1982-1989: Empire and Diplomacy

Korean-Japanese Memories corrode like paper.

May 21, 1982—The Korea Herald and Choson Ilbo newspapers make small announcements below the fold that my grandfather has been awarded an honorary doctorate of Law from the University of Bridgeport, in recognition of his diplomatic work bridging relations between the U.S. and Korea, as the vice chairman of the US Korea Friendship Association, and Board Chair of the YMCA Asia. This all sounds pretty amazing until you look into the University of Bridgeport and learn it was basically a shell institution created by the Moonies, or the Unification Church under the guidance of Sun-myung Moon. To be clear, Grandpa was not a Moonie, but he was a prominent Korean in Japan who made a lotta money for Korea. The real accomplishments were certainly in his executive tenures at the august YMCA and US-Korea Friendship Assoc. but for the family, it was the college degree that got a paper announcement.

His diploma has hung over the piano he never played but made his children learn, for as long as I can recall, in the Grand Room of the house he had built for his family who all but left the roost by the time construction had finished. The house became a place for grandchildren like me, and with Grandma convalescing in a nursing home after major surgery, I’ve only just started to explore the house unsupervised. I have just discovered these newspapers hidden behind a speaker system I was sure would not work anymore. I got excited at the prospect of playing recorded music in here for the first time ever. In thinking about it now, though, it was stupid 21st century arrogance to think “old” meant “broken.”

Nothing breaks down that was made in the early age of plastic; certainly not electronics manufactured so proudly in Japan in the 1980s; least of all, those machines that were left totally unused. Grandpa’s kids had great taste in music and the money to afford great sound systems. The newspapers hiding under it were a bystander to the age.

January 7 and 8, 1989—Two headlines: “His Majesty The Emperor, Dead” and “New Era: Heisei.” I’ve never seen a headline treatment this giant and dramaaaaatic in the Asahi Shinbun. These were also collected by someone in the family meaning to memorialize the news, but the spirit of collection is the same as the announcement of my Grandpa’s fake PhD as can be seen in the haphazard folds and careless preservation.

Like matriculating from the University of Bridgeport, the Heisei, the Reiwa…these are mere honors. And not the laude kind but the mimus (farcical) kind—effective in diplomacy, useless in effect. These honorary degrees and honorary empires have been left behind, stuffed inside a home media center, inside a home that symbolized dramatic epochal change between generations adapting to at least two very distinctly modern conditions—global war and globalism. These newspapers are sentimental trash or a cupboard liner of never-forgets. It is not lost on me that there is a deep irony in the intentions of whomever folded and hid these papers, who had not been able to predict the extent to which a chain of memory in a Korean-Japanese household—too full of memories, too busy at diplomacy—would corrode in a generation.

Like paper.