There’s a stairway on the outskirts of the hip Haebangchon area in Seoul — one that doesn’t really merit a second look. No impressive characteristics beyond its steepness, nothing spectacular in its surroundings. No chic bars, no hipster coffee shops. There’s no reason to remember, much less visit, it unless you’re a resident walking up and down the hilly area.
But the 108 Stairway, as the steps are called, is one of Haebangchon’s oldest residents. In existence since the colonial era, it saw the evolution of Yongsan, the district Haebangchon is in: Streams, woods and tigers in the early twentieth century, the tents and slums before the Korean War, the bombing and destruction, and eventually the clusters of red-bricked houses (and increasingly coffee shops) today.
Situated near the U.S military base, today’s Haebangchon boasts one of the most culturally diverse pool of residents in South Korea. But very few of them have actually used the 108 Stairs for its original purpose.
“My friends and I would rush up, panting, and skip two or three steps at a time,” says 82-year-old Seo Jang-hun. “At the top, there was this huge area, covered with gravel. And there was this temple, where adults threw coins into a box, clapped their hands three times, and prayed.”
She was just 10 at the time, just eager to get her daily 6am homework done with. She imitated the adults, bowed in front of the temple, and ran back to the stairs, where the security guard gave the daily stamp of approval in her notebook. She did it every morning during the summer holidays: going up those stone steps, or else, get a beating from the teachers.
Seo was born in Yongsan in 1934, when Korea — or Joseon, as it was called back then — was already used to a quarter century of colonial rule. So Seo didn’t know what colonialism was; she didn’t know why children weren’t allowed to speak Korean at school; she didn’t know what her morning homework meant. She loved sakura — cherry blossoms — was scared of ghosts in the woods, and played rock-paper-scissors with her friends down the 108 stairs.
The steps, named after the number of earthly temptations in Buddhism, led up to a Shinto shrine hosting over 7,000 spirits of Japan’s war dead. This, of course, included hundreds of Korean soldiers conscripted for Japan’s war efforts.
Gyeongseong Hoguk Shrine was built in 1943, in the twilight of colonial rule. The colonial period began, at least officially, in 1910 when Japan officially annexed the peninsula (although Joseon had already been a toothless tiger, excuse the Asian cliche, for decades).
Japanese rule went through phases of control and relaxation, and during its final years, especially after the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, control became tight. Japan not only mobilized Koreans for its war efforts — conscripting soldiers, taking comfort women — it also tightened cultural control. That meant no more Korean names, no more Korean at schools.
Seo once went on a school field trip to Wangsimni in Seoul, which today has four intersecting train lines and a huge department store. At the time, it was barren and empty, with several cows mooing in the fields.
Seo remembers asking her teacher, “Dōsite….” Teacher, why are the cows crying? The teacher pulled her aside and whispered, “It’s okay. You can ask in Korean if Japanese is too difficult.” She, too, must have been a Chōsen-jin, Seo muses, using the old Japanese word that referred to Koreans.
Besides the language restriction, one of Japan’s key strategies for cultural assimilation of Koreans was building more Shinto shrines, particularly in the late 30s. (This decision was also out of necessity, since Joseon was running out of places to enshrine all the war dead.)
Gyeongseong Hoguk — combining the name of the colonial capital and the phrase “nation-protection” — was one of many such shrines.
Ahn Jong-cheol is a professor of Korean studies at Tübingen University in Germany, and the writer of perhaps the only study concentrating solely on Gyeongseong Hoguk Shrine. He tells me that the Japanese Government-General of Joseon, which administered the colony, appropriated 700,000 won in the day’s currency to build Gyeongseong Hoguk Shrine. (The Government General’s entire annual budget, Ahn says, was estimated to be a little over 4 million).
Most of the fund came from Korean landowners as “voluntary” donations; and free labor was provided by schools throughout Gyeonggi Province, whose male and female teenagers had to assist with the construction process as a mandatory part of their education.
Once the shrine was completed, the chief target was schoolchildren. Beginning in the 1930s, Korean children were forced to attend daily prayers — even my grandfather, who lived in a rural village without a shrine nearby, had to pray at school for the war dead and the Japanese emperor’s well-being. Since Seo lived in Yongsan, where Japan had built not only Gyeongseong Hoguk, but Joseon Shrine, the head shrine for the whole colony, praying and bowing for Japan’s war efforts became a normal, daily ritual.
“Did you know what all that praying was for?” I ask Seo, who never left Yongsan.
