Monthly Archives: October 2005

Yodok Burial Detail and Human Fertilizer

In the spring of 1981, I was assigned to help bury the bodies of prisoners who had perished during the previous winter, when the frost-hardened earth had made timely interment difficult. As with any detail, the work was carried out after school; but since it was considered somewhat unusual, we were rewarded with a few noodles to supplement our ration of corn. This would have sufficed to make interring bodies a desirable detail, but the work offered another very practical advantage. The burial team could strip the corpse of its last remaining clothes and either reuse them or barter them for other essentials. But the fringe benefits came at a price. Since Korean tradition requires that people be buried on a height, we had to carry the bodies up a mountain or to the top of a hill. We naturally preferred the hills at the center of the camp to the steep mountain slopes near Yodok’s perimeter. Their proximity allowed us to follow tradition without traversing tens of kilometers. But the neighboring hills eventually became overcrowded with corpses, and one day the authorities announced we would no longer be allowed to bury our dead there.

We thought the order had been given for health reasons, but we soon found out how wrong we were. I was walking back to the village with my team one evening after a day of gathering herbs up in the mountains, when we were overtaken by a terrible stench. As we walked on, the odor grew stronger and stronger until we finally came upon the cause. There were the guards, bulldozing the top of the hill where we’d buried so many of our dead. They actually dared to set upon corpses! They didn’t even fear disturbing the souls of the dead. An act of sacrilege held no weight for them compared to the possibility of growing a little more corn. As the machines tore up the soil, scraps of human flesh reemerged from the final resting place; arms and legs and feet, some still stockinged, rolled in waves before the bulldozer. I was terrified. One of my friends vomited. Then we ran away, our noses tucked in our sleeves, trying to avoid the ghastly scent of flesh and putrefaction. The guards then hollowed out a ditch and ordered a few detainees to toss in all the corpses and body parts that were visible on the surface. Three or four days later the freshly plowed field lay ready for a new crop of corn. I knew several people from my village who were assigned to plant and weed it. Apparently, it was horrific work. Since only the larger remains had been disposed of during the initial cleanup, the field-workers were constantly coming upon various body parts. Oddly enough, the corn grew well on the plot for several years running.

SOURCE: The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, translated by Yair Reiner (Basic Books, 2001), pp. 101-102

Leave a comment

Filed under Korea

Hidden Family Heritages Unearthed in the New World

Regions of Mind directs attention to a very interesting post by Ann Althouse. Here’s Geitner’s summary.

One of the most affecting aspects of the Jewish experience in Inquisition-era Spain was how many Jews professed to have adopted Christianity but in secret maintained the rites of Judaism. Ann Althouse has a terrific post on a 21st-century tangent of this story: Some present-day Latino residents in the United States are discovering that, despite their Catholic heritage, they are the descendants of those Iberian Jews. The comments at Ann’s site are quite interesting, too.

One of Ann’s commenters notes that the hidden infidels who fled the Spanish Inquisition to the New World after 1492 were just as likely to have been Muslim as Jewish.

Leave a comment

Filed under Spain

Diary of a Tokyo Christian, 9 August 1945

August 9, 1945, Thursday

This morning Nobukazu went off to Gôra and returned in the evening. When he finished dinner, he had to leave again–this time to board a nine o’clock train to Karuizawa, his school’s evacuation site. And so after he finished dinner, he left the house. It was about seven.

The same sort of strange bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima three days ago was dropped on Nagasaki today, and it was wiped out. This bomb possesses extraordinary power. Photographs showed that Chinese ideographs written in black on signs at train stations had burned, and it was explained that white things wouldn’t burn. Up to now, we’ve been ordered not to wear white garments, not even when it was hot, because they were easy for enemy planes to see. Now we’re warned not to wear black garments because they burn easily.

So what in the world is safe for us to wear? We don’t know anymore. The thought of a single aircraft destroying a large city in an instant is driving us to nervous breakdowns, and I feel as though we have no choice but to die or go crazy. I can’t help but hate those responsible for placing human beings in this situation and continuing the war. At this point, continuing the war will save neither us nor our country. When one comes to this point and when those responsible realize that they have no escape and contemplate the punishments they will surely receive, I believe they will continue the war because they simply don’t know whether or not fighting until the last Japanese falls is a good idea. In this country, where human morality is based on the relationship between masters and followers, we submit to our leaders’ will and simply do as we are told. Because ours is a country in which each person lacks any kind of individuality and because our citizenry doesn’t realize that they themselves have the power to revere their own individuality, we have fought this unprofitable war right up to the present, muttering all the while, “We will win, we will win.” At the very start of the war, Japanese declared in unison, “Today we take pride in our good fortune to be born a Japanese.” I myself could only lament “my misfortune at being born a Japanese today.”

