Yi Ok-seon

Yi Ok-seon (1927- )
born in Busan, Gyeongsang-do, South Korea


© Tsukasa Yajima

Yi Okseon was born in Busan in 1927.  She was born to a poor family and although she wanted to study, she was unable to go to school.  In 1940 someone offered her “an opportunity to gather money for schooling,” and so she began working in a hotel in Ulsan.  In 1942 a Korean and a Japanese came and forcibly abducted her to Yanji, currently in Jilin Province in Northwest China. 

After this she lived as a sexual slave for three years.  As the result of repeated injections of the antisyphilis drug arsphenamine 606 and mercury vapor treatments, she became unable to bear children.  While at a “comfort station” near East Yanji Airport she fell in love with a Korean forced conscript in the Japanese military. After the end of the war, she drifted on foot seeking him and eventually settled in Badaozhen, also in Jilin Province. They married, but when war broke out in China, he was enlisted in the military and whisked away.  She lived for years as a husbandless newlywed in her in-laws’ home, as was the tradition at the time; but she finally remarried ten years later when he did not return.  Until 2000, when she finally returned to Korea, she lived in Yanji with her husband’s son from a former marriage. 

Yi Okseon greatly regrets that she couldn’t go to school as a child and so she reads with great ardor anything she can get her hands on—books, letters, fliers, declarations from the weekly Wednesday noontime demonstration in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul; and she has become a fervent and fiery human rights activist.  Her song, “Living in a Foreign Land,” is one of her showpiece songs that she sings often.  She sang it on a fall day when we were cracking acorns together, the sound of the breaking shells blending with her songbird voice. 

Tahyang Sali – Life in a Foreign Land (1934)

Composition: Son Mok-in
Lyrics: Kim Neung-in
Vocal: Go Bok-su

© Joshua D. Pilzer 

On my fingers I count the years
Of living in a foreign land.
In the more than ten years since I left home
Only the spring of my youth’s grown old.
The willow in front of my home
Will be green this spring also…
When I folded the willow leaf and blew it like a fife
Those were the olden days

Josh: “What is the meaning of ‘Tahyang Sali?’”
Yi Okseon: “Leaving home, leaving your hometown—you, for example.
You’ve come all the way over here, right?
That’s Tahyang Sali” (living in a foreign land). 
Because it’s not your hometown. 
You go to a foreign land,
you stay there for a long time,
and after some ten years the spring of your youth’s grown old. 
So you become a grandpa or a grandma. 
That’s what it means, that one.”