The Ties That Bind

She was a daughter of Korea's Paekche kingdom, a foreign princess betrothed in a political marriage to a Japanese prince. As a second wife, Takanono Niigasa struggled to evade palace backstabbing until her husband became emperor in A.D. 770. After the empress and the crown prince were jailed--allegedly for casting a shamanistic curse on the sovereign--Niigasa's son became heir to the imperial lineage and, in A.D. 781, Japan's 50th emperor.

Basic biology dictates that Emperor Kammu was half Korean. But for centuries Japan's insistence on its sacred kokutai, or national essence, has obscured that legacy--along with a mountain of historical, cultural and genealogical evidence that demonstrates how much the country owes to its East Asian neighbor. The denial of that shared history continues to bedevil relations between the two countries. Koreans say the amnesia is cultural, part of Japan's inability to own up to the atrocities committed during its brutal annexation of the peninsula, its exploitation of forced laborers and the use of "comfort women" to provide sex for Japanese troops. Japanese resent the Koreans' fixation with the past. It is more than ironic that they will cohost the World Cup finals this summer, for the nations remain fierce rivals off the football pitch as well.

A recent attempt to ease the longstanding tensions came from an unlikely source: Emperor Akihito. Last December, he marked his 68th birthday with a stunning revelation. "I, on my part, feel a certain kinship with Korea," he told reporters during a news conference at his palace in Tokyo. Citing Japan's oldest history books, he said: "The mother of Emperor Kammu was of the line of King Muryong of the Kingdom of Paekche."

Not since the Meiji Restoration in 1868 has Japan's imperial family acknowledged its blood ties with Korea. And the timing was no coincidence. The emperor, say palace watchers, is hoping, before the World Cup, to mute Japan's right-wing nationalists, who last year championed a new textbook that denied Japan's worst wartime abuses. His acknowledgment of Korean contributions to Japan (in his remarks he mentioned three: music, Confucianism and Buddhism) was an effort to assuage--but not deny--the memory of Korean suffering during Japan's brutal 1910-45 annexation of the peninsula. "I think Emperor Akihito himself really wants to attend the World Cup opening ceremony in Seoul," says an acquaintance of the imperial family. "His comments reflect his own views."

Experts consider Akihito's remarks the most poignant--and political--of his 13-year reign. They resonate across East Asia, where activists in both China and Korea regularly decry Tokyo's dissembling over its war record. Now the emperor is borrowing their rallying cry--"Remember history!"--to end the 50-year-long shouting match. His strategy is not to bow low and apologize. Rather, the plan is to win trust and heal wounds by acknowledging China's and, in particular, Korea's many contributions to Japanese civilization.

The shift in mind-set is revolutionary. One young historian, who asked not to be mentioned by name, expressed "shock" at the emperor's reference to his Korean roots, adding: "I felt, in this atmosphere, that it was still a taboo subject." Indeed, Japan's Imperial Household Agency has steadfastly refused to let archeologists excavate any of the 230 tombs now recognized as belonging to past emperors and empresses, arguing that they're private property. Scholars say the agency actually fears exposing evidence of the family's Korean heritage. Textbooks barely touch on Japan's Korean influences, and daytime television (where imperial gossip flows like cheap sake on payday) ignored Akihito's birthday remarks altogether. Even the mainstream media, which control information through a rigid press-club system, played down the emperor's statement--which, not surprisingly, made headlines in Korea.

Only recently have re-searchers begun to explore the Korean influence upon Japan in a systematic way, prompted in part by increasing cultural exchanges that have broken down resistance to the idea that the two countries are linked. Anthropologists now postulate that a horse-riding Korean tribe migrated to Japan at the dawn of the first millennium. Linguists theorize that the ritual phrases still used by Japan's imperial family echo the language of Korea's ancient Shilla Kingdom. In Princess Niigasa's day, old records show, perhaps a third of the clans living around Japan's capital were Paekche --refugees who fled that kingdom's collapse around 660.

Yet even now Masaaki Ueda, professor emeritus at Kyoto University, says the biggest flaw with this scholarship is its fixation on exchanges of technologies and ideas, instead of the messier subject of people. "The emperor's remarks were particularly important in that he mentioned a Korean woman," he says. "Who was she? What was she like? Why did her family come to Japan, and what kind of lives did they lead? Only when their lives are included does history become interesting."

