On the eve of Korea’s Liberation Day, August 15, the day when Japanese rule ended in 1945, a Korean website has been circulating a string of some 70 gruesome photos, allegedly depicting Japanese atrocities against Koreans, not for the faint of heart as duly warned in the prologue, to counter the rising tide of revisionism in Japan, orchestrated by Prime Minister Abe and his ultranationalist supporters.
One photograph, execution of three independence fighters by a firing squad in the cemetery behind West Gate Prison, Seoul, compliments of the British Royal Museum, is credited to a British traveler named Bishop. That he could take the picture at all, though relatively tame compared with the others, and smuggle it out of the country is an accomplishment in itself. Japanese colonial censorship in Korea was fanatical about stopping anything negative, especially photographic evidence, from getting into Western media. Similar or higher accolades go to the other photographers, all nameless. From a purely technical point of view, however, special kudos is due to the photographer or photographers who have successfully captured in two or three photos, long before the advent of the modern high speed precision camera, the microseconds of the head separating like a split watermelon from the stump of the neck just as the Japanese long sword slashes through.
Also notable is the photo in which the head just severed falls to the ground, blood and innards welling up in the neck stump atop the torso still upright on bended knees, bloody sword in the Japanese soldier’s hands quivering on its down stroke, while a few feet away another condemned prisoner similarly held upright on bended knees watches, wild-eyed, mouth agape, a subdued crowd of villagers held in back looking on. What must go on in the young man’s mind, as he feels the other’s detached head thud, knowing that his own would momentarily do the same?
Though the end result may be the same, death, compared with execution by a firing squad, by gassing, lethal injection, or electrocution, decapitation seems so much more horrible and the website host knows it, making it the theme. Upright on bended knees, hands tied behind his back, jacket torn off his shoulders and chest to expose the neck, a good-looking young man, resigned and grim, stares at the ground and waits for the whack of the long sword in the hands of a Japanese soldier standing above him to the side, face taut with professional concentration, as his two pals look on in the back, smiling ear to ear. Another photo showcases a jubilant Japanese soldier proudly holding in one hand like a trophy the head he has just cut off with the dripping sword held in the other.
Comfort women are also given full coverage: Japanese soldiers in line waiting their turn, young women in their teens or early twenties gathered in a tent for deployment, their butchery after using up. One comfort woman, stripped naked, lies headless, the missing head set perpendicular to the gaping neck stump. Another nude body is shown shot in the vagina with an exit hole in her rump.
Several photos are dedicated to impalement: a Japanese soldier running his bayonet through the groin of a stripped, emaciated man tied to a post, another bayoneting a man in the chest, still another thrusting his sword to the hilt in the back of a man, the point sticking out a foot in front. One photo shows evisceration, the victim presumably screaming as his guts are torn out. In another victims, including babies, are drowned in a pond, a pole pushing down any head that bobs up gasping for breath.
A playground is chock-full of prisoners, hands tied behind the back, sitting in rows, who are pushed aboard the back of trucks by bayonet-wielding Japanese soldiers for transportation to the execution site. Spread over a whole field are rows upon rows of heads, harvested by means of a chaff cutter according to the obliging caption. Dumped like trash in a trench are mangled, eviscerated bodies. Then there is a field of skeletons, burned beyond recognition, and a mound of skulls. On display are more recently severed heads, somewhat individualized, lined along a wall or strung high up on a rope. From top to bottom is draped a telephone pole with string-tied clusters of two or three heads.
The pictures speak volumes but the captions certainly amplify, like “Beastly Jap soldiers beheading Korean patriots who shout Long Live Korea with their last breath,” unleashing a tidal wave of rage, horror, disgust worldwide, especially among Korean viewers, blinding them to such minor anomalies as the Southeast Asian looking features in some faces or Chinese tunics and queues, until someone remembered Googling Nanking Massacre Denial and seeing the man waiting for his decapitation with the grinning Japanese onlookers. Subsequent investigation has disclosed that almost none of the photos can be conclusively attributed to Korean sources, neither the characters nor the venues. With the exception of the Bishop photo and another showing a roomful of recruits for the Comfort Corps, dressed in chima and jogori, Korean skirt and front-tied blouse. But they are not enough to defuse the backlash against the errant website which, unfazed, is riding it out. After all the photos are in the public domain and freedom of speech presumably allows one to say anything about them.
In spite of its questionable methods nojum.co.kr has succeeded in refreshing our corporate memory of Japanese atrocities prior to 1945 and trashing Japanese revisionism. Korean or not, the photos unequivocally prove what the Japanese military felt privileged to do to their “backward” Asian neighbors. Like Germany Japan should own up to its past, stepping out of denial. The first to westernize in Asia and gain such an overwhelming military and technological edge on the rest, Japan should go all the way and buy into the spiritual tradition of confession and redemption, a big thing in the West since Apostle Paul, chief of sinners, if not earlier, a big thing in the Americanizing world. Repentance enlarges and endears, not diminishes nor demonizes, the repentant, be it an individual or a group, and will make Japan a greater hit than the auto monopoly.