Undoing the Undoing: a rare restoration of a Japanese temple in Korea
In the late 19th century, Japan, influenced strongly by nativism, a rethinking of Shinto and the Meiji Restoration of the Emperor to a position of power, began to aggressively expand and create an empire.
As their closest neighbour, Korea was a prime target…
Korea had already fallen prey to the gunboat diplomacy Japan had exercised in getting Korea to sign the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876. In 1910, Japan officially annexed Korea and ended the Joseon Dynasty that had ruled the country with varying degrees of autonomy from China for more than 500 years.
Aside from other administrative changes, one of the steps taken to further the Japanification of Korea was to demolish buildings and build new ones in their stead. An example of this is how the Japanese government of Korea tore down the main buildings of Gyeongbokgung, the Korean Imperial Palace, and replaced it with the Government-General Building.
This wave of construction and modernization of Korea also included the establishment of hundreds of religious structures throughout the country.
While a few of these were Buddhist temples, the vast majority were Shinto shrines.
Shinto is a complex set of beliefs that originates in nature worship and Animism. During the Heian period and early Tokugawa Shogunate, it piggy-backed on Buddhism in order to survive and develop a formal doctrine.
In the early 19th century, a nativist movement started which changed Shinto and created new forms of the belief system. The most influential after the Meiji Restoration was State Shinto. This form, reinforced by Shrine Shinto, pushed the ideals of the Emperor as a god and the divine duty of the Japanese to spread their superior ideology.
This was the purpose of building temples in Korea. The most significant jinja (shrine) to be constructed was Chōsen Jingū on Mt Namsan in the centre of Seoul.
This large shrine that venerated the Imperial House of Japan was placed on the mountain in the centre of the capital, firmly stamping ownership on Korea. A network of 77 other jinja (shrines) and 1062 smaller shrines were created in Korea, initially, to serve the Japanese colonists. This changed and in 1935 mandatory worship at the shrines by Koreans was established.The process of undoing the work that Japan had done in Korea started in 1945 and after independence, the Koreans tore down all of the Japanese shrines with few exceptions. Some Japanese structures lasted longer than others and the Government-General Building remained standing until 1996, when the Korean government bowed to popular pressure and finally had it removed. Very few structures built by the Japanese exist today, with the exception of a few private houses.
In Gyeongju, the ancient seat of the Silla Kingdom, one religious structure does not fit with the rest. Home to Korean Buddhism for 1500 years, missionaries from Silla went to Japan and helped begin Buddhism’s evolution there. Amid a city filled with Korean rooves and traditional buildings, a high roof sticks out of the skyline in an old central neighbourhood. It is an Irimoya-zukuri style roof, a hip and gable variation that is only found in Japan. Distinct onigawara roof tiles decorate the dark roof that has the atmospherically foreboding feeling that Japanese temples seem to instil in people. It is a beautiful relic and one that has been recently restored.
This is the former Seogyeongsa Temple, a Buddhist missionary station for the Japanese Nishi Honganji Sect of Jodo Pure Land Buddhism. The temple, founded in 1932, consists of just one building and it was originally built for Japanese expatriates.
It served as the base for the Survey on Gyeongju Historic Sites conducted by the Japanese government. Gyeongju largely escaped the mass demolition experienced in other towns, as the Japanese saw it as their own cultural heritage. Since Japanese Buddhism can be traced back to the city, they opted to turn the town into a tourist destination. Many cultural items were removed from the city and taken to Japan, but the structures of most of the temples remained untouched.
What doesn’t tally, is why, after independence, Seogyeongsa didn’t suffer from the same ‘bonfire’ treatment as most of the other Japanese temples, especially considering its role in aiding the Japanese in claiming the Silla Kingdom heritage as their own. The fact that Buddhism is an official religion of Korea probably made the people reticent to destroy what, to them, was still a sacred place. This is a story not entirely unique to Seogyeongsa. Many Japanese Buddhist temples were converted into Korean temples, slowly having the stark Japanese structures replaced with colourful Korean ones.
The Korean government only recognise one surviving Japanese temple in the entire country: Dongguksa Temple in Gunsan. Built in 1909, it housed Japanese monks until the end of the war. Now a branch temple of the Korean Buddhist Jogye Order, it was made a Cultural Asset in 2003. The same fate did not fall upon Seogyeongsa. Perhaps because it was built so late in the Japanese occupation of Korea and due to its political importance during the 1930s, it was repurposed for various secular roles, slowly falling into disrepair. Having been home to the Rural Development Center, the Erosion Control Center and, finally, the Marine Corps Veterans Office, the former temple was a shadow of its former self.
Although there is no national level drive to restore Japanese buildings, the local government carried out work on the former temple and in 2009, Seogyeongsa and its grounds became a local park. It is now designated as Cultural Property 290, but there are no plans to return it to its original use.
The restoration project shows that the Koreans may be entering into a new stage in their post-war history. By repairing the structure, perhaps they are showing that they are willing to move on from the bitterness that has remained throughout the second part of the twentieth century, yet they are not going to forget what colonization meant.
Rather than destroy what is alien, they have opted, in this case, to keep a memento of their past for future generations.