Surprised by a Japanese Song of Sorrow
A confession: it’s difficult to grow up in Korea, as I did, and not despise the Japanese. Japan’s brutal 20th century occupation of Korea until 1945 is still excluded from Japanese history textbooks. Like many Koreans of her era, the beloved woman who worked for our family in Seoul was forced to learn and speak Japanese at school. My children will tell you their father easily gets riled up about all this.
But I am also the co-author of this thesis statement: “In a broken world God is always planting seeds of hope, though often not in the places we expect or even desire.”
I didn’t expect those words to kick back on me, and I didn’t exactly desire Yoko Sato of Japan to interrupt my animosity at our summer institute last June. Yet I had no choice but to take her seriously given the miracle by which Yoko arrived: hospitalized in Hawaii after a serious automobile accident, attended by a kind doctor from North Carolina, a random web search and her interests as a Christian composer and reconciliation led her step by step through internet pages to North Carolina … Duke … the Divinity School … the Center for Reconciliation … and a summer institute which included a focus on reconciliation and the arts.
At the institute I learned how Yoko, through her friendship with a Korean, learned painful stories of Japan’s past for the first time, and was moved to dedicate her career as a composer to the theme of reconciliation. One painful story became the theme of Yoko’s composition “A Poem of the Rain,” (listen here) a requiem for the last Empress Min of Korea who was brutally executed by the Japanese.
“The word ame (rain),” said Yoko, “expresses not only the beautiful natural phenomenon that this word means literally, but also the tears that Empress Min shed, or rather was forced to shed. I hope that my prayers for Empress Min, as expressed in the tones of the [music] find their ways into the listeners’ hearts.”
We played Yoko’s “Poem of the Rain” piece during worship at the institute. It literally began to rain. Her “prayer” for Empress Min, haunting and powerful, moved me deeply. It’s been a long time coming, to discover a seed of hope from Japan who exploded my stereotypes and took me further on the way to peace.
Yoko was inspired at the institute to compose a reconciliation opera for her dissertation. She hopes to come to Duke to do some theological work for it, and asked me to help her find some good stories to tell in the opera. She spread the message with her church in Japan about reconciliation and her Duke experience. Her Duke Center for Reconciliation t-shirt says “Got conflict?” “Pass the peace.”