A Korean leper finds a home

By William Wetherall

Unpublished article filed in April 1988 as a sidebar for The Japan Times Weekly.

A slightly different version was later published as
"The Leper" (Boundaries 4) in
Mainichi Daily News, 4 April 1992, page 9

Early summer, 1945. A boat from Pusan in Shimonoseki, filled with Korean men being brought to Japan, in ropes, to work in the mines. Pak, we'll call the hero of this story, was not one of them.

Pak was going to Japan on his own accord, as he had when he made the crossing in 1935. Work hard there and he'd have a bright future, he had thought-a dream then shared by many young Koreans. But all he got from working in Japan was a double dose of discrimination, one as a Korean, the other as a leper. He broke out with leprosy in Japan, but he had probably been infected during his childhood in Korea.

Pak returned to Korea, but he was unable to work, and the medical costs were too big a burden for his brother and sister-in-law. He thought of suicide but didn't have the courage. Instead he'd go back to Japan, where the war was getting worse. If lucky he might die in it, but the boat, though attacked, docked safely at Shimonoseki.

Pak went to see an older cousin in nearby Hikari, but he found his cousin packing to go back to Korea the next day. Pak spent the night, and the next morning he went to Hikari station, but he had no idea where to go. The station attendant noticed that he had leprosy and told him to go to Okayama. Pak was illiterate, so the attendant wrote the destination on a small card and tied it to Pak's right wrist. Pak imagines that it said: "Let this person go to Aiseien in Okayama-ken, Oku-gun, Mushiake."

Pak got off the train at Okayama city and looked for help, but people who read the card, even a policeman, walked away in silence. Finally someone showed him where to get the bus, but one look at Pak and the conductor made him get off. So following his nose, and asking the way, Pak walked the 36 kilometers to Mushiake and was welcomed on the ferry for Nagashima.

Okayama city was bombed just days after Pak became a patient at Aiseien, one of the island's two sanatoria. And then the war was over.

Pak was illiterate even in Korean, so Korean patients who could read and write helped him correspond with his brother. In order to understand what was written on signs and in notices to patients, Pak began to learn to read and write both Korean and Japanese.

Pak was put with the Christians at Aiseien because many of the Koreans already there were Christians. So the world of hope that opened up to the literate Pak was Biblical, and his life began to revolve around his treatment, work, and religion.

In 1977, Pak took a trip to Korea, his first there in 32 years. His brother and sister-in-law had white hair. Some childhood friends still lived in the village. The fields and even the roads between them seemed just like he had left them.

Pak returned to Aiseien, where he feels most at home, his dream of seeing his kin and homeland again fulfilled. He remains very active, and he lives on the thought that today is better than yesterday.

Adapted by William Wetherall from Kiyoshi Kida's account of an anonymous Korean resident of Aiseien, in Kida's Naguwashi shima no shi (Nagashima Aiseien ni Zainichi Chosenjin, Kankokujin o tazunete) [Songs of an island with a beautiful name (Paying visits on Japan-resident Koreans at Nagashima Aiseien)], pages 45-51. Published in 1987 by Kaiseisha in Ichikawa. Distributed by Kanto Shuppansha in Tokyo.