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Japanese and Koreans learn to live with each other in harmony

As Koreans started increasing at the Little Tokyo Towers senior housing complex, tensions grew between the historically contentious cultures. But community events have brought the residents together.

February 23, 2009|Teresa Watanabe

Hongsun Kim has heard it all. When the number of Koreans began multiplying in Little Tokyo Towers a few years ago, complaints about them from Japanese residents quickly began to surface, the Los Angeles social worker said.

"They smell of garlic." "They don't follow the rules." "They're going to take over." Then, from the Koreans: "The Japanese are snooty." "They don't greet you in the elevator." "They disdain Korean culture." "They're trying to push us out."

As Korean residents and shop owners have increased their presence in Little Tokyo, the historic heart of Southern California's Japanese American community, the multicultural melding hasn't always been harmonious. Today, however, the tone in the towers -- a 300-unit senior housing facility on 3rd Street -- is strikingly different.

A Korean resident whose relatives were jailed for protesting Japan's colonization of his motherland is teaching his native language to a dozen of his Japanese neighbors. "Ga, gya, go, gyo," they intently repeated on a recent night, mimicking the sounds of the Korean alphabet as teacher Simon Yoon pointed them out on a whiteboard.

Residents recently held a New Year's party and debuted a Korean-Japanese bilingual newsletter called "Bridges" to share their cultures. On other nights, they belt out songs in both languages using a karaoke machine purchased by Korean residents -- who took care to include 2,500 Japanese songs. And in August, they attended a groundbreaking "harmony concert" featuring Japanese and Korean music and dance.

Over the last two years, the residents of Little Tokyo Towers have made their home a case study in containing cultural conflict and building cohesion -- a challenge faced by other Los Angeles ethnic neighborhoods, where new populations are joining long-settled ones. The task is particularly delicate when it comes to Japanese and Koreans, whose motherlands are burdened with a long history of conflict stemming from territorial disputes and historical grievances related to Japan's colonization of Korea in the early 20th century.

But the turnabout in Little Tokyo proves ethnic harmony is possible, Kim and others say.

"We want to show that in Little Tokyo, there are people who want to be good neighbors to each other regardless of the past and all of the conflicts we've experienced," Kim said. "If reconciliation can happen in Little Tokyo, then it could be a model for the city and for Japan and South Korea."

Hard-won insight

The rapprochement is led by people like Kim and Yoon, Korea natives fluent in Japanese who are able to connect with both sides.

Yoon, 86, with a genteel mien and impeccable style, grew up under Japan's colonial rule, where he recalls being forced to bow east to the Japanese emperor every day and sit with his arms raised in punishment for speaking Korean. His father-in-law spent nearly eight years in prison for pressing for Korean independence. "I learned Japanese to fight the Japanese," Yoon said.

But then, he said, his heart softened after a Japanese military doctor came to his village and labored to cure the local people of tuberculosis, even spending his own money on medicine for them. That, along with Christian teachings of forgiveness, compelled Yoon to work for reconciliation today.

Kim, 38, is a Christian minister and social worker who was born in Seoul and raised in Japan by his missionary parents. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1999 to work at the Little Tokyo Service Center.

But even though Kim glides easily between the Japanese and Korean languages, his own psychological journey between the two cultures hasn't always been easy. As a Korean in Japan, he said, he always felt isolated. Yet when he returned to South Korea for compulsory military service at 23, hoping to find a full sense of belonging, he said he was derided as a "half-Jap," beaten up and verbally abused every day in the army. The experience alienated him from his own culture and sharpened the divide he said he felt between his Korean heritage and Japanese upbringing.

But working for harmony between Korean and Japanese residents in Little Tokyo has helped him heal his own internal dissonance, Kim said.

"I recently found a connection between my inner state and the outside community," Kim said. "One side was always asking me to get rid of the other. But once I began to feel good about being as I am, I really wanted to prove objectively that the Japanese and Korean communities can get along really well . . . in Little Tokyo."

On the Japanese side, Kimie Takahashi has plunged into Korean-Japanese activities as a student in Yoon's Korean class, a member of a joint "better relations" committee and a contributor to the "Bridges" newsletter. Takahashi said she was grateful for Kim's devotion to Japanese seniors like herself -- he drives her to the hospital, for instance -- and wanted to support reconciliation activities.

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