Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Let's visit the Japanese Torture Museum!

Last weekend I finally got to visit Seodaemun Prison History Hall.  The prison was used by the Japanese to interrogate, imprison, torture and execute recalcitrant Koreans, and it's since become part of Korea's founding mythology.  The History Hall's stated purpose is to "honor and pay tribute to the spirit of our patriotic ancestors who bravely devoted their lives to resisting the Japanese, despite imprisonment, harsh torture, and threat of death... [and] to remind future generations of their noble spirit of independence."  I forgive you for thinking this sounds like generic jingoistic blather.  I agree.

The exhibits tiresomely wallow in victimhood.  The basement of one building is dedicated to documenting (and recreating with models) the tortures suffered by inmates.  One of the exhibits, "Torture--A Tool for Ruling the Colony", states that the methods employed at Seodaemun Prison "can be compared to some of the most atrocious war crimes committed in world history", which I guess is true:  compared to the firebombing of Japan or Dresden, or a routine day at Auschwitz, every atrocity perpetrated at Seodaemun Prison is forgettable.

The museum aims to tell an uncomplicated story about the noble, long-suffering Korean people, their fervent desire for sovereignty, the inextinguishable flame that burned in the breasts of their martyrs and the implacable hostility and boundless depravity of their vicious Japanese overlords, but the result doesn't entirely lack nuance.  Just mostly.  I learned everything I know about the prison from the exhibits yet came away with a greater appreciation for the story that wasn't being told and a reminder that all history's power lies in its framing.

Let me introduce you to the untold story.  The prison was built in 1908 and operated by Japanese authorities until 1945.  The execution building, a wooden hut containing a gallows, wasn't constructed until 1923.  In 1943 the prison housed ~23,000 inmates.  All told, in the 22 years between the construction of the gallows and the end of Japanese rule, about 90 prisoners were executed.  This was not a death camp.

The story gets more interesting after the war ends.  The Japanese quit the scene in 1945, but Seodaemun Prison wasn't decommissioned until 1987.  This monument to savagery and national humiliation wasn't immediately torn down by the locals in an explosion of pent-up frustration.  For 42 years, more than half its operational history, it was run by and for Koreans.  The despotic governments that followed Korean independence used it to incarcerate political dissidents, as had the Japanese.  I don't know if they tortured or executed anyone because the exhibits are mute on the details of the prison's life as a tool of internecine oppression.

But enough preamble.  Let's have some pictures!

The front gate.  I would've taken a better picture, from further back, but I just wanted to get indoors.  So cold!

A model of the prison as it was during the colonial period.  Most of the buildings modeled no longer stand.

A group of schoolchildren is told about the heroic independence movement that united the entire Korean nation without exception.  These "incessant struggles for independence by Koreans are far more suggestive as a means that they were humanitarian movements resisting against the imperialistic invasions in terms of the world history."  What?

Iron Chain, a notorious tool of oppression.

This room is wallpapered with the identity cards of patriotic inmates.

Oh, right:  I haven't mentioned our tour guide!  That's her in the puffy pink coat.  Yes, we were guided through the Japanese Torture Museum by an adorable 7-year old girl!  It was bizarre, listening to her explain in high-beginner English how the grisly sausage of Japanese dominance got made.  Many of her sentences began with "When the Japanese peoples torture the Korean peoples..."  After the tour she gave me her card!  Yes, she has a card!  And a blog!  How cute is that?

Looking out from inside.

They built a reproduction of the execution building because it's forbidden to photograph the real one.  There's a security camera trained on it and a booth for the guard who monitors the feed.  Photographers:  beware!

This enumeration of the basement exhibits is really a downer.

Torture--A Tool for Ruling the Colony

Japanese torture led to permanent disfigurement?  Tell me more, very young girl!

A Japanese imperialist devil kicks back and enjoys a cigarette while the halls ring with the agony of patriots.

Oh no, not the Water Torture!

Oh no, not the Fingernail Torture!

Our adorable tour guide explains how these boxes were used to mortify the flesh of Korea's martyrs.

Here we have a 7-year old girl explaining how and with what the Korean patriots were beaten.

This would be much more torturous for an adult Korean.

When I perused the History Hall's website I thought, "I'll be sure not to miss the Corpse Tunnel Exit."

Cool mountain.

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