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Rainbow Over Jeju Island

Jeju, South Korea (May 1999)

Jeju, South Korea (May 1999)

This is a place for poets. That was the feeling that enveloped me as I arrived on the Korean island of Jeju.

We drove through the lush countryside, each tree a vibrant, velvety green. Horses and cows grazed peacefully in the grassy fields, and many stones lined the road. Seeing the rock walls that had been built to block the wind, I pictured the rough, worn hands of the people who labored to lay each stone--hands that had seen so much effort and toil.

I looked toward Mount Halla, a mysterious peak. It seemed as though the spirits of all living beings in the universe had gathered to form it. Holding a quiet dialogue with the heavens, this mountain, like a great loving mother, seemed to embrace all the immense joys of life, as well as the anguished cries that have slipped through mouths shut tightly in grief.

This is surely an island for poets, but also a place where politicians and businessmen should come to forget concerns of immediate profit and loss and converse about peace. Here they could calmly discuss and ponder the nature and meaning of true happiness. Here they could rediscover the poet within, and amicably and openly share fresh visions of the future.

This is a most fitting place for such discussions, because this island has suffered most tragically at the hands of politicians, and under repeated economic exploitation. It is an island utterly tired of human conflict.

Jeju is a volcanic island. Although the volcano is now extinct, the island was formed of accumulated volcanic ash from repeated eruptions. The soil is sparse and thin. Bedrock of hardened lava lies merely a foot beneath the island's surface.

Because the ground was not very fertile, many women made their living by diving for abalone, while the men left the island to work in the cities. A good number went to work in Japan. Despite their longing for their homeland, too many, for reasons beyond their control, could never return. Even for all the tears they shed upon learning of the death of a parent, they could not go home.

I am sure that in their hearts, and at night in their dreams, the winds and warm sunlight of their beloved home called to them. Their hearts filled with memories of playing in the fields and frolicking with calves; gazing out into the deep blue sea from the cape where they stood, buffeted by strong winds; fields abundant with yellow rape flowers; foothills arrayed in elegant autumn attire; snow-capped Mount Halla floating in blue skies; gorgeous springs and summers; breathtaking autumns and winters. Many were the mothers and fathers who, with a far-off gleam in their eyes, spoke about their beloved homeland to sons and daughters who had grown up knowing only Japan. They passed on without ever seeing their home again.

Both mainland Korea and Japan discriminated against the people of this island; but through it all, these noble mothers and fathers lived with pride. Brothers and sisters kept their heads held high regardless of how unjustly they were humiliated or insulted, enduring one abuse after another.

Mount Halla must surely have known the hearts of these people. As if in reply, I can almost hear the mountain saying: "I understand! I know all your struggles, for you are all my precious children!" Because of their dire circumstances, the people of the island lived by helping one another.

Someone reminiscing about life here recalled how dinner for a whole family fit onto one plate. Children competed to fill their mouths. Their mother would tell them again and again: "Eat! . . . Have some more!" while taking only a few bites herself. "Eat! . . . Have some more!" These words are beautiful poetry of the human spirit, the poetry of love and affection, surpassing any eloquent verse or lofty theory.

The people of this island are pure-hearted and honest.

Wars always arrived from distant shores across the sea. Under occupation by the Japanese military, Mount Halla was turned into a fortress. Using Jeju Island as a shield to protect itself from U.S. forces, Japan's military strategy was to sacrifice the island and its people to the enemy. The residents were forced to hack and gouge out trenches in their beloved mountain by their own hands.

After the war, just as peace returned to the island, Mount Halla was to witness another extreme tragedy. That was the "April 3rd Incident" of 1948. Just because some of the islanders protested the division of North and South Korea, the entire island was laid to waste as punishment. Most of the inhabitants were unaware of what was going on, but were killed by the government that accused them of being traitors sympathetic to the North, and killed by North-aligned guerrilla forces that accused them of cooperating with the government. It is still not known how many people died during this ordeal. Some say it was 30,000, while others suggest as many as 80,000 lost their lives. And still, after this massacre, the rest of Korea viewed the people of Jeju Island as criminals, though they were the true victims and had suffered more than anyone.

What is ideology? Should its goal not be to better people's lives? It certainly should not exist to give people a license to kill. At that time, however, people around the world were poisoned with the insanity of the Cold War. Those who became the biggest victims of this insanity were the people of Jeju.

The elderly who survived these torturous times might have given up and died were it not for thoughts of their young grandchildren. Their tears wrung dry, they worked their small fields with weathered hands. Mothers who had lost husbands carried their babies in baskets to the fields. There they labored while quaking with anger at the injustices they had suffered. Amidst the extreme summer heat, babies wailed in restless discomfort. When these children grew older, their families could not even afford to send them to school . . .

Their suffering was inexpressible. Any attempt to describe it would have brought on uncontrollable sobbing, and so they remained silent. Gritting their teeth, they buried their sorrows deep, deep within their souls. Because they remained silent, their sorrows turned to stone. It is said that one should never raise one's voice or shout while on Mount Halla, because doing so will cause these sorrows to manifest as dense, drifting fog.

Still, the people of this island have survived. Day and night they have endured, revering the mountain. With great forbearance they have advanced through the most violent storms of life, constantly reaching out and grasping toward hope. Their unyielding spirit is the heart of Jeju Island.

The two Chinese characters that form the name of Mount Halla respectively mean "river" and "to grasp." The first character is also used in Japan to describe the Milky Way. This mountain does indeed seem to be reaching to grasp that hope-filled river of stars glittering in the heavens. The mountain peak resembles the open palm of a hand facing upward toward a sky of dreams.

On departing the island, Dr. Cho Moon-Boo, the president of Jeju National University, graciously accompanied me to the airport to send me off. Beaming, he told me, "That was a beautiful rainbow this morning!" In Dr. Cho's resounding voice, I sensed a strong conviction for Jeju Island's bright future, which made me deeply happy.

I believe that Jeju Island will develop from now on to become the Hawaii of the East--a flourishing island of peace that will bring Korea, China and Japan closer together. It will be a focal point for the future maritime era, a port of free trade. Its dreams are ever expanding.

Just as Mount Halla underwent repeated transformation through volcanic eruption to arrive at its present beauty, this island whose people have endured untold suffering, must become a paradise of happiness to surpass all others.

Those who have passed on can no longer speak of their own sufferings. That is why those living today must speak out for justice. To the extent that their mothers and fathers suffered and struggled, the present generation and the next should strive to achieve unshakeable happiness.

I chose to see the rainbow that appeared on the day of my departure as a bridge linking us to that new era. I can only pray that such a rainbow of peace will protect Jeju Island for all eternity!

[Adapted from an essay in Our Beautiful Earth: Photos and Essays of My Travels, by Daisaku Ikeda, April 2, 2000, Seikyo Press, Tokyo, Japan.]