Sakura ~ Mungunghwa
A Fictional Memoir
For centuries, my people of Korea have held the rose of Sharon as our beloved national symbol. We call it mungunghwa.
The little flower tree has had a strong imprint on our country's long, deep-rooted line of history and culture. We loved our mungunghwa, and other countries know that well. Long ago, the ancient Chinese referred to Korea as "the land of gentlemen where mungunghwa blooms." Even back in the ancient days of the Gogoreyo Dynasty (57 BC – 935 AD), in the conquering kingdom of Shilla, when the mungunghwa was first mentioned in text, it was adored and widely a part of our heritage. It still is a part of who we are, as Koreans. We love our mungunghwa blossoms dearly.
As far back as I can remember, my mother, my omoni, has loved to garden. Quite often, Omoni used to plant flowers and trees of all sorts in our small patch of backyard. When I was younger, in the heated summer and cool springtime, I rushed out under the blistering sun and let myself inhale the sweet, fragrant aromas of each different plant with an innocent curiosity. My favorite was, and still is, the mungunghwa, as is Omoni's. They bloom from early July to late October, so at the age of nine, I planted my very own tree. Omoni helped me dig a little spot for it, with a kind smile and a helpful hand. I was filled with brimming, irrepressible happiness when my tree slowly began to grow and grow until it bloomed into vibrant, large pink flowers.
The sakura tree, as the Japanese called their national symbol the cherry tree, is in my opinion even more beautiful than the mungunghwa. The numerous ones around my town are the sheer white of a pearl, tainted with the palest of pinks. The small petals fall from their branches, almost looking like a snowfall. Sakura trees are stunning, breathtaking.
However, although I love flowers, I grew to despise the gorgeous sakura trees with a deep hatred due to the controlling people they represented. Japan conquered Korea nearly forty years ago, when my grandfather was only a young man, making it a Japanese colony. Ever since, they have been taking away more of our rights, more of our freedoms, more of our hopes, our dreams, our identities. Even our very language and writing system are illegal, and to wave the Korean flag is a felony punishable by death. Even our names have been replaced with Japanese names, for I can no longer be Lee Myung-hee, but instead Chikanatsu Sayuri. We speak Japanese on the streets, and we learn kanji in school, yet safely behind the walls of my own home, my family still speaks Korean.
One terrifying event caused me to realize the truth about the war. A few years ago, it was when the Japanese ordered every mungunghwa tree in the country to be uprooted and burned. My father, my abuji had come home from work one night, looking grim when he'd revealed the news. I clearly remember Omoni's horrified and despaired face, like a forlorn, broken china doll. Tears had trailed down her face, like rain trickling down a clear windowpane, and she had turned her face away so that Abuji and I didn't have to see her cry.
I cried, too, when my father and older brother went out to fulfill the difficult task of uprooting each mungunghwa tree around our house. It was harsh work, and painful too see the despaired expression on Omoni's face as she watched the crackling crimson flames sink down the beloved little flower trees into nothing but soot and ash.
My brother, Haneul, has been away for two years now. He works in a factory in Hiroshima, which is a big city in Japan. I remember the night the Imperial soldiers stormed into my home. They wanted Abuji to go away and work for them, but self-sacrificing Haneul pleaded to take our father's place. "Abuji is old, but I am young and strong," he had said. "Surely I will provide better labor than my father."
They agreed. Abuji had shouted to Haneul, telling him that giving into the Japanese was weak and foolish, and to let him go instead. The Imperial soldiers beat him for those words, for he had spoken illegally, in Korean. Although it had cost him a bruise or two, he still persisted. Abuji never regrets anything.
"Don't worry, Father," Haneul had whispered, tears in his eyes. "I won't let them kill me."
They led him away then, all of us weeping and mourning the ensured loss of my sixteen-year-old brother walking silently out the door.
There are no letters, no contact. Just a small amount of pay sent to our house each month for Haneul's services. So at least we know he is still alive.
