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Why South Korea’s National Archive Uprooted 12 Japanese Trees

The kaizuka trees represent a long and complicated history with the country’s former colonial occupier

National Archives of Korea's Busan Repository (National Archive of Korea)
smithsonian.com

Can a tree be political? Plants aren’t exactly able to express political opinions or vote. But every once in a while, Mother Nature gets tied up in a diplomatic dispute. Take South Korea, which has a long and complicated history with its former colonial occupier, Japan. Now, the AFP reports, the country’s national archive recently uprooted 12 kaizuka trees.

The group of Japanese trees are a variety of juniper known for their evergreen leaves and decorative value. But to some Koreans, they’re anything but a pretty plant. Rather, they represent Japan’s 35-year-long colonization of the country in the first half of the 20th century.

During the Japanese occupation of Korea, the colonial government often made its mark using trees and agriculture. Historians tell the AFP that kaizuka trees were a particularly Japanese symbol of “the empire’s rising power”—a symbol Korean people had to live with as a daily reminder of the occupation. 

Land and plants became a particularly sensitive issue as the Japanese seized large swaths of Korean farmland. Japanese occupiers seized and destroyed huge swaths of forest around the country. At the same time, Japanese military units often planted Japanese trees in occupied places. Trees like the cherry tree and the kaizuka took on symbolic value. Parks, too, became places of bitter contention—Japanese forces destroyed prized parks and patriotic symbols that, according to the Seoul Institute, “were used as colonial tools to eradicate the native culture and traditions of Korea.”

The AFP notes that the trees in question were only planted in 1980, years after Japanese colonization ended. They will be replanted at a navy command center. 

Japan’s colonial legacy in Korea continues to cause politial tensions in the countries today. As Smithsonian.com reported earlier this year, officials have long been locked in an argument over a statue of a “comfort woman” forced into sexual slavery by Japanese forces during World War II. The statue, also located in Busan, and a similar one in Seoul have become a real diplomatic obstacle—as the Nikkei Asian Review reports, there is “no end in sight” to the standoff it sparked.

It’s uncertain how the archive will play into those tensions, but as tree tussle illustrates, both countries still have a lot of reckoning to do.

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