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Letter from Fellow

Tokyo Office
Finding Traces of Goguryeo Culture in Japan

Koma Shrine in Hidaka City
Choi Hyun-soo
Director Tokyo Office
Ever since my arrival in Tokyo, about a year ago now, I have always wanted to visit the City of Hidaka in Saitama Prefecture, to the northwest of Tokyo. This area is home to Koma Shrine and many other historic relics and traces related to the displaced people of Goguryeo, during the Three Kingdoms period of Korea. “Goguryeo” has been known as “Koma” in Japan for centuries. It is written in Chinese as 高麗 (Goryeo in Korean). Metro stations in this area include Koma-eki (Koma Station) and Komagawa-eki (Komagawa Station) in Japanese, but written in Chinese as 高麗驛 and 高麗川驛, suggesting its roots to Korea.

Koma Village
In and around Komamura (Koma Village), centered on Koma Shrine found at the foot of a mountain to the east of Hidaka City, a variety of historic relics from Goguryeo are scattered about. Koma Shrine is surrounded by a folding screen-like landscape, much like other revered shrines in Japan. Indeed, the landscape architecture is graceful and impressive. The Old Koma Family Residence, to the rear of the shrine, has been designated an Important National Cultural Asset of Japan.
The origins of Komamura and Koma Shrine date back to the Nara period, some 1,300 years ago. Goguryeo, once a leading power in East Asia, collapsed in 668 after it succumbed to an alliance of Silla and China’s Tang Dynasty. According to Shokunihongi (New History of Japan), Yakgwang (Jakko in Japanese) was dispatched to Japan, as an envoy of the royal family of Goguryeo, to garner support for rebuilding its kingdom; however, he eventually resettled in the Musashino plains of Japan in 716, along with some 1,800 Goguryeo defectors and refugees who had taken up residence in the Tokyo area. Thereafter, the area became Koma-gun (Koma District), comprised of Komamura and Komagawamura (Koma River Village). This might well have been one of the first resettlement areas of ethnic Koreans.
A district named after Silla (Shiragi-gun in Japanese) was also founded in a nearby area, 42 years after the establishment of Koma District, or District of Goryeo. The Japanese people welcomed settlers from Baekje and Silla, even extending preferential treatment to them in order to absorb their advanced knowledge. Goguryeo people taught the Japanese about horsemanship skills, battlefield tactics, and agricultural methods, while Silla transferred its architectural and artistic expertise.
Yakgwang, a son of King Bojang of Goguryeo, introduced to local people a variety of advanced technology, including the cultivation of silkworms and mulberry, for which he was held in high esteem. After his death, the local residents built a memorial shrine in his honor, along with deifying him as “Koma Myojin.” Musashino plains, a remote and barren area, became fertile crop land after being cultivated by the displacees from the Korean Peninsula. After the Meiji Restoration, however, the Japanese authorities sought to bolster nationalism and thus abolished place names related to Korea. This included renaming Koma-gun as Iruma-gun, and then forming the cities of Hidaka, Tsurugashima, and Hanno. Today, Komamura is just a small neighborhood in the City of Hidaka.

Significance of Koma Shrine
Koma Shrine and its deities of good fortune are so revered in Japan that it annually attracts some 400,000 visitors.
The shrine maintains centuries-old records of the Koma family lineage who has headed its priesthood. Koma family descendants can trace back their roots to King Yakgwang or Jakko. In fact, it is documented that the Koma family members married descendants of Goguryeo settlers for 26 generations, over some 500 years. Thereafter, the 27th generation included marriages with Japanese. Currently, Koma Fumiyasu, the 60th generation of the family, presides over the shrine’s priesthood.
Koma Shrine has also been used for political purposes by Japan’s nationalists. During the time of Imperial Japan, Koma Shrine was cited as an example of Japan’s willingness to assimilate foreign peoples, along with making it mandatory for people to visit the shrine. In particular, during the Japanese colonial period, senior-ranking officials from Japan would visit Koma Shrine before their dispatch to Korea. Despite this temporary disruption, the original significance of Koma Shrine remains intact.
Koma Shrine is infused with the Goguryeo people’s sorrow for their former homeland. This is a special place in Japan where you can still feel the spirit of Goguryeo and the history of its people, who are proud of being the descendants of Goguryeo and have dutifully honored their ancestors of 1,300 years ago. Especially, for Koreans in Japan, it represents a direct link with the glorious past of the ancient Goguryeo kingdom.

Influence of Korean Dramas
For several years now, the popularity of Korean TV dramas has been at the forefront of the Hallyu (Korean Wave) phenomenon in Japan. Over the years, the Hallyu influences have since spread to Korean culture and history, beyond the entertainment realm of Korean TV programs and commercial films. Of note, these developments have combined to give a further boost to the popularity of Koma Shrine.
A vast majority of the visitors to Koma Shrine and Komamura are Japanese who go there to pray for good luck and career success. But the number of visitors here has seen a sharp increase as a result of the airing of Goguryeo-theme Korean TV dramas in Japan, such as “Taewang Sasingi,” featuring the iconic Bae Yong-joon, or Yon-sama in Japan, along with “Daejoyeong” and “Jumong.” Japan is the most popular destination for Korean tourists, but so few are familiar with Koma Shrine. Indeed, it is unfortunate that Koma Shrine is not more prominently featured in tourism materials or on Internet sites.
As for Koma Shrine, which can be easily accessed by train from Shinjuku Station or Ikeburo Station in downtown Tokyo, it remains alive with traces of Goguryeo, even after 1,300 years. Of course, there is a multitude of better-known sightseeing attractions in Japan, but Koma Shrine promises a truly memorable and enriching experience.

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