Now it is 1945, and I am fourteen years old. Nothing interests me anymore. There is nothing else to do but study, and chores for me.
Today, I sit in my room, studying Hangeul, the Korean writing system, in secret. Downstairs, Abuji has the radio blasting with war stuff I don't pay attention to. Something about a man named Hitler, fuehrer of Germany, an ally of Japan. A country fighting a war with America, therefore preventing them from coming to liberate us.
Will they come free us soon? I wonder. I can only hope so.
There's a knock at the door. "Myung-hee, can you answer that, please?" Omoni calls from the kitchen.
"Yes, Omoni!" I yell, and rush to the door. It's a girl, about my age, but she's not Korean. Her skin has an olive tone, and she's rather short with slightly sharper features than mine. She's Japanese.
"Konichiwa!" she greets brightly. "My name is Yagami Rumiko. Dozo yorishuku."
"Um, konichiwa," I say, tugging nervously on one of my braids. "My name is Chikanatsu Sayuri."
"I am your new neighbor. My family and I live a few houses down that side of the road," Rumiko tells me, pointing to her left and smiling.
"That's nice," I lie.
"We moved here because of my mother's work. She's a teacher at the school. I heard that a girl my age lived over here, so I came over to meet you."
"Well, good. I'm ecstatic to have met you, Yagami-san." It comes out harsher than I intended. To this I'm indifferent. Not like she didn't deserve it.
Nervously, Rumiko shifts her weight to her left and bites her lip. "Um… okay. Bye."
Nodding, I begin to close the door. However, Rumiko's hand comes out and holds it in place.
"What more do you want?" I demand, somewhat insolently.
"It's just that the situation's so awkward," she admits.
"Of course. I'm sorry, it's my fault- is that what you expect me to say? I can't help being so rude like this. Forgive me," I mutter, forcing a smile.
She appears to be shocked. Even I am a little apalled at my own outburst, yet I do not back down.
Then Rumiko shows her true colors. Her fists clench at her sides; her eyes narrow. "Please do not be insincere with me."
I don't say anythiong aloud, but I taunt her with a fearless gaze and a determined frown. Why? Why should I treat you, a Japanese girl, with respect you ultimately do not deserve?
Of course I think it. Yet I can't say it aloud.
"I'm sorry," I repeat. This time, when I close the door, she lets me.
Eventually, my conscience gets the better of me.
After school the very next day, I walk down the street to Rumiko's house. Drawing in a deep breath, I knock softly on the door.
She answers with a smile, to my surprise. "Konichiwa, Sayuri-san." Like a dancer, graceful and charming, she takes a smooth bow.
I feel my eyes widen, and she giggles. Clumsily, I also bow and almost trip while I'm at it. "Konichiwa, Rumiko-san," I mutter sheepishly. "I am very sorry about yesterday. I acted disrespectfully and dishonorably, and did you wrong. I ask you to please forgive me, Rumiko-san. I was wrong." I bow again, a little flustered. This time, however, I manage not to trip.
"Oh, you need not apologize to me in such a formal manner. The events that entailed yesterday were of my fault entirely, and I should be the one asking for pardon. You were right for your behavior, even for your bitterness. I was just so fed up by a lot that had happened recently, so I took my anger out on you. I am sorry."
"You're wrong," I say. "I was judging you. I thought about it a lot last night, and I realized that I am wrong, and foolish, and selfish, and stupid."
Rumiko takes a step toward me, and she's close enough for me to note her eyes, which are of a more tawny color than most, shimmering like warm, liquid gold when the sunlight reflects off of them.
"What did they do to you, Sayuri-san?" she asks. "You're feeling ultimate rage and pain. I can see it. What did my people do to hurt you?"
"Too many things to say in words," I find myself saying. "My language. My culture. My own name. The comforting presence and scent of Omoni's favorite flower tree. Burned to ash."
There is more. So, so much more. My history. My determination. My
liberty. My brother, who I'll never see again. And my hope. Everything is
dead, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Me, my people, we have nothing to identify ourselves with any longer. We may as well be dead.