If Japanese had not been cursed by this sort of feudalistic thinking, I believe we could have expected our country to have ended the war sooner than Germany or Italy did. At the beginning of the war, I predicted that we would lose in the way that we have and worried about it. My arguing that we should have stopped the war at Singapore was an earnest and heartfelt plea. Those of us who thought this way were called traitors; our beliefs were regarded as unthinkable; and we were seen as potential spies. I blamed this on the ignorance fostered by feudalistic thinking. No matter what, I can’t accept the fact that my own life has been taken from me for the sake of the lawless promoters of this feudalistic way of thinking, and I am not happy about it.

SOURCE: Leaves from an Autumn of Emergencies: Selections from the Wartime Diaries of Ordinary Japanese, by Samuel Hideo Yamashita (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2005), pp. 186-187

The diarist, Takahashi Aiko, was born in Tokyo in 1894, but her family immigrated to the United States in 1916 or 1917. There she met Takahashi Shôta, a physician practicing in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. They married in 1922 and had two children, Nobukazu and Emii. In 1932, the family returned to Tokyo, where Dr. Takahashi opened a practice. During the war they lived in Hiroo, “a fashionable area in central Tokyo not far from Sacred Heart Girls High School, where their daughter was a student. Takahashi and her husband may have chosen Sacred Heart because they were Christians” (p. 161).

UPDATE: The Marmot and Coming Anarchy have long and relatively well-informed comment threads about questions of effectiveness and war-criminality with regard to both fire bombing, atomic bombing, and other attempts to win the war as well as end it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Japan, religion, war

Perils of Privilege in Prison Camp

My uncle was the [Yodok camp] distillery’s technical chief for seven years. No one had ever held the position for that long, and only the handful of detainees who worked in the guards’ office or in the bachelors’ kitchen ever enjoyed as many privileges. To land such a job, a prisoner needed to win the protection of a guard, which is what my uncle somehow managed to do. His ascent had begun with the unpleasant surprise of being called on to serve as an informant. My uncle was not overjoyed at the prospect but was afraid to refuse. He also knew that if his reports were sufficiently useless, he would be cut loose from the duty in no time anyway. As it turned out, my uncle’s reports were not bad, though, just innocuous. This avocation earned him a few packs of cigarettes and some extra food, but more importantly it gave him the chance to befriend a guard, whose good word later helped him get the job in the distillery. My uncle’s degrees in biochemistry, which gave him a competence in matters of distillation, no doubt also influenced the authorities’ decision. After becoming lord of the alcohol bottles, my uncle wielded enormous power and prestige in the camp, though his position was mined with countless dangers and intrigues. Security agents were always dropping by to ask for a bottle on the sly, which left my uncle with a very dubious choice. If he refused their request, the agents had no shortage of ways to exact their revenge; if he relented, he could run into serious trouble during the next production audit.

His work also came under the daily supervision of a security agent who was assigned to the distillery, a man not likely to forgive irregularities. My uncle had to play it slick, fulfilling his substantial clandestine distribution while making everything appear on the up and up. Pressured by a number of different guards–some of whom were rivals–my uncle had plenty to keep him up at night. One day he was called before a camp official who wanted him to admit he’d given alcohol to a colleague who ran the distillery. My uncle firmly denied the charges, guessing correctly that the interrogation stood on little but rumors and suspicions. The official wasn’t so easily put off, however, and at one point he suggested the sweatbox might help stir my uncle’s memory. The thought was almost enough to make him confess, except that a confession would land him in the sweatbox all the faster–and as a confirmed criminal, rather than a mere suspect. Moreover, the guards compromised by his confession would become his sworn enemies and make him pay for their troubles. He would also risk a transfer to Senghori or to one of the other camps of no return. So he kept his mouth shut. Toward 3:00 a.m., the tone of the interrogation changed. The official suddenly stood up, perfectly calm, and led him out of the office. Outside, he turned to my uncle and said, “Your silence is appreciated. Keep it up!”

SOURCE: The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, translated by Yair Reiner (Basic Books, 2001), pp. 92-94

Leave a comment

Filed under Korea

Getting to Know Your Snitches

Yodok and the hard-labor camps did have several points in common, the first of these being the snitches. During the first days and weeks of our detention, my father and uncle felt most oppressed by the physical demands of forced labor and the looming threat of punishment. The slightest wrong move, it seemed, could mean extra work or a stint of solitary confinement in a sweatbox. This fear, they soon realized, was the consequence of the network of snitches that pervaded the camp. The informants were at every turn. There was no one to confide in, no way to tell who was who. The veteran prisoners sometimes laughed at my father and uncle because of all the naive questions they asked, which only made them more depressed. The only advice their fellow prisoners could offer was to have patience: they would learn to pick out the snitches soon enough. Until then, they would do well to keep their thoughts to themselves. The camp’s common wisdom turned out to be true. Within a few months, we all developed a sixth sense–a snitch radar, if you will–that told us who could be trusted and who could not. Yet a snitch is not necessarily a bad guy. The prisoner is usually picked for the job without being asked his or her opinion, and, in most cases, the honor is not one for which he or she is proud.

