Amid the fractious relationship between Seoul and Tokyo, a heartwarming event illuminated a path forward, paying homage to courageous individuals past and present. The occasion: presentation of an award memorializing a legendary Korean independence fighter. The recipient: former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who has advocated his country’s “infinite responsibility” as a former colonizer.
For years, Hatoyama has been the most vocal -- and solitary -- mainstream Japanese politician criticizing and reflecting on the brutal treatment of civilians by Imperial Japan’s occupation soldiers and officials before and during World War II. Some right-wing Japanese conservatives call him a “traitor.”
The Woodang Foundation for Education and Culture honored Hatoyama in Seoul on Jan. 11. The foundation commemorates the selfless activism and contribution to Korean independence struggle by Lee Hoe-yeong (1867-1932), who is also known by his pen name Woodang.
“It is a great honor for us to present the Woodang Special Award to Mr. Hatoyama, who has shown outstanding courage and determination, comparable to former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt,” said Lee Jong-chan, chairman of the foundation and a grandson of Lee Hoe-yeong. “We regard Mr. Hatoyama as a respectable leader standing committed to justice and history regardless of popular opinion.”
In August 2015, on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, Hatoyama visited the site of a prison in Seoul, which was infamous for confining and torturing disobedient Koreans. To the surprise of those who were present, Hatoyama dropped to his knees in front of a memorial to Korean independence fighters. Given the perpetually elusive and nuanced rhetoric from most Japanese politicians about their nation’s past wrongdoings against other Asians, it was an unexpected, breathtaking gesture.
In 2013, during another controversial visit to the Memorial Hall of the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders, Hatoyama apologized for Japanese troops’ wanton killings in 1937 during their aggression in China. He expressed wishes that such tragedies would not be repeated.
Hatoyama has reiterated that perpetrators of wartime crimes must offer apologies until their victims consider them “sufficient enough to forgive.” As for the ongoing issues of “comfort women” and forced laborers from World War II, he has urged Tokyo to reconsider its intransigent stance that the issues were resolved completely with the 1965 treaty on normalization of relations between Korea and Japan. “It is internationally recognized these days that treaties between states do not terminate individual rights to claim reparations for war crimes,” he said.
On receiving the Woodang Special Award, Hatoyama said he believed the award has tasked him to “work toward greater friendship between our two countries and peace in East Asia from a future-oriented viewpoint, acknowledging history writ large and never forgetting to offer apologies, as the historical issues are matters of hearts and minds, rather than monetary compensations.”
Hatoyama said he found parallels in the thoughts of Lee Hoe-yeong and his own intellectual mentor, Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi (1894-1972), the founder and leader of the Pan-Europa movement and author of “The Totalitarian State Against Man.”
Quoting the opening passage from Coudenhove-Kalergi’s 1935 book, “Man is an end and not a means. The state is a means and not an end. The state can be either the friend or the enemy of humanity according as it stimulates or hinders man’s freedom, security and development,” Hatoyama said that both thinkers placed utmost importance on freedom as the quintessence of human dignity. And in both men’s lifetimes, “freedom was menaced as never before within living memory, and the totalitarian state became the deadly enemy of the free man.”
Lee was born into wealth and nobility. His family had a lineage of high-ranking officials and scholars going back hundreds of years throughout the Joseon Dynasty. To fight for freedom, Lee, his five brothers and their wives and children as well as their emancipated household servants secretly left Seoul on Dec. 30, 1910, months after Japan’s forcible annexation of Korea. Before their hasty departure, the Lees completely disposed of their vast assets, raising funds equivalent to some 2 trillion won today.
The escape was perilous. The party of 60 people crossed the frozen Yalu River on the same day, dredged through snow-covered fields, scaled mountains and traversed more rivers to arrive in Zoujiajie village in Liuhe County, southwestern Jilin Province, in early February. The Lee brothers played vital roles in founding and running Sinheung Military School, the cradle of armed resistance activists. During its decadelong operations until 1920, the school produced some 3,500 graduates who would lead victorious campaigns against Japan across Manchuria and later guerilla activism in mainland China.
With their financial resources depleted around 1920, the brothers went their separate ways. They wandered to Tianjin, Beijing and Shanghai, and each passed away in dire situations. Lee Si-yeong (1869-1953), the fifth brother who served for the Korean provisional government, was the only one of the six brothers who survived and returned to the liberated Korea.
Lee Hoe-yeong, the fourth brother and mastermind of the family’s activities, was a Christian convert and reform-minded educator. As a self-proclaimed anarchist, he valued individual autonomy and prioritized armed struggle over diplomacy in restoring national sovereignty. He died in prison in Lushun, allegedly from torture, on Nov. 17, 1932, a few days after being arrested in Dalian. He was on his way to forge alliance with the Korean revolutionary forces in Northeast China and assassinate the commander of the Kwantung Army.
At the devastating cost of personal sacrifices, the Lee brothers left an illustrious legacy in Korean independence movement. Their descendants have now extended a hand of reconciliation, wishing to help overcome the vestiges of the tragic past and remove the clouds gathering over the skies of the region. It is hoped that leaders in Seoul and Tokyo will embrace the spirit of the commendable act and approach each other in kind.
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.