Sohn Kee-Chung of Korea, not Son Kitei of Japan

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

By Jae-Ha Kim
February 20, 2013

Growing up, I had heard my father talk about Sohn Kee-Chung (손기정). Sohn was the first Korean to win an Olympic medal, and it was gold. At the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, he set a world record in the marathon. So it wasn’t surprising that when the 1988 Games were held in South Korea, Sohn had the honor of carrying the Olympic torch into the Seoul Olympic Stadium.

My parents beamed with pride as they watched the 76-year-old Korean hero leap for joy and run around the track to thunderous applause. They knew what I had not. When Sohn won his gold medal in Berlin, he had to compete under the Japanese name of Son Kitei. Korea, at that time, was part of the Japanese Empire. The bronze medal went to his Korean countryman, Nam Seung-yong (남승룡), who also had to compete under a Japanese name (Nan Shōryū).

My father was about 10 years old when Sohn won his gold medal in Berlin. He remembered how proud Koreans were of the win, but also how bitter they felt that the world wouldn’t know that the winner was Korean, and not Japanese. One Korean newspaper, the Dong-a-Ilbo, tried to right this wrong. They altered the photo of Sohn on the medal podium, so that the Japanese flag was no longer visible. Retribution came quickly. Eight newspaper staffers were arrested and the publication was halted for nine months.

When I was in high school, one of my best friends was a Japanese-American girl. At the time, we knew nothing about what our parents had lived through, or why her parents were initially hesitant about meeting mine. Because of the complicated and brutal history between Korea and Japan, they feared that my mother and father would be uncomfortable around them. They told their daughter, “You and Jae are from a different generation and can be good friends. But her parents may not want Japanese friends.” They were wrong, of course, and ended up socializing with my folks. My dad, in particular, enjoyed speaking to them in Japanese.

My parents grew up speaking Japanese and, until recently, I didn’t realize that I spoke some, too.

And then it all started to make sense. The time we were in Hawaii and the Korean waitress couldn’t understand what my Korean mother was requesting. The time I was in Korea and had a difficult time being understood by 20somethings–until I spoke in English. The time my young Korean cousin was visiting us in the U.S. and couldn’t understand me when I asked her, in (what I thought was) Korean, to put some cups on the table. The time I asked the cosmetics clerk in Seoul for kuchibeni and was met with a blank stare.

I was speaking Colonial Japanese, more than half a century after Korea had won its independence.

© 2013 JAE-HA KIM | All Rights Reserved

Comments (13)

  1. hkubra says:

    this touched me in a way that is hard to explain. just read it – you will connect.

  2. ninjayuri says:

    Coming from a Japanese-Korean background, I can relate to this post. Meeting Korean parents has always been tough for me. The fact I don’t speak Korean made it harder because they always want to know WHY I didn’t speak Korean. I remember one time where I tried to answer with “Because I was raised in here..” and the parent responded, “But you have Korean parents, didn’t they speak Korean to you?”. My friend then cut in with, “— Only her mom is Korean. Her dad is Japanese.” I will never forget the look I got. The response was just an “Oh” and then my friend’s dad had to ask, “So… You know Dokdo belongs to Korea, right?”. This was all in the States, mind you.

    I always wondered what it was like for my father to visit my mom’s family when they were married. They were married in the late 70’s, I could imagine that Koreans were even more hostile towards Japanese than they are today. But I will always remember how my dad had so much respect for one my mom’s uncles. He spoke Japanese to my dad and didn’t look down on him. My grandmother and some Korean family members still asks how my dad is doing and always says, “Yoshi… He’s a good man. Good man.” I can’t understand how someone who experienced the Japanese colonial rule first hand can be so much more accepting of Japanese people versus the elementary school kids in Korea today who say, “We should bomb Japan because they’re evil” when they’ve never even met a Japanese person.

    Since I’m in Korea now, I tend to use my Korean name instead of my given name to avoid questions about my last name. I don’t look very Korean anyway so people automatically assume I’m Japanese, but it’s really tough once they find out my mom is Korean. I feel like it’s easier for them to make snide insults because they assume, “Well, she’s Korean too, she should feel the same way”. Even close friends of mine will have their moments where eyes narrow and they have to ask what my standing is about Dokdo, comfort women, and which country I root for during any sports match. Usually I just tell them what they want to hear to avoid confrontations.

    Funny how Koreans had to use Japanese names to assimilate into Japanese society and here I am, using a Korean name to fit into their society.


  3. Jenny says:

    I remember the ’88 olympics, and how it was such a proud moment to have him carry the torch. My parents made sure we knew the significance of it. 🙂

  4. Wow. I love the things you post! It’s such a shame no one knew he was really Korean!

  5. Jimin says:

    We had similar experience with words like onion, etc. Thx for sharing your experience!

  6. I remember learning of Sohn Kee-Chung while watching the ‘88 Olympics; my parents had always known his story and were very emotional about it. And one couldn’t help but recall this history four years later at the Barcelona games when Hwang Young-Cho surpassed Japan’s Koichi Morishita to win Korea’s second gold in the men’s marathon.

  7. Roy says:

    World doesn’t know half the crazy and inhumane things the Japanese did and never apologized for.

  8. Marilyn says:

    I got chills reading this, Jae. The loss of language runs deep in many cultures. Thank you for writing this. I’m glad you retained yours.

  9. jlkj314 says:

    Just out of academic curiosity, to what extent, if any, is the Korean language influenced by the Japanese language?

  10. Holly Schlesser says:

    Wow can you imagine how different your life would be if your parents had chosen Russian!!! What a great story

  11. Marsha West says:

    I have only lived here in the U.S. and have had Spanish in high school, and college French and Japanese, so I am not multilingual. But, it’s interesting to me that the language would fade so quickly that they wouldn’t understand you. I would have expected the language to stick around. Did the people drop all Japanese words? I’m just curious about the way languages carry on, or fade away.

  12. Cohlrox Primus says:

    Woah! ME TOO! Koreans in Korea would not understand some words I used and some would tell me that I spoke Korean like an old person.

  13. Maureen O'Donnell says:

    Amazing story, Jae. I still use similes that my Irish-born parents did, but when I have asked some Irish people from their region if they ever say them, they told me they’ve never heard them before. Yet my Irish-American Boomer friends also know them. We are using phrases from a pre-WWII Ireland. An Italian-American friend tells me that when she is in Rome and she uses the language she learned from her Avelino parents, the Romans told her that her Italian is archaic. It’s all fascinating, all of us repositories of history.

Join the Discussion

Psssst! Your E-mail address will not be published.

Name *

E-mail *