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Arirang, a song of Korean identity and soul

A 75-year-old second-generation ethnic Korean living Japan, Kim Il-nam said the moment he heard the traditional folk song Arirang for the first time while attending Waseda University in Japan, he realized that he was Korean. Then, Kim started using his ethnic name and studied the Korean language before teaching at a school for ethnic Koreans in Japan.

For ethnic Koreans living around the world, Arirang was not just a traditional folk song but also a symbol of their cultural identity, acting like a thread that connected them back to their motherland.

Like Kim, Arirang has helped shape the identity of many Koreans living abroad, especially Korean-Japanese people.

A vinyl record titled Areureong (1932) from Victor RecordsI was the first Arirang record by a Korean singer, Kim Yeon-sil, who sang Arirang during the intermission for the movie Arirang (1926) by Na Un-gyu. It is believed to be closest to the original soundtrack of the film (left). A vinyl record titled Arirang by Chioko Kobayashi from Victor Records was the first Arirang album ever and the first by a Japanese singer (middle). Arirang related records. Between 1922 and 1930, a number of Japanese record labels such as Victor and Columbia hired Korean singers to produce Arirang-related albums (photos courtesy of the NFMK).

A vinyl record titled Areureong (1932) from Victor RecordsI was the first Arirang record by a Korean singer, Kim Yeon-sil, who sang Arirang during the intermission for the movie Arirang (1926) by Na Un-gyu. It is believed to be closest to the original soundtrack of the film (left). A vinyl record titled Arirang by Chioko Kobayashi from Victor Records was the first Arirang album ever and the first by a Japanese singer (middle). Arirang related records. Between 1922 and 1930, a number of Japanese record labels such as Victor and Columbia hired Korean singers to produce Arirang-related albums (photos courtesy of the NFMK).


An exhibition titled “Arirang -- soul of Korea” is going to present 393 artifacts showing how Arirang is embedded in the lives of Korean-Japanese people. The exhibition held by the National Folk Museum of Korea (NFMK) and the Jeongseon Arirang Research Institute will take place at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan between May 2 and June 11 and the Korean Cultural Center in Tokyo in July, the United States next year, and Russia in 2015.

As Arirang was inscribed in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in December 2012, the song not only belongs to Korea but also to the world.

In fact, Arirang may have been the pioneer of the Korean wave in early 20th century. The modern version of Arirang used as the original soundtrack for the Korean film Arirang (1926) by director Na Un-gyu, who tried to inspire a spirit of independence in his movie, ironically started an Arirang boom in Japan, according to the NFMK.

On display at the exhibition is a rare vinyl album titled Areureong (1932) from Victor Records, the first Arirang record by a Korean singer, Kim Yeon-sil.

A Seoul travel guide titled Joseon Bogam (1934) produced by Sikdowon, a popular restaurant at that time, introduces facts about Korea such as foods, entertainment, and culture. The booklet explains a traditional folk performance at the restaurant and contains Arirang lyrics written in Japanese (left). A book titled Minjokyesul (1928), literally meaning ethnic arts, introduces details about traditional Korean folk songs from various provinces as well as music notes and lyrics (photos courtesy of the NFMK).

A Seoul travel guide titled Joseon Bogam (1934) produced by Sikdowon, a popular restaurant at that time, introduces facts about Korea such as foods, entertainment, and culture. The booklet explains a traditional folk performance at the restaurant and contains Arirang lyrics written in Japanese (left). A book titled Minjokyesul (1928), literally meaning ethnic arts, introduces details about traditional Korean folk songs from various provinces as well as music notes and lyrics (photos courtesy of the NFMK).


Another vinyl record by Chioko Kobayashi is the first record titled Arirang (1931) released in Japan and the first Arirang record by a Japanese artist. The album produced by Victor Records with instrumental performance by the Victor Orchestra sparked interest about Arirang in Japan and the song started airing on Japanese radio. In the 1930s, a number of record labels such as Victor, Columbia, Polydor, and Asahi released Arirang albums one after another in Japan.

From 1931 to 1945, a total of 43 Arirang-related vinyl records were released in Japan. From 1945, when Korea achieved independence from Japan, to 1990, another 40 records were released in the country. Around the Korean War (1950-1953), a number of souvenirs including Arirang records were produced in Japan and sold to UN soldiers who fought in the war.

For the exhibition, the NFMK interviewed a number of ethnic Koreans living in Japan to investigate how Arirang influenced their lives and cultural identities and produced videos containing these interviews to be displayed at the exhibition.

A sono sheet titled “Sound of Korea,” which was produced by Asian Film Incorporated Production based in Tokyo in the 1950s for UN soldiers who fought in the Korean War (left). Arirang-themed cigarettes produced in 1958 were the first filtered cigarette brand in Korea (photos courtesy of the NFMK).

A sono sheet titled “Sound of Korea,” which was produced by Asian Film Incorporated Production based in Tokyo in the 1950s for UN soldiers who fought in the Korean War (left). Arirang-themed cigarettes produced in 1958 were the first filtered cigarette brand in Korea (photos courtesy of the NFMK).


Song Bu-ja, 73, a second-generation ethnic Korean, said she faced so much discrimination against ethnic Koreans in Japan and had to switch her jobs 22 times in a five-year period. Later she set up Cultural Center Arirang in Japan to teach Korean culture to ethnic Koreans in Japan. “Arirang is the reason for my existence,” Song said.

Kim Chun-ja, 74, said Arirang reminds of her childhood. She said whenever her family gathered, they sang Arirang. “Arirang feels more nostalgic to me than a lullaby and it was a song that was always close to me,” Kim said.

Arirang was also a part of everyday life among the Korean public. Arirang has been a popular brand name since the 1940s and many products including cigarettes, radios, irons, colored pencils, and word processor computer software have been named Arirang.

In addition to the artifacts on display, the exhibition also provides visitors with a chance to read books and materials related to Arirang and listen to various versions of the song.

Handysoft released Arirang 2.0 word processor computer software in the early 1990s (left). An Arirang radio was produced by Arirang Ltd, Co. in the mid-1960s (photos courtesy of the NFMK).

Handysoft released Arirang 2.0 word processor computer software in the early 1990s (left). An Arirang radio was produced by Arirang Ltd, Co. in the mid-1960s (photos courtesy of the NFMK).


“Arirang has been in the pivot of diaspora for ethnic Koreans living in Japan,” said Lee Gun-wook, a curator of the NFMK.

By Limb Jae-un
jun2@korea.kr

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