Subconsciously, I breathe in air as if I have been under water for several minutes and have just broken to the surface. But there is air all around me, oxygen all around me, so why am I doing this?
Rumiko looks at me sadly. "My father's old colleague. Mr. Fujioka. He wants Korea liberated. Once, I was with him when he spat at a man on the street. He called that man chin-il-pa."
Chin-il-pa. It means, "lover of Japan". Some daring Koreans express profound hatred toward these other Koreans who ally with Japan. The chin-il-pa want the total respect and complete approval of the Japanese. They'll do anything for that, even if it means betraying Korea.
"When I asked Mr. Fujioka why he had ridiculed and spat upon the
so-called chin-il-pa, he told me that the man was too loyal to Japan, much more loyal than he should be. At this, I was angered. To me, there is no such thing as being too loyal to Japan. Indignantly, I told Mr. Fujioka he was wrong to disrespect the man for a reason like that. And you know what he told me?"
Shaking my head, I ask, "What?"
"I'll never forget his words. He said, 'Do you know what it's like to be told you can no longer be you? To watch as humanity slowly annihilates your culture? To feel helpless, and cheated, and wronged? To be threatened when you simply want to relinquish what has been stolen? And someone, one of your own, is all right with that? Rumiko, do you know how it feels like to have all you have ever known become irretrievably lost? Perhaps then, you'd understand how twisted
I feel this man is.'
"Maybe he only wants what's best for his family,' I said.
"'Sure, sure. But let me ask you this: what is better off dead, one family or an entire culture?'
"'He's not wrong to want to protect his family, no matter the cost!' I cried.
Mr. Fujioka said nothing more. Sayuri-san, do you hate the chin-il-pa?"
"I don't hate the chin-il-pa," I say. What I hate is the war, what I hate is the hunger for power and thirst for bloodshed. That was the evil that took away my brother. I hate the evil that drives the Japanese, not the people themselves.
Rumiko bites her lip, and kind if looks like she wants to say something. Instead, she says, "that's wise of you, Sayuri-san."
We bid goodbye. Her words resonate in my mind. What is right? What is wrong?
The next day, Rumiko says hi to me in school. That surprises me. Japanese and Korean children aren't supposed to mix at school.
Rumiko tells me her teacher heard about the incident, scolded her in front of the class, and made her stand in the hallway. Just for saying hello to me! I feel guilty, but Rumiko seems to think that the incident is hilarious.
We become best friends quickly, with a bond like sisters. Even my parents respect Rumiko. We have different political views, yet that doesn't disturb our relationship.
One spring afternoon, we walk home from school together. Beautiful sakura trees line the long trail back home, petals falling like snow. I inhale the fresh, sweet fragrance but secretly miss the mungunghwa.
We chat, talking of classes and of teachers and of students. Behind us, two little boys run up. They look about seven years old, with toy airplanes clutched tightly in their hands.
"Hi, Mitsukuni! Sayuri-san, this is my brother Mitsukuni, and his friend Touya. Mitsukuni, Touya, this is my good friend Sayuri."
"Hi, Sayuri-san," Mitsukuni says politely, bowing. Touya does the same.
"Look Rumiko, Dad sent me these airplanes. Touya and I love them! I'm Japan, he's America. Japan is bombing the American capital."
"Mitsukuni, why can't I be Japan for once?" Touya whines.
"'Cause I said so. Die, Americans, die! We'll kill the Americans and report to the Emperor!" Mitsukuni shouts. Touya runs off down the trail making a loud zoooom. "You'll never catch me! I'm the dishonorable America!" he cackles.
"Love you, sis!" Mitsukuni says, giving Rumiko a quick hug. He chases down trail after Touya.
"Aw, he's cute," I say.
Rumiko shakes her head. "I'm not sure all this violent play is good for them. Ah, well. I wonder how Dad is doing..."
"We better head home."
Rumiko nods. When we arrive, she tells me to wait outside as she gets something from her house. After a few minutes, she's back with a small garden shovel and a cup of water. Eyeing the puzzled look on my face, she merely smiles, crouches down, and begins to dig.
