It has been a long time coming, but the suffering of Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army—the wianbu comfort women—are finally starting to be acknowledged by NGOs and documentary filmmakers. However, the plight of hundreds of thousands of Korean farm-boys pressed into hard (often even fatal) involuntary labor is still a story that remains largely untold (Battleship Island addresses the slave labor, but its principal characters are far from representative). Chung Byung-ho, a U.S.-trained Korean anthropologist and Yoshihiko Tonohiro, chief priest of the Ichijoji Buddhist temple joined forces to honor the memories and repatriate the remains of 155 Korean young men who perished while constructing the Uryu Dam in Hokkaido. David Plath documents their long-deferred homecoming in So Long Asleep: Waking the Ghosts of War (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Margaret Mead Film Festival.
The area surrounding Lake Shumarinai has recorded some of Japan’s lowest temperatures ever, so you can imagine what the working conditions were like for the young Koreans, who were essentially slave laborers. The discovery of their remains was initially a matter of chance. Tonohiro and some colleagues had come to admire the dam, where they were approached by the caretaker of the local temple, which had storeroom full of memorial tablets. These tablets were a bit different, in that they were inscribed with the deceased’s native Korean name and their assigned Japanese name.
Tonohiro soon discovered the remnants of bodies still collectively buried at the former municipal graveyard. The priest began an effort to excavate and repatriate the remains, but the project really took shape when Chung started directing their efforts. Many Korean, Japanese, and Zainichi Korean-Japanese provided the labor, embracing the project’s spirit of healing. Yet, not quite everyone fully came on board. Japanese war crimes-deniers successfully manipulated the local bureaucracy to thwart a memorial, while North Koreans who participated in the excavations, were not allowed to continue to South Korea for the internment ceremony.
Since the mass graves were located on their ancestral lands, the indigenous Ainu people prepared special rituals for the reclamation process, which makes So Long Asleep an especially fitting selection for the Mead fest. The film is also relevant to students of comparative religion, because it captures Buddhist, Catholic, and Shamanistic ceremonies performed for the 155 repatriated remains.
In terms of production values, So Long Asleep is pretty no-frills, but it captures some deeply moving moments. Frankly, it is surprising how much emotional kick this film has, since most of wartime laborers’ friends and family are now deceased. Yet, many young Korean and Japanese people recognized the enormity of their fate and became genuine surrogate mourners.
So Long Asleep gives us a thimble-full of hope Japan and South Korea can finally heal their wounds and resentments stemming from the war and occupation (to unite against a common threat to regional stability, the Communist PRC regime). It is also an inspiring example of faith (Buddhism, Shamanism, Catholicism) in action, making a constructive difference in society. Highly recommended, So Long Asleep screens this Saturday afternoon (10/21), as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History.