SOURCE: The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, translated by Yair Reiner (Basic Books, 2001), p. 77

My impression, during my year in Ceausescu’s Romania (as a privileged foreigner, not a prisoner!) was that many of the Romanians who befriended us, and thus had to report periodically on our activities, were among the more interesting and entertaining of our small circle of local acquaintances there. The building manager who lived just across the hall from our apartment, however, was a complete sleazeball. I went out of my way not to ruffle his feathers.

Leave a comment

Filed under Romania

Next, Lotte Marines vs. Chicago White Sox?

Bobby Valentine, manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines (and nicely profiled by Japundit), sounds just a bit pumped up after seeing his team take the Japan Series in 4 straight games, outscoring the Hanshin Tigers by 33 to 4. The Asahi Shimbun reports his challenge to both Japanese and North American pro baseball.

NISHINOMIYA, Hyogo Prefecture–Bobby Valentine is nothing if not ambitious.

The 55-year-old manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines issued a challenge Wednesday to the winner of the World Series: “Let’s do battle in a real World Series.”

Valentine, who on Wednesday became the first foreigner to manage a team to a Japan Series title, says the level of play in Japan has risen to that in North America and the time has come for a best-of-seven series between the Japanese champions and the World Series champions….

The Marines swept the Tigers in four games to claim their first championship in 31 years. Valentine says his club has what it takes to compete against either of this year’s World Series combatants, the Chicago White Sox and the Houston Astros.

“(Lotte) is as good a team as I’ve ever managed,” Valentine said. “I don’t like to rate the teams I’ve managed, but it compares very favorably to the teams playing in the World Series.

“The White Sox have a little more power than us, but so did Softbank [Hawks] and so did Seibu [Lions],” he added, referring to the two teams the Marines beat in the Pacific League playoffs.

“The only reason I am saying this is because I am the only person to have managed in both the World Series and the Japan Series,” Valentine said. “I’ve watched our guys all year and I’ve watched the two teams in the World Series on TV and the level is equal. The competition would be great, it’s time to do battle.”

The Japan Times adds more player reaction.

Valentine’s players also think a champion-versus-champion showdown would be beneficial.

“I would like to play against the major league champions,” said Lotte pitcher Hiroyuki Kobayashi, the winning pitcher in Game 3 of the Japan Series. “The (Chicago) White Sox have home-run hitters with (Paul) Konerko and (Joe) Crede. Some matchups would be more problematic,” Kobayashi admitted.

Former Fukuoka Daiei Hawks star Tadahito Iguchi, now with the White Sox, would worry Kobayashi more than anyone, he said.

“He hit me pretty good,” Kobayashi said. “I faced him enough.”

According to Lotte outfielder Benny Agbayani, who played for Valentine’s New York Mets in the 2000 World Series, the biggest winners if such a series were to take place would be the fans.

Leave a comment

Filed under baseball

Well, So Much for the Rakuten Eagles

Jack Gallagher reports in the Japan Times on the quick demise of the once-brash upstart Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. (I prefer to call them the Igloos, which sounds much the same in Japanese.)

Last fall, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles emerged on the Japanese pro baseball scene as the first expansion team in 50 years and optimism abounded that a new era in the game had dawned.

The Eagles hired the first non-Japanese general manager ever in American Marty Kuehnert, then brought rookie manager Yasushi Tao out of the television booth to lead the team.

They marketed the club like it had never been done before here.

The term “fan service” was actually brought into the lexicon and seemed certain to have an impact on how pro baseball teams in Japan treated their supporters.

These moves were definitely not out of the traditional Japan pro baseball textbook and had the establishment feeling a bit uncomfortable, to say the least.

Eagles owner Hiroshi Mikitani seemed to be the face of the future. A 38-year-old business magnate who was determined to drag the game into the 21st century.

But, lo and behold, a funny thing happened on the way to changing history.

The more time passed, the more the Eagles began to look like the other 11 franchises in Nippon Pro Baseball….

[T]he team did not enjoy the benefit of an expansion draft — where they could choose players from the existing NPB teams — like new franchises do in Major League Baseball.

No, the Eagles were constructed almost entirely from the leftovers of the merger between the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Orix BlueWave.

The only two true stars the team had were ace pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma and outfielder Koichi Isobe, who refused to play for the Orix Buffaloes — the team created by the merger.

The results were predictable.

The Eagles finished their inaugural season with a record of 38-97-1, the worst mark in the NPB in 40 years.

Read the whole sorry story, if you have any interest in Japanese baseball.

UPDATE: And here’s another sad story by Gallagher about the nasty treatment of foreigners by Japan’s sports media.

Leave a comment

Filed under baseball