Former Foster Child Visits Benefactor’s Grave in Japan

A Walk in the Shinobuyama Snow

On January 12, 2009, our group, LFNKR held an event to celebrate receiving this year’s Tokyo Bar Association Human Rights Prize. One of our former foster children, Song Hyuk (not his real name), flew from South Korea to attend the event with his girlfriend (also a North Korean defector) and Mr. Kim Sang Hun, a human rights activist.

Song Hyuk lived in one of our shelters in northeast China for a number of years after he left North Korea, and during those years, he attended school with the support of this group’s Educational Foster Parent Program.

Being both exceptionally bright and highly motivated, Song Hyuk made excellent grades, even coming third overall in a province-wide mathematics exam written by all Chinese students in Jilin Province.

Song Hyuk is mature and has exceptionally good judgment. In the shelter he developed into a leader among the children.

Since then, Song Hyuk has overcome many challenges, finally arriving in South Korea a few years ago, where he is now studying to be a dental technician.

When he discovered that his foster father, Mr. Watabe, had passed away, Song Hyuk expressed an interest in visiting his grave. This is something children normally do in Asia to honor their parents. Since he already had the opportunity to visit Japan on the occasion of the Bar Association’s award, he called Mr. Watabe’s widow, who said she would be delighted to welcome Song Hyuk to Fukushima, the city in northern Japan where she lives.

A supporter named Yan Su, who on a number of occasions had visited the shelter where Song Hyuk stayed, volunteered to drive all the way from Tokyo to Shinobuyama, in Fukushima. So on the 13th of January, Song Hyuk, his girlfriend, Yan Su and I left Tokyo and headed north.

It started snowing along the way, but by the time we reached the Fukushima city limits the sun had come out again. There, we met Mrs. Watabe in front of the prefectural art gallery and continued up to the cemetery in Shinobuyama.

In very natural sounding Japanese, Song Hyuk said, “Thank you so much for caring about me from so far away.  When I met Mr. Watabe in China, he was very kind to me.”

Song Hyuk said that Kim Sang Hun (who speaks both Japanese and Korean) had taught him the proper way to say this in Japanese.  Together we placed flowers on Mr. Watabe’s grave, lit incense and offered prayers.

Mrs. Watabe knew a lot about Korean culture and traditions, and had become fairly proficient in the language as well. She had taken Korean lessons when she was still teaching at high school, and was now chatting away with Song Hyuk in Korean.

It turns out that when Song Hyuk still lived in China, she and her husband often talked about him, imagining all the possibilities for his future.

After visiting Mr. Watabe’s grave, we went to a spot overlooking the city. One side of it was covered in snow, and when you stepped down into the snow, the city disappeared from view.  The mountains and trees in the distance were burdened down with white. Looking at them in the distance, I felt a lump in my throat as I thought of the elderly couple, living here in this city and worrying about the fate of one solitary boy, far from his homeland, without family or friends near, and caring about what happened to him.

After that we went to see the swans on the Abukuma River.

As night started to fall, we made our way to a traditional Japanese inn at a hot spring.  Song Hyuk changed into his Japanese yukata robe and grinned, “I look Japanese, don’t I.” 

Song Hyuk presented Mrs. Watabe with a beautiful mother-of-pearl lacquered box, and for her part Mrs. Watabe gave the young couple a number of presents, starting with knitted hats.

After everyone had enjoyed the hot spring, we had dinner together and stayed up late talking and looking at Mrs. Watabe’s photos. We talked about the time Song Hyuk spent in China, his escape to southeast Asia, his life in South Korea, and even the Korean pop stars now so popular in Japan.  Yan Su was interpreting for us all the while.

At one point, Song Hyuk said, “Those of us living in the shelter were so fortunate.”

Outside the snow fell softly. It really felt like we were all family.

The next morning brought us a clear blue sky shining brightly on the six inches of snow that had fallen. No one was eager to say goodbye, but we exchanged addresses, and in the bright winter morning, promised to meet again.

Report submitted by Chizuko Yamashita