a great idea. The kids didn’t really get it, and nor should they. They seemed to enjoy locking themselves in the coffin like boxes or running around the courtyard though. The aim, in my opinion, was to further promote the Korean ideology that you should hate Japan. Koreans (more specifically older Koreans) hate the Japanese. It’s not like the Irish hate the English or anything like that, I mean, they really hate the Japanese. It felt to me like the whole school trip was designed to get these kids to feel the same way. Of course, the kids are more switched on than that and it will probably not work, but I was blown away by the blatancy of the whole charade.
Ok, Japan did some pretty rough and tumble things to this country. Some unforgivable war crimes were committed, and some inconceivable tortures were dealt out. Can you really live in the past to that extent though? Maybe I can’t really understand because I come from one of the most brutal colonialist countries around, but the grudges held by countries who were occupied by the British Empire don't seem to be nearly as fired up as Koreans are about Japan. There’s this phrase here‘must have been made in Japan' which people say when something breaks. This whole Japan grudge is a huge part of the zeitgeist and I think it’s a little silly.
The prison was horrible however, and it reminded me of when I visited Alcatraz in San Francisco. There is something in the air, an eerie atmosphere that shrouds these old monuments of by gone brutalism. You feel guilty for being there. You look through cell windows into spaces that you could hardly move inside and think to yourself, wow, this was somebody’s home. Walking around the torture chamber was really disturbing and luckily I don’t think the kids really picked up on it. Long hallways with cells on each side, old abandoned buildings where lepers used to be kept away from healthier inmates, labour factories where inmates were forced to work 14 hours a day, a really wicked era. I don’t hold a grudge against the Japanese however. Although they suppressed the culture of Korea, tried to destroy the Korean language and tried to destroy or loot temples, monuments and scriptures, it was a part of the past and will remain that way. Yet, for the Korans who went through this, you do begin to understand why Koreans think like they do. This country has been scarred and continues to be (with North Korea's shadow looming) and you feel for such a kind people.
After visiting the prison we went to the palace that me and Natalie had visited a few weeks before. Same old stuff, Japan stole this, Japan stole that, we spent about half an hour walking around this place, a place that took me and Natalie a whole morning to walk around. A shame, I suppose.
After this we went to another palace called Gyeonbukgung palace. This is a much larger palace complex than Chungbeokgung and has a very tranquil pool surrounding one of the temples there. We spent longer here walking around the various buildings and gardens of a place steeped in cultural history. The teachers and kids mainly used this as a series of photo opportunities, with the occasional ‘this building was used for’ now get in front of it and pose. I suppose it stems from another Korean tradition in which look is more important than function. As long as something looks good then no matter, no worries. This was also prevalent on Sports Day and I’ve started to notice it more and more.
This has sounded a little negative and I don’t want it to. The kids enjoyed the trip, and so did I, although I spent most of the day on a coach. We got back at around six and me, Natalie and Nathanial went to get a chicken burger which we ate on the roof. I also found a group of Korean urban explorers on a Facebook group, there's photo's on the page of this old abandoned theme park called Okpo Land on the South Coast that I really want to go and check out. So, hopefully, we'll get down there at some point.
In other news the film me and Dave made before I came to Korea is finished and he sent it to me, I spent most of the day getting excited by the fact I’d be able to watch it. Alas, the file type was wrong (a Mac / PC issue) so I’ll have to wait a little longer until I get to see the finished product.
Last weekend was a quiet one, we had a stroll by the river, went to the Tomato sculpture park in town (crazy I know) ate lots of junk food, went for Chinese, and watched a Korean movie with Ben. So, this weekend, so as not to feel guilty, we are actually going to do something. (EDIT) We were going to go to the Penis Sculpture Park and Underground caves but it would take nearly 7 hours in total on a variety of buses to do it, so instead we are going to check out some sites in the local area.
Oh, and I will make a video blog soon, I promise.