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AsiaThursday, November 16

The Legacy of Korean Poet Yun Dong-ju

Korean Poet Yun Dong-ju was active while Korea was under Japanese colonial rule. He came to Japan to study in 1942. His poems reflect his feelings about cultural identity.

"A Poem Written Easily"

The Japanese 6-mat room is not my land,
The night rain murmurs at the window.
Lighting up a lamp to drive out a bit of the darkness,
The last of me awaits a new morn coming like a new age.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Yun's birth. He is well known in his home country, and gaining attention in Japan. Last month, a civic group in the city of Uji erected a monument to Yun, whose life was cut short by the political turmoil of the times.

About 200 people attended the unveiling of the monument to the life and work of Yun Dong-ju. They came from across Japan and South Korea.

Nobuko Kontani, a housewife in Uji, first learned about the young poet and his work in a recitation class 16 years ago. She started doing research about him and found a photograph -- the last one of him in existence, taken more than 70 years ago. "I was really shocked when I found this photo," says Kontani.

The photograph was taken on a bridge that Kontani often crosses when she goes for walks. She discovered that Yun had visited this place while on a farewell hiking trip with Japanese friends. He was planning his return to the Korean peninsula. Just months later, he was arrested under the now-defunct Peace Preservation Law. Yun was accused of taking part in a movement calling for Korean independence. He subsequently died in prison at the age of 27.

"When I realized that Yun Dong-ju was actually looking at the Uji River, which I look at every day, I felt closer to him for a moment, and could imagine the time when the Peace Preservation Law was still in force. I felt as though he was not really gone," says Kontani.

Finding Yun's photograph changed her life. The following year, she pulled together a group to study the poet's life and work. They organized local events to share the details of Yun's life with as many people as possible. They also produced a play about him.

People were inspired by his poems. Some had experienced World War II. Others were Koreans living in Japan. "Yun didn't use harsh words of resistance, but I think his poems conveyed the extreme sadness of someone whose home country was taken away," says Kiyoko Fukui, one of the people in the group.

Another, Pak Shil, says "He experienced hardships in Japan. He died in prison just before the liberation of Korea. I'm a 2nd generation Korean in Japan. I have grandchildren here who are 4th generation. I want to be sure the 5th generation also knows about Yun's work."

The group commissioned a monument that was completed in 2007, but they couldn't find a place to erect it. It's made of granite from both Japan and South Korea. A local official offered them a place for the monument. He said he was moved by Yun's story and the group's efforts to preserve it.

Yun's poem, "The New Road," is engraved on the monument in both Korean and Japanese. The group chose this poem because it conveys Yun's feelings of hope for life. His family had sent a copy of the poem to Kontani, handwritten by Yun himself. Yun's nephew Yun In-suk attended the unveiling ceremony, and joined a reading of the poem in Korean.

"The New Road"

Over the stream into woods,
Over the hill into the village,
I traveled yesterday and I will today also;
My road is forever new.
On my road, dandelions bloom, magpies fly,
A lass passes by, and the wind blows;
My road is forever new
Today... and tomorrow...
Over the stream into woods,
Over the hill into the village.

"He made his life shrine here for a moment. I think it was a precious moment. I want people to know about that moment. I want them to know," says Kontani. 72 years have passed since Yun's death. But his spirit has returned to the place where he shared a moment in his life with friends in Japan.