“Of course not,” she laughs. “Okay, maybe the teacher explained. But how could I have understood? I was busy joking around with my friends.”
Prof. Ahn at Tübingen University says, “It’s not easy to quantify how effective the shrines were.”
“If Japan had ruled for longer, perhaps Gyeongseong Hoguk Shrine would have functioned like Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. But after liberation in 1945, there are records of people destroying parts of the shrine. So I personally don’t think the prayers were embraced by the population.”
Yasukuni Shrine, of course, is the controversial site in Tokyo where many of Japan’s war criminals are enshrined and still worshipped to this day.
After 1945, Gyeongseong Hoguk Shrine became purposeless. “There really was no need to remember this place, from the Korean perspective,” says Ahn. The nearly 7 hectares of land became a free-for-all. Koreans poured in from the north (not yet the North) — mostly wealthy landowners from Sonchon, where the Communist Party’s land reform stripped them of property — and settled in the area, building temporary huts and tearing down the Japanese structures.
Eventually, the only remainder, and reminder, of the vast shrine was the stairway.
108 Stairs Today
After the Korean War, Seo Jang-hun married a man from Kaesong, a city known to most South Koreans today for the industrial complex that was shut down this February. Together with her husband’s family, some of whom still live in the North, she ran a bakery and eventually established her own real estate firm in the 80s, in a small office just a few meters from the stairs.
By then, the shrine had disappeared completely. And the stairs had been categorized by Seoul as simply “road,” devoid of any historical value.
“Remainders from the colonial era are controversial, when it comes to determining their historical value,” says Lee Eun-young, a representative from the Culture and Sports department at Yongsan District Office. “People still perceive them as something separate from ‘our unique’ cultural heritage.” That is why most cultural assets that receive protection are pre-colonial, Lee added.
Remnants of colonialism are often called ‘negative cultural assets.’ The most representative is probably the Japanese Government-General building, which stood right in the heart of downtown Seoul, hiding the Joseon dynasty’s main royal palace. Viewed as not only historically valueless, but also offensive, the building was torn down by the Kim Young-sam administration in 1995.
“The value of a cultural asset is in teaching us the lessons from history,” Ahn Chang-mo, professor of architecture at Gyeonggi University, told Segye Ilbo. “‘Negative’ assets are valuable. They remind us that tragedies must not be repeated, and relay what the perpetrators did.”
This voice is gaining traction in South Korea. For example, the Seodaemun Prison, notorious as a place where independence and democracy activists were jailed during the 20th century, is now a museum. But can this voice help an old stairway, whose story is unknown even to many of the residents in the area?
The story of the 108 Stairs is a seemingly local one, largely forgotten as an uncool artifact in a cool neighborhood. But the questions it raises are of historical significance. Is there value to remembering a painful past? What are the consequences of repressing or forgetting it? What does the status of the stairs say about South Korea’s current relationship to its colonial history?
Currently, the Yongsan District Office is pushing to build a “facility for convenient movement”; an escalator, elevator, something — the exact details are currently being debated. “The project is under consideration,” Yoo Gwan-sung, an official at the Civil Construction department, tells me vaguely.
“It’s not approved yet. But we estimate a 2.9 billion won budget (over $2.5 million USD),” says Kim Jong-chan in more concrete terms. Kim is an official at the municipal government, which oversees Haebangchon. “This project is for the convenience of the residents. Especially the seniors. I don’t think historical value was a factor when the project was first brought up.”
It’s not surprising since those who know the history are passing away.
“Only a few surviving seniors remember that there used to be a huge shrine here,” says Prof. Ahn. “If they pass away, there really won’t be many people left who remember it. Nobody is going to read my boring study. The 108 Stairs are the only remaining traces of the shrine. If they’re replaced by an escalator, the shrine will effectively disappear from collective memory.”
Seo Jang-hun, the longtime resident and a witness to the stairs’ significance, is equally protective of the site.
“All this development is swell,” says Seo. “But is it really that great to get rid of history? Time flows and periods come and go, and they add up to become history. I don’t want an escalator here. I look at this stairway and I smile, because it’s still alive.”
Cover Image: A Haebangchon resident walks down the 108 Stairs at night. (Haeryun Kang/Korea Exposé)
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article erroneously referred to the shrine at the top of 108 Stairs as Gyeongseong Shrine. It should have said Gyeongseong Hoguk Shrine (경성호국신사). This shrine is not to be confused with Gyeongseong Shrine (경성신사), built in 1898 near what is now Myeongdong Station. We thank Gusts of Popular Feeling for pointing this out.