Many people have dubbed South Korea as one of the most romantic countries in the world. Taking ‘romantic holidays’ to the next level, many amorous young Koreans celebrate an unofficial ‘love’ holiday on the 14th of every month of the year. For an excellent write-up on what those holidays are, as well as the traditions observed on each, check out this excellent article by my fellow blogger Tara @ Gypsy Shutterbug.
The one you will recognize is Valentine’s Day. Due to White Day being on the 14th of March, on which men buy gifts for their ladies, Valentine’s Day is the day women buy their flame some delicious chocolate. However, overshadowed by the hearts, sweets, and frills is a lesser known holiday which hearkens back to Korea’s tumultuous past.
February 14th has another name here: 사형 선고 당일, which translates to ‘The Day of the Death Penalty’. It marks the day a man named An Jung-geun (안중근) was sentenced to death for the assassination of Ito Hirobumi–the Japanese Resident-General of Korea–whom he believed was responsible for the miserable state of affairs that were Korean-Japanese relations. An Jung-eun is celebrated as a hero in both Korea and China–fellow targets of Japan’s imperialist ambitions in the early 20th century. However, in Japan, he is regarded as a murderer and a terrorist.
Made curious about An Jung-geun after some of my 12-year-old students brought him up during a Valentine’s Day lesson, I started reading about him. He was well-educated, charismatic, idealistic, nationalistic, and religious. He was an advocate for Pan-Asianisim, believing that, in order to survive and be influential in a rapidly globalizing world, Korea, Japan, and China needed to work in unison against what he called “the White Peril”. I was curious about this since that viewpoint seemed to clash horribly with his decision to assassinate a Japanese politician/military official in Korea. So, I read a little more.
At the time, Korea was occupied by Japan. On November 9, 1905, Ito Hirobumi showed up in Seoul and gave a letter detailing a treaty revoking Korea’s rights of sovereignty by making it a protecterate of Japan to the Korean Emperor. Further communications and threats of violence from Hirobumi increased the pressure until the Korean cabinet signed the agreement in spite of the Emperor’s emphatic disagreement.
Over the next two years, the Korean Emperor Gojong labored in secret to get support for his nation from world leaders, but Korea’s past of isolationism (propagated by the Emperor’s father, among others) took its toll. In 1907, in retaliation for these efforts, the Japanese government made Emperor Gojong abdicate to his son. Then, later that same year, Korea and Japan signed another treaty giving Japan full control over the administration of Korean affairs.
Things were moving toward Korea being annexed by Japan, and that’s where An Jung-geun came into the picture. After the signing of the Eulsa Treaty (the treaty of 1905), he shifted his focus from a new coal business to education. Two years later, he exiled himself to Russia, where he joined with fighters in the independence movement and became a lieutenant general.
On October 26, 1909, he went to the platform at the train station in Harbin, China with a gun in his lunchbox. Disembarking the train was former Prime Minister of Japan and Resident-General of Korea, Ito Hirobumi–accompanied by several other prominent Japanese officials. An Jung-geun pulled out his pistol and shot Hirobumi and 3 others, waving the Korean flag and shouting as he did so. Ito Hirobumi was killed, the others gravely wounded.
After his apprehension by Russian officials and hand-over to the Japanese, An gave his captors a list. In it, he detailed his 15 accusations against Hirobumi, among them: assassinating the Korean Empress, forcing unequal treaties upon Korea, and deceiving the global community that Korea wanted Japanese protection. It also became apparent that An Jung-geun believed himself a patriot–acting not only in the best interest of Korea but (surprisingly) in Japan’s as well. An Jung-geun believed Ito Hirobumi had deliberately deceived the Emperor of Japan about the reality of Japanese involvement in Korea. It was his belief that, when Hirobumi was removed from the picture and the truth made known, the Emperor would discover the deception and feel gratitude towards An.
This, however, was not the case, and An was sentenced to death on February 14, 1910. He was executed as a criminal a month and a half later on March 26th.
Before he died, he attempted to finish a treatise titled “On Peace in East Asia.” In it, he argued for unification among the three great East Asian countries: Korea, China, and Japan. This involved a joint military force, a shared currency, and cooperation in the global community. It sounds surprisingly familiar, right? And yet, this was decades before the EU came into being.
Now, we go to the present. Korea has had their independence from Japan since 1945. Even though decades have passed, the two countries are ill at ease with each other–whether it’s territory disputes (the Liancourt Rocks), controversial decisions by leaders, or stubbornness regarding each other’s past transgressions. This unease was exacerbated recently when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine–seen by China and Korea as the spiritual nest of Japan’s colonial legacy. Then, things were further agitated by the construction of a pro-An Jung-geun monument at Harbin Station in China–decried by the Japanese as an ‘extremely disappointing and regrettable’ decision which celebrates a convicted terrorist.