Previously Japan's foundation myths dealt only in gods, not men. On the southern island of Kyushu, in a gorge below a town called Takachiho, the sun goddess Amaterasu is said to have hidden in a cave after battling her evil brother. She refused to emerge until her sibling had been banished, and afterward her descendants--including the rice god Ninigi--were allowed to populate the land. Amaterasu is worshiped as the supreme deity in Japan's animist Shinto faith, and her great-great-grandson Jimmu is celebrated as the country's first emperor. To this day, Japanese descend a steep trail into the gorge to pray along the gurgling stream, where they scribble their wishes on small stones, then stack them to resemble tiny pagodas. "Our great imperial Japan is blessed with an imperial family that is unlike any other," reads a guidebook from the prewar period. "Its eternal imperial line began with heaven and earth."

A competing theory has emerged in the postwar period: that the legends either tell of, or were brought to Japan during, a foreign invasion. Tokyo University historian Namio Egami first examined that possibility in 1967, when he postulated, based on research into Mongolian horsemen, that a warlike, equestrian people from northern Korea and Manchuria, the Tensons, had landed on Kyushu some 2,000 years ago. They rapidly consolidated power on the island, then expanded eastward to establish the Yamato dynasty.

More recently, philosopher Takeshi Umehara, one of Japan's best-known men of letters, has taken up the theme. In his view, the rice god Ninigi was a Tenson seafarer from Korea who introduced intensive rice cultivation and imported an advanced culture, called Yayoi, which displaced Japan's more primitive Jomon tribes. His followers farmed in Takachiho and, after A.D. 300, interned their dead at Saitobaru, a broad plain where hundreds of round and keyhole-shaped burial mounds still dot the landscape. The biggest resemble royal tombs found in Korea and Manchuria; several smaller tombs excavated in the 1910s yielded terra-cotta ships shaped like ancient Chinese vessels and saddles made of gold and copper similar to artifacts found in Korea. "That mingling of the native Jomon people with the Yayoi people, who came from abroad with rice-growing knowledge, created the Japanese people," he concludes.

A similar Korean influence has been exposed in the formation of the Japanese imperial state in the seventh century. Ueda, the Kyoto University historian, was the first to note the signs: in 1965 he publicly identified Niigasa, the Korean princess, as Emperor Kammu's mother and credited the period's greatest religious relic, a massive bronze Buddha at the Todaji Temple in Nara, to a Korean artisan. He was upbraided by his peers and threatened several times by ultranationalists. "One right-winger wrote me a letter warning: 'You'll be punished by heaven'," says the dapper 74-year-old scholar.

Now a spate of recent discoveries has proved his point that migrants, technology and culture from Korea were a defining force of the age. Around A.D. 660 some 100,000 refugees from Paekche flooded into the Yamato region--a broad valley where ancient courts in Asuka, Fujiwara and Nara ruled Japan from A.D. 592 to A.D. 784--bringing with them Buddhism, the written Chinese language and new techniques for making pottery and casting metal. The town of Asuka, often described as the crucible of Japanese civilization, was a cosmopolitan melting pot in the seventh century. Its most enduring legacy--a collection of 4,516 poems called "Man'Yoshu," or "10,000 Leaves"--has been found to have several Korean contributors, along with Japanese writers who composed verses about travel to Korea. The region's burial mounds are Korean in appearance. The Takamatsuzuka Tomb, discovered in 1972, for example, is a horizontal crypt the size of a large phone booth. Its frescoed walls feature men and women adorned in the fashions of mainland Asia. Its occupant, an unknown aristocrat, was most likely Korean, says a guide at the tomb. Asked if its discovery was controversial, he tells visitors: "Let's just say it took some time to come up with theories to explain it."

The most controversial reality, though, is the fact that Korea's primary contribution to Japan was its people. That record directly challenges Japan's self-image as a homogenous, racially pure land--a racist ideology that itself emerged only in the 17th century. Historians have identified migrations dating back to 300 B.C., and by some accounts anywhere from a third to half of all Japanese have some Korean ancestry. Most immigrant families were forced to assimilate in one way or another. One of them, the Koma clan, arrived in Japan in A.D. 666 led by a royal family member named Jakko. Today, Jakko's 60th linear descendant, 35-year-old Fumiyasu Koma, is a Shinto priest at his family's ancestral shrine. Built in Korea's shamanist tradition, the building took its present form when the Meiji government forced all worshipers to adopt state Shinto. It's one of hundreds of Shinto shrines across Japan that were built by Korean immigrants.

