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Kyoto's notorious Mimizuka

By Richard Pennington

When I think of the fortuitous events of late 2007 that brought me from Austin, Texas, to Korea, I realize I could just as easily have gone to Japan.

After all, I once had a colleague named John who left Austin and moved to a small Japanese city. He and I came to East Asia for the same reason ― as native English speakers, we were in demand in the public and private educational systems of both countries.

As it turned out, I taught at a hagwon in Daegu for just over a year before getting a more suitable job in Seoul. I have long since lost contact with John, but I wonder how his experience in Japan was. I wonder also what he would think of the following.

As a voracious reader and traveler, I have learned and absorbed a lot over the past 11 1/2 years. While my training as a historian causes me to strive for objectivity, I inevitably fall short.

Would I have been comfortable in Japan had I known the facts of its militaristic behavior toward Korea? That is impossible to say, but perhaps not.

I have delved into the brutal 35-year colonial period (1910-1945), the roots of which go back a couple of decades before that. In the present instance, I am aggrieved by something of more than 400 years' standing.

The issue is the Imjin War of 1592-1598. Specifically, I refer to Mimizuka, a monument just west of the Toyokuni Shrine which honors Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the man who conceived and directed the Japanese invasion of Korea. They are located in Kyoto, the imperial capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years.

Mimizuka was dedicated on Sept. 28, 1597, while the Imjin War was still going on. It is a tomb containing the noses ―occasionally ears ― of about 38,000 Koreans (along with some Ming Chinese who aided the resistance) taken as war trophies by Hideyoshi's troops.

They were encouraged to kill every person they could find ― not just soldiers but civilians, women, children and the elderly. At first, they decapitated their victims and shipped their heads back to Japan in barrels filled with brine. That soon proved cumbersome, so they adopted the expedient alternative of cutting off noses. Mindful of the need to show proof of their valor, the Japanese military kept meticulous records.

Far more than 38,000 people were slaughtered by the Japanese, quite a few of whom died at the hands of the surprisingly stout Koreans and their Chinese allies.

Not all of those who lost their noses died. We have reports from the early 1600s of people in Chungcheong, Jeolla and Gyeongsang provinces carrying on their lives, without noses or ears or both. Korea was a traumatized country for long after the war.

It is gruesome, indeed macabre, to consider the body parts of so many people being shipped to Kyoto and buried in a mound topped by a pagoda.

For a long time, the Japanese flocked to Mimizuka due to their profound admiration of Hideyoshi and because it represented samurai martial glory. Maybe it gave them pleasure to think of themselves as superior to their cousins to the west.

In post-World War II Japan, however, Mimizuka had become an embarrassment of sorts. There were attempts to portray it as somehow proving Hideyoshi's leniency ― and thus his virtue ―toward the vanquished. A sign in both Japanese and Korean was placed in front of it which contained this line: "One cannot say that cutting off ears or noses was so atrocious by the standard of the time."

Not until the mid-1980s did any reference to Mimizuka appear in Japanese textbooks. It is today largely ignored by the people of Kyoto. Few signs direct tourists there, and what little maintenance it gets is provided by local volunteers.

Proposals have been made by Korean politicians to have Mimizuka leveled or excavated and its grisly remains brought home. A Buddhist ceremony was held there Sept. 28, 1997, the 400th anniversary of its dedication, with the purpose of comforting the spirits of the dead.

Let's give the Japanese credit ― a private organization got 20,000 signatures on a petition asking that the contents of Mimizuka be returned to Korea. The government refused, insisting that it was an officially designated national cultural asset and must stay.

I have taken group trips with Koreans before, to Mount Paektu and to Baengnyeongdo, and I would surely go on one to Kyoto.

Most of my fellow travelers would want to visit the Golden Pavilion, Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kifune Shrine, Yasaka Pagoda, Kawadoko Terrace, Togetsukyo Bridge, the Gion District, Philosopher's Walk, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Nijo Castle or one of the city's tea-drinking emporiums.

Those are justly famous, but I would commandeer the bus microphone and say, "Let's get our priorities straight. We should visit Mimizuka first."


Richard Pennington (raput76@gmail.com), a native of Texas in the U.S., works as an editor at a law firm in southern Seoul. He has written 21 nonfiction books, including "Travels of an American-Korean, 2008-2013." He is the director of an NGO, the Committee to Bring Jikji Back to Korea.