It’s not all news stories, however. Though I have yet to go to Japan (edit: I’ve now been twice!), I have spent a significant amount of time in Korea. The anti-Japanese sentiment is still prevalent here–even surfacing from the mouths of some of my students. (Of course, this isn’t the case with everyone, but it is common nonetheless). This is backed up by a BBC poll, which found that 19% of Japanese view South Korean influence in a positive light and 21% of South Koreans view Japanese influence positively.
At last, it’s time to come full circle. South Koreans already have a number of holidays celebrating their independence. There are some who would like February 14th to share a similar significance, instead of the fluffy and romantic commercialism of Valentine’s Day. They want to celebrate the man who many believe played a crucial role in the founding of an independent Korea. Oddly enough, the day chosen for such a celebration is not the day of his birth or death, but the day he was sentenced to die for assassinating Hirobumi.
The questions I want to ask are these: does South Korea need yet another reason to be reminded of past injustices they have suffered? And last, but not least: how appropriate is it to honor An Jung-geun with a holiday when his dream of a united East Asia is anything but realized?
Leave your thoughts and opinions below, I’m curious to hear what people think!
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사형 선고 당일*
Fixed that for you
Fixed! Thanks, man 🙂 That one slipped by me.
What an AMAZING post. I did not know about this but my husband loves all these conspiracy theories and Korean freedom fighters. Sharing it with him in a bit. I also plan to look him up later. Thanks for this history lesson!
Thanks Jackie! It was a fun one to write and super interesting to research!
I wonder how things would be if the One Peace East Asia treaty was in effect. This post was very informative, thank you. After a recent trip to the museum, I’ve been enlightened on the history of Japan and Korea and am greatly interested.
Nice, which museum did you visit? I’ve been to a couple around Korea, and they’re usually quite interesting.
Nathan, glad to see you back in the Korean writing ring. I love reading about secret histories and appreciating these lesser-known factoids. You should submit this article to Atlas Obscura! I’m sure they would publish given this is really some obscure stuff. And I mean, imagine a world where the three powerhouses of East Asia acted as one but they have so much history of conflict between the three of them… I can only imagine a new world reality if they decided to cooperate.
That’s a great idea! I’ll tweak it a bit and send it in 🙂 Thanks, Izzy, and it’s good to be back!
I had no idea about this holiday so this was an intriguing read. It does seem strange to me that people in Korea celebrate this guy who was a pioneer for bringing Korea, China and Japan together when so many Koreans seem to have frosty feelings towards both countries. I think Korea’s relationship with Japan is definitely a complicated but, like Kayley, I do think that Koreans have to, at least, start teaching the next generation to be less bitter. I had a co-worker who would drive me to work last year and tell me that he would never let his daughters visit Japan and that he hopes that even in 100 years, no Korean person would ever befriend a Japanese person. He is obviously an extreme case but, come on! High school students in Japan aren’t responsible for the comfort woman! I think that the rivalry gets very personal and people tend to forget that these were decisions made by a government 100 years ago. I also think it’s hypocritical that Koreans turn a blind eye to the fact that their own government used Korean comfort women!
Yikes, yeah, he does seem like an extreme case. Always sad to see parents passing prejudices on to their children.
Interesting bit of history that I had no idea about. I find koreas history with Japan so very sad, but think that it’s held onto a little too much. I guess it’s easier to say that from an outsider perspective though. I got grilled after my holiday to Japan about which country I liked better in every way.
Oh wow! Not going to lie, most of my students were excited to hear about it when I went. I guess it just depends what environment they’re coming from.
Thank you for this bit of history. I was ready to tell about how disappointed I was when I first came over because I wasn’t used to not being “special” on V-day and instead I was going to be the one to give chocolates and flowers to my hubby, hahaha… And then, there goes your post!
Korea’s love/hate for Japan is too deeply embedded in their history and culture so this is understandably complicated.
Yeah, I couldn’t bring myself to write a fluffy Valentine’s Day piece. Not my thing 😛
I so wasn’t expecting to read this after I saw your title – how interesting and informative. I had no idea! It’s a shame the relationship between Japan and Korean is so broken, but at the same time, I can understand why. Unfortunately, I can’t see anything changing anytime soon. Thanks for sharing!
Yeah, it’s disheartening every time I hear a student say something negative. I always ask, “Oh, have you been to Japan?” just to try to make them think about why they don’t like it.
Wow, I had no idea about this man and what he means to Korea until reading this post. I think the whole hostility between Japan and Korea is fascinating but also so tragic for Korea, as Japan has always been the bully. Who knows what the future holds for the relations of these two countries. But I also find it so interesting to ask Koreans about their opinion of Japan because it’s so varied.
Agreed! I really hope the tension dissipates some. We’ll see!
Such a bitter sweet article you’ve written here. I thought it’s al about Valentines day, romance, flowers, chocolates and whatnot, but I’m glad I get to know more about An Jung-eun. What he did was indeed a heroic act, if his theory about Ito Hirobomi is correct. I mean, was it proven that Hirobomi indeed was deceiving both Korea and Japan? If not, then Japan is right to call him a murderer. But if Korea would like to honor him, then maybe we could just respect them for that.
