'Grandpa Nomura is a living saint'

A fishmonger poses in front of Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market in Seoul in this photo, taken by activist-photographer Choi In-gi. A banner hanging on the blue building to the left announces that the building will be destroyed and that entry is forbidden without approval from the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives. Courtesy of Noonbit Publishing

A tale of Korean and Japanese activists who teamed up to improve the lives of the urban poor

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Activist Choi In-gi’s camera was damaged and broken during a photo project in Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market on Oct. 29 of last year. At that time, he was shooting photos of dozens of fish merchants who were protesting the closure of the old market space where they used to sell fish, refusing to move into a brand-new building that was built a few years back.

Suddenly, police shot high-velocity water out of a water cannon, deployed there to control and disperse protestors. The blast completely broke Choi’s camera, worth some $5,000.

A deep sense of loss hit Choi when he looked at the broken camera, which was a symbol of his decade-long friendship with his mentor, Japanese pastor Motoyuki Nomura, as it was a gift from him.

“Having such an expensive professional camera was a luxury to people like me who can barely make ends meet,” Choi said.

Activist Choi In-gi / Courtesy of Choi In-gi

Choi, 55, called the 90-year-old Japanese pastor, “Grandpa Nomura.”

“To me, Grandpa Nomura is a living saint,” said Choi. “I came to understand why people are motivated to have a religion. After I met him, I felt that I had someone whom I could rely on whenever times got tough. His financial support, kind words and encouragement helped me keep working for the urban poor.”

While doing advocacy for the poorest of the poor, Choi went on to say that he sometimes found himself in situations where he feels confused about his mission.

“I have become introspective as I have gotten older. I am as poor as the people I am fighting for. My health is declining. Such realistic issues haunt me, making me confused about my cause-driven work. When such skepticism holds me back, Grandpa Nomura contacts me and encourages me to stay focused on saving the lives of the urban poor.”

Choi’s photography book, “Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market: Old Market Vendors’ Endangered Lives and Their Struggles,” which was released last week, is part of his effort to live up to his commitment to keep fighting for a better future for the urban poor.

He zooms in on dozens of fishmongers who were evicted following the closure of the old covered market, but have refused to move into the new building nearby, mainly because they are unable to pay the higher rental fees.

When they sold fish in the old market building, they paid some 200,000 won in monthly rental fees. However, if they move into the brand-new market, they need to pay some 700,000 won.

As the author of five books, Choi has captured the daily lives of the urban poor, including people who were ousted from their homes or businesses due to gentrification, the homeless and street vendors. He was able to finance his photography projects, thanks to Nomura’s generous donation of professional cameras several times.

Japanese pastor Motoyuki Nomura poses next to a statue of Jeon Tae-il (1948-1970), who committed suicide by self-immolation at age 22, to draw attention to the need to improve the human rights of fellow garment workers. Courtesy of Choi In-gi

Since they got to know each other through a mutual friend a decade ago, Choi and Nomura have helped each other.

“Some 10 years ago, I got a phone call from a novelist. She said that Grandpa Nomura had seen a photo I had taken at Cheonggye Stream in central Seoul before it underwent the urban beautification project in the mid-2000s, and wondered if the man featured in that photo was a friend of his that he had met in Korea,” said Choi.

After checking with the man in the photo in person, Choi figured out that the man was not the one Nomura was looking for.

He wrote an email to Nomura explaining the situation. Unable to speak or write in Japanese, Choi used Google Translate to translate Korean to Japanese.

Impressed by Choi’s effort to get back to him, the Japanese pastor sent Choi a file saved on a USB drive containing hundreds of Nomura’s old photos, featuring people and the landscape of Seoul’s Cheonggye Stream taken in the late 1960s and 1970s. Via a hand-written note, the Japanese pastor said he hoped Choi could use his photos for “some good purpose.”

Choi, who has been taking photos since 2002, instantly recognized the value of those photos. He took the USB drive to Lee Kyu-sang, the founder and publisher of Noonbit Publishing, which has released hundreds of photography books since it was founded in the late 1980s.

The Japanese pastor’s photos were published in 2013 by Noonbit under the title, “Nomura Report.”

Following the publication of “Nomura Report,” the Japanese pastor published two more photobooks about Korea: “Memories of Yushin” (2019), featuring “a repressed Korea” during the military dictatorship of the 1970s, and

“Gangchon in Korea,”

a 2020 photography book that captures people living in the namesake eastern city in 1968.

Grateful to Choi for serving as a bridge between him and the Korean publisher, Nomura has given professional cameras to Choi several times. The one that was damaged during Choi’s photo project in Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market was Nomura’s newest gift to him.

His financial donation has strings attached though, according to Choi. “Grandpa Nomura always told me, ‘Keep addressing issues about the urban poor, so that society can pay attention to them and find solutions. Stand with the poorest of the poor.’ He encouraged me to keep doing the right thing,” he said.

A fishmonger looks up in the old Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market building in Seoul. Courtesy of Noonbit Publishing

Their friendship has expanded into their mutual endeavor to solve at the civilian level the Korea-Japan diplomatic spat surrounding Korea’s tragic past.

Whenever Nomura visited Korea, he and Choi have gone to historical sites that embody the legacy of Korea’s independence movement, including Seodaemun Prison, where a number of independence activists were executed.

“One day, Grandpa Nomura took me to a site located behind the Pagoda Theater in Seoul, where murals were painted during the Japanese colonial period. He prayed for a moment there,” said Choi. “Upon his request, we also went to the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, where the Peace Statue was installed. He mingled with protestors who demanded Japan’s formal apology for wartime crimes, and delivered his personal apology to them for what his government did to Koreans during the colonial period.”

Despite being 35 years apart in age, Choi and Nomura share several things in common.

Just as Nomura did in the 1970s, Choi has worked on behalf of the urban poor since 1995.

Choi has written of the plight of the urban poor in his columns, published in several progressive media outlets. His five books, which include his photography, visually depict the lives of fish merchants and the poorest of the poor.

The Cheonggye Stream has connected the Korean activist and the Japanese pastor, too.

Like Nomura, Choi took photos of the residents of Cheonggye Stream in the mid-2000s, when the urban beautification project was underway.

Today, the stream, called “Cheonggyecheon” in Korean, is very different from what can be seen in Nomura’s decades-old photos, taken in the late 1960s and 1970s.

The area around Cheonggyecheon has been transformed into a modern urban space, featuring a scenic stream stretching between rows of high-rise buildings.

Watching as Seoul’s historic center got a facelift, Choi said that he wondered if the physical transformation of the area from a once poverty-stricken eyesore to a tourist spot has actually improved the livelihoods of the urban poor.

Choi says that poverty is still there. The urban poor disappeared from the spot but live on in other parts of Seoul, following their eviction due to the urban beautification project, he said. “There is now a new concept of poverty there, albeit an invisible one,” he said.

“‘Nomura Report’ shows Seoul’s urban poor from an outsider’s perspective, while my 2018 photography book is about poverty seen through the eyes of an insider who has lived here for decades since childhood. Through my photography book, I have tried to address the issue of equality. There are people whose lives were marginalized and their spaces were erased as a result of this major urban beautification project.”

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