"What—" I begin.
"—shh," she cuts me off. When Rumiko has two fresh holes in the dirt, she fishes something out of her right pocket. It's a handful of seeds.
"Sayuri-san, cup your hands like this," Rumiko instructs.
"What? Why?" I put out my hands, and she spills the seeds into them.
"Now pour them into this left hole here, quick!"
"Um, okay." I do as she says. When I look up at Rumiko, she looks petrified, staring at something behind me.
"What are you two up to?" a man's voice booms.
Gasping, I whirl around. A Japanese imperial soldier stands behind me, a stern look on his wide face.
"Uh, w- w- we're planting, sir," I stutter, bowing. "My name is Chikanatsu Sayuri, and this is my friend, Yagami Rumiko."
He continues to glower. "Yagami? Surely not Rumiko the daughter of Colonel Yagami Hayao!"
"That is my father," Rumiko says. "You know him?"
To our astonishment, he breaks into a grin. "The Colonel was my mentor. I used to work under him, until he moved to a different base. My name is Lieutenant Watanabe Koichi. Ask him if he remembers me."
"Watanabe Koichi. Yes sir, I shall mention your name to my father," Rumiko agrees.
"You are planting good cherry trees on this land, correct?" Lieutenant Watanabe asks.
"Yes, sir," I mutter nervously.
"The seeds are in my pocket, Lieutenant," Rumiko reaches into her left pocket and reveals a fistful of sakura seeds.
"Excellent work, girls. The Emperor would be pleased." The soldier walks ahead proudly, and soon he is gone.
"Phew! I thought he was going to catch us!" Rumiko exclaims, patting dirt over the right hole in the ground and pouring water of it.
"We're planting sakura. What's wrong with that?" I inquire.
Rumiko lowers her voice. "In the left hole there are rose of Sharon seeds, and in the right there are sakura seeds."
"Mungunghwa!" I nearly shriek. "But that's illegal, Rumiko!"
"Of course, silly. That's why we don't want to get caught."
She glances at me, and seeing me with the confused expression on my face, she explains. "These trees will grow up side-by-side. I'm hoping that by the time the war's over, they'll be done growing."
I'm stunned. "You— Wait— Rumiko, who do you want to win the war?"
"Not the arrogant Americans, who think they're so high and mighty," Rumiko says. "I've been told all about them in school. They hate us. Based on that, I don't want them to win. Yet, at the same time, I hope Korea is liberated."
I smile. Later, when the war is over, I hope we can sit here and view the sakura and mungunghwa in full bloom.
But we never get the chance.
At summer's start, Rumiko and her family move to their hometown of Nagasaki. In August, the Americans bomb both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is talk in town. I discover that Rumiko, her little brother Mitsukuni, and her family are all dead.
I'm Lee Myung-hee again, and Chikanatsu Sayuri is nonexistent. I have freedom again, and for the first time I can speak Korean freely on the streets. The war is over, and the Japanese emperor has surrendered to the Americans.
News reaches us that my brother Haneul was killed when the bomb hit Hiroshima. We don't know where his body is. It was probably cremated along with thousands of others', the ashes poured into a mass grave.
Finally, Korea is free. It doesn't feel like it.
I can't hate the Americans, for they liberated us. I can't hate the Japanese, for Rumiko was one of them. I can't blame anyone for the war that killed both Haneul and Rumiko.
Today, I am sixteen years old, the age my brother was when I last saw him. I have a picnic with some of my friends under a cherry tree and a rose of Sharon tree. Proudly, they stand side by side in full bloom. One final memory of Rumiko, and my friendship with her.
Tears well up in my eyes as I recall the War and its horrors.
Do you know what it feels like to have everything you've ever known become suddenly and irretrievably lost?
Because I do.
Notes and Translations:
Dozo Yorishiku I look forward to good relations in the future.
sakura cherry tree
mungunghwa rose of Sharon