Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A quick visit to prison...

Yes, that's right, I went to prison today. More specifically, I went to Seodaemun prison history museum in Seodaemun-gu. I didn't really have very high expectations for this place before I went, but I'm so glad I did. Because we went on a Wednesday, we were able to get a (free) English tour with a volunteer tour guide. I learned so much about the Japanese occupation of Korea during the first part of the 20th century.

When Japan invaded Korea in 1907 (?), they realized quickly that they needed prisons to detain all the people who were fighting against them. By October of 1908, this prison in Seoul had been constructed, and other prisons were constructed throughout the country.

At the museum you can enter the actual rooms where prisoners where kept. The rooms don't seem so small, until you realize that they were keeping up to 40 prisoners inside at a time. People would sleep in shifts because only so many could lay on the floor at once.

You can enter the torture chambers where you can see EXTREMELY GRAPHIC life size figurines depicting the various methods of torture used by the Japanese. There is fake blood splattered on the wall and you can look at figurines being flogged, electrocuted and even being sexually abused. Then you can make your way into another building where you can (as my tour guide put it) experience 'simulated' torture. This part freaked me out.... a little too much. First she told me to stick my head into a dark hole so I could experience electrocution torture. I wasn't quite sure what she meant by this... but I also didn't want to seem disinterested in their country's history... so i stuck my head in the hole, and wound up watching a Korean man (another life size figurine) plead for his life to a Japanese soldier with a voice that sounded strangely like a villain from some old school cartoon. But the worst by far was the simulated execution room. Let me first explain their method of execution first. You were placed in a chair, with a noose around your neck, in front of a room full of Japanese soldiers. The floor would drop out from under you, and you would, of course, hang. Then your body would be dropped below, where someone would drag your dead body up the stairs and toss it into the general cemetery on the other side of the prison wall. Ok, now that you know how executions took place, I can explain the simulated execution. We entered the room and saw the chair in front of a row of Japanese soldiers. When our tour guide asked one of us to have a seat... we both looked at her like she was crazy for thinking that we would do that... I don't want to have any simulated deaths, or real deaths any time soon, thank you. A group of middle school age boys then entered the room, and she asked if one would sit in the chair. Three out of the four boys gave the woman the same look we had just given her, but one timidly sat in the chair. As soon as he sat in the chair the Japanese soldiers (life like figurines once again) began speaking. I'm sure it said something along the lines of... you're sentenced to death, now DIE. Just a guess, since I don't understand at all... and as soon as the Japanese soldier stopped talking, the chair suddenly dropped about half and inch. Just enough to make the poor poor boy in the chair actually scream out loud. He got up and walked away a little dazed. I think he was permanently traumatized for life.

Anyway, this was a really great experience for me to help me realize why there is such animosity between Korea and Japan. You can also see clearly that they have no problem demonizing the Japanese fifty years after the fact. The whole museum is reeking in anti-Japanese sentiments. Although, after seeing... quite graphically, what the Japanese did to the Korean people, I can understand why they might have those feelings too.

If you want to visit this museum, get off at Dongnimmun Station on the orange line and get out at exit 5. Walk into the park to your right, and head up the road on the right. The prison will be on your left.


  1. Sounds like a really cool off-beat tour, Disneyland-meets-the-Inquisition. I don't think I'd sit in the chair, either.

  2. hey jo!
    That prison thing sounds pretty creepy. But other than that sounds like you are having fun or at least having an experience! I like all the bug pictures, which I think is funny since we used to run away everytime we saw a bee. I still do actually. Anyway the scenery there seems very beautiful and I hope youre having a good time. Enjoy it, be safe, we miss ya over here!


  3. Fifty years ain't that long. You don't have any relatives who participated in the last world war? Or Vietnam War?

    Personally, Korea-Japan animosity reminds me of Irish-UK relations.

  4. Well, I don't think there are many people that still hate Germany for World War II... or do they? Nor do I hate the Vietnamese. But.. who knows.. maybe there are people who do hate them. I don't know.