By Richard Pennington

When I think of the fortuitous events of late 2007 that brought me from Austin, Texas, to Korea, I realize I could just as easily have gone to Japan.

After all, I once had a colleague named John who left Austin and moved to a small Japanese city. He and I came to East Asia for the same reason ― as native English speakers, we were in demand in the public and private educational systems of both countries.

As it turned out, I taught at a hagwon in Daegu for just over a year before getting a more suitable job in Seoul. I have long since lost contact with John, but I wonder how his experience in Japan was. I wonder also what he would think of the following.

As a voracious reader and traveler, I have learned and absorbed a lot over the past 11 1/2 years. While my training as a historian causes me to strive for objectivity, I inevitably fall short.

Would I have been comfortable in Japan had I known the facts of its militaristic behavior toward Korea? That is impossible to say, but perhaps not.

I have delved into the brutal 35-year colonial period (1910-1945), the roots of which go back a couple of decades before that. In the present instance, I am aggrieved by something of more than 400 years' standing.

The issue is the Imjin War of 1592-1598. Specifically, I refer to Mimizuka, a monument just west of the Toyokuni Shrine which honors Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the man who conceived and directed the Japanese invasion of Korea. They are located in Kyoto, the imperial capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years.

Mimizuka was dedicated on Sept. 28, 1597, while the Imjin War was still going on. It is a tomb containing the noses ―occasionally ears ― of about 38,000 Koreans (along with some Ming Chinese who aided the resistance) taken as war trophies by Hideyoshi's troops.

They were encouraged to kill every person they could find ― not just soldiers but civilians, women, children and the elderly. At first, they decapitated their victims and shipped their heads back to Japan in barrels filled with brine. That soon proved cumbersome, so they adopted the expedient alternative of cutting off noses. Mindful of the need to show proof of their valor, the Japanese military kept meticulous records.

Far more than 38,000 people were slaughtered by the Japanese, quite a few of whom died at the hands of the surprisingly stout Koreans and their Chinese allies.

Not all of those who lost their noses died. We have reports from the early 1600s of people in Chungcheong, Jeolla and Gyeongsang provinces carrying on their lives, without noses or ears or both. Korea was a traumatized country for long after the war.

It is gruesome, indeed macabre, to consider the body parts of so many people being shipped to Kyoto and buried in a mound topped by a pagoda.

For a long time, the Japanese flocked to Mimizuka due to their profound admiration of Hideyoshi and because it represented samurai martial glory. Maybe it gave them pleasure to think of themselves as superior to their cousins to the west.

In post-World War II Japan, however, Mimizuka had become an embarrassment of sorts. There were attempts to portray it as somehow proving Hideyoshi's leniency ― and thus his virtue ―toward the vanquished. A sign in both Japanese and Korean was placed in front of it which contained this line: "One cannot say that cutting off ears or noses was so atrocious by the standard of the time."

Not until the mid-1980s did any reference to Mimizuka appear in Japanese textbooks. It is today largely ignored by the people of Kyoto. Few signs direct tourists there, and what little maintenance it gets is provided by local volunteers.

Proposals have been made by Korean politicians to have Mimizuka leveled or excavated and its grisly remains brought home. A Buddhist ceremony was held there Sept. 28, 1997, the 400th anniversary of its dedication, with the purpose of comforting the spirits of the dead.

Let's give the Japanese credit ― a private organization got 20,000 signatures on a petition asking that the contents of Mimizuka be returned to Korea. The government refused, insisting that it was an officially designated national cultural asset and must stay.

I have taken group trips with Koreans before, to Mount Paektu and to Baengnyeongdo, and I would surely go on one to Kyoto.

Most of my fellow travelers would want to visit the Golden Pavilion, Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kifune Shrine, Yasaka Pagoda, Kawadoko Terrace, Togetsukyo Bridge, the Gion District, Philosopher's Walk, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Nijo Castle or one of the city's tea-drinking emporiums.

Those are justly famous, but I would commandeer the bus microphone and say, "Let's get our priorities straight. We should visit Mimizuka first."


Richard Pennington (raput76@gmail.com), a native of Texas in the U.S., works as an editor at a law firm in southern Seoul. He has written 21 nonfiction books, including "Travels of an American-Korean, 2008-2013." He is the director of an NGO, the Committee to Bring Jikji Back to Korea.




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