Ethnic Korean singer hopes hometown change will boost inclusivity

The Utoro Peace Memorial Museum holds an opening ceremony in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture on April 30, 2022, showcasing the history of descendants of wartime Korean workers living in the Utoro community in the city in western Japan. (Kyodo)

UJI, Japan (Kyodo) — A Korean-born singer said Saturday that she hopes the transformation of her hometown from a site fighting decades of discrimination to one promoting peace and human rights man, would lead Japanese society to become more inclusive.

Chong Ami, who was a member of Japan’s top theater troupe Shiki Theater Company for more than 10 years, sang Arirang at a ceremony marking the opening of a museum chronicling the history of his hometown, Utoro.

The singing of the famous Korean folk song was meant to replace the “national anthem” usually performed at ceremonies, the third-generation Korean resident said. Utoro is a community formed during World War II by workers from the Korean Peninsula, then under Japanese rule, who were building an airfield.

“Arirang expresses the heart of the Korean people,” Chong said, dressed in traditional Korean attire, ahead of the ceremony at the Utoro Peace Memorial Museum in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, western Japan. .

Due to the lack of legal land ownership, the residents of Utoro had to live without running water until the Uji town authorities finally laid water pipes in 1988 after obtaining approval of the landowner at the time.

They were also facing eviction after a new landowner, a property developer, sued them in 1989 demanding they vacate the 2-hectare plot.

Although the residents lost the lawsuit, they were able to purchase a third of the land they lived on with funds raised by Korean residents, Japanese and South Korean citizens, and the South Korean government.

Since 2016, the sound of hammers has not ceased to echo in Utoro as the city authorities, after reaching an agreement with the inhabitants, demolished their houses to build social housing.

The museum is part of a plan to improve the living climate, aiming to make visitors think about human rights and peace by learning about the history of the Utoro community.

“Seeing Utoro now, I feel a certain loneliness. I almost wonder if this is really where I was born and raised,” said the 44-year-old singer, who has lived in the area until at about 20 years old.

While a member of the Shiki Theatre, Chong was part of the cast of The Lion King, playing the role of the baboon Rafiki.

But there were awkward moments back then, she said. Someone who saw Chong wearing a name tag on his chest looked surprised and said, “How come you speak Japanese so well?” This person knew little about Korean residents of Japan.

“I think Utoro is just the tip of the iceberg. There must be other neighborhoods where ethnic Koreans suffer from discrimination,” said Chong, who now works as a freelance singer. “I hope Utoro’s (transformation) will attract attention so that Japanese people will be more aware of the existence of Korean residents.”

The ceremony brought together local officials, including the mayor of Uji, and representatives of the pro-Seoul and pro-Pyongyang Korean residents’ groups.

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