Even during the period when Japan was supposedly closed off to the world--after the Tokugawa Shogunate consolidated power and moved the capital to Edo (Tokyo) in 1604--Koreans kept arriving, providing a needed conduit for technology and culture. Emissaries from southeastern Korea led delegations of generals, Confucian scholars, painters, musicians and doctors to Japan. Once onshore, they paraded on horseback toward Edo in journeys that took half a year or more and involved visits with leading clans along the way. In all, 12 delegations visited over a 200-year period until, burdened by famine and financial hardship, Japan stopped bankrolling them.

Not all exchanges were voluntary. In 1592, Japanese samurai invaded Korea. Raiding parties preyed on coastal settlements, where they would land, loot, then kidnap the peninsula's greatest commodity of the age--its potters. Dubbed the Abduction Wars, the incursions constituted intellectual-property theft on a massive scale. In all, some 50,000 people were forcibly brought to Japan, where artisans among them provided the elite with the fine porcelain integral to Japanese tea ceremonies. Chin Jukan is the 14th in a line of master potters, the first of whom was kidnapped by a powerful clan and taken to Japan in 1598. His pottery, known as Satsuma ware, carries the name of his abductor's ancestral county. "Our experience and endurance made us strong," he says. "Nothing can break me down."

Koreans in Japan have long needed that fortitude, given the circumstances under which many of them arrived. In 1910 Tokyo dispatched troops and forcibly annexed Korea. Koreans were given Japanese names and forced to learn their conquerors' language. Then, as the country mobilized for war in the Pacific, Japan imported some 2.5 million Korean laborers--many virtual slaves--to work its mines, farms and factories.

Today much of Japan's Korean population continues to face tremendous discrimination, if not subjugation. Some 600,000 forced laborers and their descendants live in quasi statelessness. Known as "resident Koreans," they have the right of abode but can't vote. Until recently, they could not become citizens unless they adopted Japanese names (an insult to those with memories of the war years). One prominent scholar in his 40s sums up his career choices: "gangster or professor." A younger resident Korean, a 35-year-old Web-page designer, recalls being cursed as a "garlic eater" and has a mother who still hides her background. "When she's with people in her dance club she goes by her Japanese name," he says.

Korea's perceived victimization is a powerful subtext in this year's World Cup. Ostensibly a cooperative venture, the contests--in which Korea and Japan will participate but neither harbors realistic hopes of winning--have become a study in one-upmanship. The two countries competed to host the games, kept independent coordinating committees even after they were named partners and bickered about things such as whose name would get top billing (Korea won, in return for giving up the championship match to Japan). Korea's national-team coach, Dutchman Gus Hiddink, is sometimes baffled by his players' fixation with their neighbor. "When we lose to France 4-0 it's OK because Japan lost 5-0 four weeks earlier," he says. "For me, those comparisons are ridiculous."

Knowing they will be on the world stage, though, Tokyo and Seoul have been trying to smooth relations ahead of the contest. Last week the two countries announced that a joint commission of scholars was being appointed to study the intermingling of their histories. Later this month Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will visit South Korea to determine who in Japan's imperial family will attend the opening ceremony in Seoul. So far the Imperial Household Agency remains mum about the emperor's travel plans. But Hong Youn Ki, a Japanese-literature professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, says Akihito's appearance at the opening ceremonies would help greatly to heal old wounds. "His visit would be better for South Korea than a visit by [North Korean strongman] Kim Jong Il," says Hong.

Many Japanese pundits contend that Akihito's statement was "nothing new." But they also say Japan's Korean heritage is a well-known fact--which, judging from one Kyoto neighborhood, simply isn't true. Princess Niigasa is a mystery even to her closest neighbors, the families who live beside her 1,200-year-old tomb. That hilltop mound, shrouded in bamboo groves but accessible up a winding dirt trail, is popular for area hikers and dog walkers. A signpost at the trailhead reads: THE TOMB OF EMPEROR KAMMU'S MOTHER. At the top, another gives her name. Yet nowhere is her story told. "She's Korean? I didn't know," says a housewife who has lived in the area for 30 years. It's about time she and her fellow citizens learned: the story of the Korean princess is their own.