Changed Life – Unchanged Heart

By Keiko Kawai

(name changed for security)

Fifteen years ago I left my parents, brothers and friends behind and set out for Japan, a country whose ways I knew nothing about. This move has brought dramatic changes to my life; meanwhile my heart – my determination and my commitment to a better life – has never wavered.

I was born into a farm family in North Korea.  Although our parents loved us, all through my 20’s we were always hungry due to widespread food shortages.  No one can understand this feeling unless they themselves have faced life without food, without hope of food.  We suffered the pain of prolonged starvation. The kind that goes on for years, not just days.  Starvation will gradually steal your humanity, your moral principles, your ethics.

But then, a door to a new life unexpectedly opened for me.  A chance came for escape to Japan.  My husband’s cousins and the kind people of Life Funds for North Korean Refugees helped my family of four to resettle and start a new life that can only be described as “paradise on earth.”

No more worry about food or power failures

For the first month after we landed in Japan everything felt unreal, like a dream.  And one of the best things was, no more worries about food.  Of course, at first we had neither money nor home, but we knew that we would never starve as long as we worked. What a change. We used to worry about food all the time, no matter how hard we worked in North Korea.

The second best thing was that we no longer had to go to the mountains, desperately seeking firewood.  In Japan, electric power is available 24 hours a day. Every day.

During the first year of our resettlement in Japan, several kind people, including members of LFNKR, gave us many of the things we needed to start our new life – food, clothing, even used electric appliances.  We felt so incredibly rich because we now had just about everything we needed for our life in Japan.  They helped us so much.

For the first year, my husband worked for a construction company and brought home a salary every month. But during the second year, that job ended, and we had no income for several months.  Financially, that was our worst time after reaching Japan.

Then, my husband found an abandoned bicycle. He repaired that bicycle and rode it all over town finding the cheapest vegetables.  Whatever he brought home I cooked into delicious dishes, so we still could fill our stomachs with rice and vegetables.  As long as we had some rice, salt, miso (soybean paste), soy sauce, oil and vegetables, we could not hope for a better life, compared with living in North Korea.

Japan is known as an expensive country, but our lowest monthly living expenses during our 15 years in Japan totaled 5,000 yen (about $50 US).  You may not believe that it is even possible, but we did it.

In the third year, we came to know a Korean minister who helped my husband find jobs.  He started out cleaning. He took anything – jobs nobody else wanted to do – no matter how hard, no matter how dirty.

Learned the computer and started a pension

After 4 years, we were offered a job managing an apartment, and this gave us our chance. We ended up starting a pension for South Koreans.

In a way, we were reckless because we knew nothing about running a pension.  We had no idea how hard it would be for us, as North Koreans, to manage a pension for South Koreans in Japan.  Nevertheless, we started it as our family business.  For the first year or two, we had a hard time getting enough guests to fill our 5 rooms.

But then, I started learning computer skills, and finally I created a website advertising our pension in association with a South Korean travel agency.  My husband, who is a very persuasive talker, explained many of the recommended sightseeing tours in Japan to the sightseers from South Korea.  This eventually created a good reputation – a buzz – about our pension.

In the third year of running our pension, we gradually added more rooms until now we have more than 20.  We currently have many guests in addition to our sightseers, including some who run small-scale trading companies.

Quite a few people say that we have made a great success, but we do not feel that way.  We have just kept on doing our best day by day with our unchanging determination – the same determination we had on the day we first landed in Japan.  Every moment of our life since we came to Japan, we have been luckier and happier than my brothers still living in North Korea.

I feel that I am living a very meaningful, happy life in my 50’s.  To further expand the road of my dramatically changed happy life, I would like to get to know more friends and to focus on what I wish to do now to enjoy life rather than worrying about what to do in the future, always cherishing that unchangeable determination that remains in my unchanged heart.