Koreans bring comfort music to Japan

The appalling euphemism ‘comfort women’ has soured relations between Japanese and Koreans ever since the occupying power abused human rights on an appalling scale during the Second World War.

But time can heal, and so does music.

The Korean conductor Myung Whun Chung was in Japan with the Czech Philharmonic when the earthquake and tsunamis struck. His orchestra was airlifted out by the Czech army over his frustrated objections, but he was determined to return. Other musical organisations cancelled their visits to Japan for the rest of the year.

A tour had already been discussed with the Seoul Philharmonic. A sponsor was found, the Woori Bank of Korea. Musicians, staff and all connected with the orchestra gave their services for free as a gesture of human solidarity with the Japanese people.  The young Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji (who was meant to play with the Czech Phil.) joined the party.

The tour ended in emotional scenes at Suntory Hall last night. At the final concert, 17 musicians from the Tokyo Philharmonic joined the ensemble as well as the Principal Cellist from the NHK. ‘I have never seen anything so emotional in a concert hall,’ SPO artistic advisor Michael Fine tells me. ‘The orchestra was called back after leaving the stage post-encore and then Myung Whun as well. People wouldn’t stop applauding. Aside from the money we will contribute, the simple gesture of being here is apparently important, considering the antique enmity between Korea and Japan as well as the current disputes.’

Music has the power to bring harmony between nations. Every now and then, it does.

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  • I am deeply touched by this article. As a South Korean I am proud that SPO and Chung reached out to the Japanese people. If there is anything that I can say about South Koreans, it is their empathy and compassion for suffering people as Korea has had rather too much of its own share of suffering and our North Koreans are still suffering by their mad military. I am not sure how aware the Japanese are of the basic truth of Japan’s horrific record in Korea (& China) and therefore they may not comprehend the deeper layer of symbolism in South Korea’s gesture. In order to heal and move on South Koreans are ready to forgive and what can be better than an art form as the medium of this wonderful process. Let’s hope that it can have a lasting effect on their relationship. However, I very much doubt it will change the attitude of the Japanese government. That is an entirely different matter.

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