It;s funny because while I was reading the story of how he assasinated Hirobomi, I remember that there’s a life size diorama of the scene at the Indepence Hall of Korea in Cheonan. It’s so detailed, including the lunchbox, the people and everything. I even have a picture of that whole scenario.
I’d love to see that diorama to get a better mental picture of the scene. And it’s interesting to think, as someone pointed out, how one country’s hero is another country’s villain. And I agree 100%, countries should be able to choose their heroes!
I was expecting a post on shallow romanticism, but this was more interesting. It reminds me of the story of Yun Bonggil. His statue is in Yangjae Citizen’s Forest. As far as making February 14th another national holiday, I’m not Korean, so I don’t have a horse in this race. However, I do think that keeping our minds fixed on things that divide us and propel hatred isn’t a good idea.
I hadn’t heard of Yun Bonggil, but I can see why you were reminded of him. They have very similar stories!
It’s so interesting to read these stories and to think about just how recent they are in Korea and Japan’s history. While I dislike the division and lingering feelings between the two countries, it’s easier to understand when I remember the proximity of these events to the present day.
Assassinate a guy and start waving your countries flag around… That’s one way to make a statement and a whole lot of enemies. I’m starting to get a sense of how deep and complex the Japan-Korea relationship is. Thanks for the article, super interesting!
This is very interesting stuff. No Korean I know has ever brought it up in the 11 years I’ve been here. I’m glad you did all the research for us. How was that, by the way? But thanks for informing us. I like the perspective that one of your commenters said regarding perspectives. One nation’s hero is another nation’s terrorist. That’s entirely true. And also history can get distorted, or at least interpreted according to what that person means to that nation.
I’ll ask my students about it from now on. They’re high school students so I guess they should know about it, right?
To your question as to whether or not Korea needs to be reminded of the past with yet another historical thing from that era, I think in this case, since it’s not getting them worked up into a frenzy like (and I like your careful use of the name) Liancourt Rocks, I think it’s a nice historical piece of information and not a destabilizing rallying cry.
Steve Miller (@qiranger)
Good article. One thing I like to bring up with this particular story: one nation’s hero is another nation’s terrorist. It’s all about perspective. I often find it somewhat ironic that Korea and China can’t see why Japan would be upset about the Ahn museum and monument when they are so quick to criticize visits to the Yasukuni Shrine.
Great point! I’m listening to your podcast now where you give the example of a listener comparing the Japanese attitude towards An Jung-geun to that of the British towards Americans involved in the Revolutionary War. It’s a really thought-provoking idea, probably quite a disturbing one for some people.
Meagan | LifeOutsideOfTexas.com
Wow… this is really informative. I had no idea about this bit of history. I think it’s kind of cool that on a day of fun your 12 year old students were still up for talking about something serious. I doubt students in the US would bring up something like that.
Great post, thanks for the info! None of my students mentioned this on Valentine’s Day. However, they do have quite a few negative things to say about Japan. It’s quite sad, because they’re clearly just repeating things they’ve heard from their elders. This has at least brought a little light to the issue for me. Thanks!
Sharon @ Where's Sharon?
Very interesting! I can understand why it is a bit controversial.
I must admit that I knew very little about South Korea until I travelled there. I was shocked by some of its more recent history with Japan and what took place there is the first half of the last century. I can see why they would want to celebrate a win against the Japanese
Same here! It’s pretty amazing to read about Korea’s recent history, then to experience Korea today… such a stark contrast.
Interesting and informative piece. I’d never heard of any of this before. Nothing like balancing out the sweetness of Valentines day with some bitter controversy! I would only add one element to this post: a really bad death-by-chocolate pun.
Man, I missed a great opportunity there… might have to go back in and add one 😉
Thanks for the interesting information. Even after graduating from a History degree I still have absolutely no idea about the history of these parts of the world. It’s a bit worrying really…
Right? I think I learned more about world history from playing Age of Empires than I did in school.
Thanks for the info, I never knew about this guy until I read this. Like any country, Korea needs its heroes. Why is this guy one? Probably cause he killed a prominent Japanese general. Japan has punked Korea all throughout history, But this this dude, Mr, An, He kicked Japan in nuts. Didnt happen very much back in the day. I think Koreans like to honor anybody who stood up to the Japanese. Take that one chick, Yu Gan Soon, she organized a protest against Japanese occupation,got her family killed, and thousands of other koreans killed, and she was later tortured and killed in a Japanese prison. Korea didnt get anything it wanted from the protest, infact the repercussions from the Japanese f’d stuff up in korea even more and forced the korean leaders into exile. It did a lot more damage than it did good. But shes got her own holiday as well. I guess these dudes are heroes for the same reason Davey Crockett is an American hero, he died fighting for what he believed in. Remember the Alamo!! So why do they get their own holidays? Cause Koreans dont want to forget the past injustices made by Japan.