Photo/IllutrationA Japanese-style house from the colonial period used as a store in Busan, South Korea (Provided by Takumi Fujimoto)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

The Japanese colonial settlers are long gone, and “silent witnesses” to the turbulent period that most South Koreans would prefer to forget could soon disappear, too.

Photographer Takumi Fujimoto has spent the past half-century documenting daily life in South Korea, with a special emphasis in recent years on the colonial period that lasted from 1910 until Japan's 1945 defeat in World War II.

The 70-year-old, who lives in Ikoma, Nara Prefecture, compiled his photos into a book in the hope it will promote a better understanding of the historical links between the two countries.

Titled “Kamoku na Kukan” (Silent spaces), the book was released in 2019 ahead of the 110th anniversary this year of Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula and the 75th anniversary of the end of Japanese colonial rule.

Fujimoto has made it a point since summer 1970 to visit South Korea to snap scenes of local culture and everyday life.

During these trips, he noticed that many Japanese-style houses mainly in coastal areas were gradually disappearing as South Korea chalked up economic growth.

Determined to record this aspect of history before it falls into oblivion, Fujimoto collected related materials and publications in Japan. He started visiting the sites of former Japanese communities about nine years ago.

Settlements in the Korean Peninsula emerged in the early 20th century after the Japanese-Sino and Japanese-Russo wars, and numbers increased with Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910.

Those who moved to coastal districts in southern provinces were mostly fishermen from the Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture and areas along the Seto Inland Sea.

They established villages, giving them the names of their hometowns, such as Chiba, Okayama, Hiroshima and Iyo.

When Fujimoto visited South Korea's southern provinces, he realized that the “look” of many areas had changed due to land reclamation and redevelopment projects in the decades that followed the settlers' return to Japan after the end of colonial rule.

But he also came across numerous Japanese-style houses across the region, notable for their sliding doors and roofs covered with “kawara” tiles. Some had been renovated for use as shops and other purposes.

Fujimoto kept snapping away, taking photos of an old shopping district lined with Japanese-style homes and the ruins of a Shinto shrine on an elevated platform overlooking the ocean, among other locations. He also photographed the fishing villages in Japan where the settlers had originally lived, and concluded the settlements he observed in South Korea were structured in much the same way as the communities in Japan.

"Settlers from Japan tried to build ‘a small Japan’ in the areas they relocated to,” Fujimoto said.

He decided to title his book “Kamoku na Kukan” because the Japanese-style houses and sites of former Japanese communities stand in silent testimony to the period of Japanese colonial rule.

The final chapter includes photos of a monument dedicated to Zenkichi Hanai on the island of Sorokdo in South Jeolla province, where Korean patients of Hansen’s disease were isolated.

Fujimoto’s intention was to convey the legacy of Hanai, who served as head of a sanitarium on the island during Japan’s colonial rule.

Hanai reputedly resisted the policy of the Japanese colonial authorities to force Japanese cultural norms on the local people and took great pains to ensure that his Korean patients were able to follow their ethnic lifestyles. After Hanai’s death on the island, the patients established the monument to commemorate him.

Fujimoto said he wanted to leave a record of Japanese people like Hanai who were admired by Korean people.

That is rooted in his belief that the way Hanai and others lived can provide clues to easing current strains in ties with South Korea over differing perceptions regarding historical issues.

The A4-sized, 296-page book with 260 black-and-white photographs retails for 4,500 yen ($41.50), excluding tax.