Miso Soup and a Hidden History of the Nation

Photo credit to Mokiko https://www.flickr.com/photos/bohnenhase/


Miso Soup and a Hidden History of the Nation

Written by Hae Yeon Choo


“This was a huge mistake.” Frustrated, I murmured, walking into an airport hotel in Tokyo. Back in 2005, I was barely making $1000 a month as a teaching assistant in the US, and it seemed natural to go with the cheapest flight when visiting home in South Korea. One time, on the return trip to Wisconsin, A Japan Airline ticket with multiple transfers fit the bill — which oddly included a free overnight hotel stay at the Tokyo airport. What seemed like a perfectly good idea began to fade as the journey began: the flight from Seoul to Tokyo, a long line for the immigration control, an endless wait to retrieve the luggage, and then finally the one-hour shuttle ride to the hotel, all before the rest of the trip to Wisconsin the next morning.

The next morning, I woke up alone in a hotel room and made my way to the breakfast buffet. I grabbed an assortment of dishes and sat down in a corner, next to a table filled with loud chatters from a group of Japanese businessmen. Almost disoriented, I took a spoonful of miso soup, with a small chunk of soft tofu and seaweed. The salty broth down my throat warmed me up, and I was startled how much comfort it brought to me. It was a taste of home, which made me feel uneasy.

Growing up in South Korea, I didn’t imagine that the food we ate at home was any different from that of my friends. Why wouldn’t everyone else have miso soup for breakfast, umeboshi (pickled plums) as condiments, and sukiyaki (hot pot) for special family dinners? It was only after my grandmother passed away when I was thirteen, that I learned that she was Japanese, and the food she cooked in my childhood were standard Japanese, not Korean food. It’s part of family history that we rarely talked about.

Originally from Nagoya, my grandmother’s family moved to Korea, then a Japanese colony, as part of colonial settler migration in the early 20th century. Working as an “office girl” at a trading company, she fell in love with a young Korean man in the office—my grandfather, a self-made orphan who loved photography. I remember seeing her picture, taken by my grandfather and hung in his room, a young woman of remarkable beauty that neither my mother nor I inherited. She must have been a romantic to marry him, in a time that love marriage was uncommon. I was told that her family was adamantly opposed to their union, yet came around after she gave birth to a son.

When my uncle was born in 1943, Korea was Japanese colony, but the liberation of Korea at the end of the WWII brought her life an unexpected turn. While all her natal family members left Korea, she stayed. By the time my mother was born, Korea was an independent, postcolonial nation. It was at the height of anti-Japanese sentiments, and she had to hide the fact that she was Japanese. She hid this so well that even her own children didn’t know until they were teenagers. According to my uncle, it was only two decades later when the Japan-Korea relations were normalized and she visited her natal family in Tokyo. By then, she almost forgot how to speak Japanese. But it was in the privacy of home, in the kitchen, that she was able to cook the food that was familiar to her, and feed all of us: a hot bowl of miso soup, and donkatsu (pork cutlet) curry for my birthday, recipes that my mom inherited.

When I had the first sip of miso soup, in that unremarkable hotel restaurant, it brought me undeniable comfort due to feeling at home. With that came a deep sense of discomfort, however, and even guilt. Coming of age in the 1990s in South Korea I grew up deeply steeped in anti-Japanese nationalism. My school textbook taught me that Korea is an ethnically homogeneous nation, a statement that was only recently taken out because of a recent wave of inter-Asian migration to South Korea (this became a research topic I pursued as a sociologist). It took me years to accept that although I like kimchi stews as much as any Korean does, it doesn’t bring me comfort when I am sick or miss home, like a bowl of miso soup does.

How ironic that I was critical of assimilation as a migration researcher, yet my personal life was a living example of assimilation. As a 100% Korean, with only a few words of Japanese phrases I can muster (although I am told my accent is flawless) and no ties to Japan, how can I feel conflicted about feeling a very personal comfort from a bowl of soup? Could the nation be this unstable? What does it mean that someone is Korean, then? It was the hidden family history in the shadow of the national narratives, entangled in that salty taste of miso soup, that made me begin the journey that continues today—to find answers to that question, and to ask what it means to belong to the nation.


Hae Yeon Choo is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She is the author of Decentering Citizenship: Gender, Labor, and Migrant Rights in South Korea (2016, Stanford University Press).


The author recommends a Japanese restaurant in Toronto, the casual hapa izakaya.


And for those interested in Japanese settler colonialism in Korea, see the following book:

Uchida, Jun. 2011. Brokers of Empire: Japanese Settler Colonialism in Korea 1876-1945. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Asia Center: Distributed by Harvard University Press.



2 thoughts on “Miso Soup and a Hidden History of the Nation

  1. Very interesting! Thank you for inviting me to this page and sharing your personal anecdote. I love reading your writings. I have a question, though. How would you define and explain the term, “100% Korean”? For I know some would argue that ‘mixed-blood’ is not 100% but at least something else such as ‘hapa/hafu’ (I remember this from Japanese context) or ‘the quarter’, it was interesting to see that you expressed your self-identification as such and wanted to ask you although this might show my ignorance in a way. I guess my question arose from my own dilemma in which I must have been feeling that I should recognize and claim myself as a Korean with Canadian citizenship or Korean-Canadian at least, not as plainly Canadian when I entered a room of Koreans who reside either in Canada or in Korea, the homeland. Calling myself a Canadian plainly in Korean society had caused different result from the experiences that I had in other countries I’ve travelled to such as Israel and Netherlands. When I was accompanied with any Korean-born Korean (or like those we call, “1.5 generation Koreans”), I had to self-claim that I am at least Korean-something. I probably sound like a complainer since I wanted to avoid the fact that Koreans expect me to call myself a Korean and Korean-made, all 100% Korean who just happened to live in Canada like as an outsider of the Canadian society, which partially is true if not politically-correct; but just wanted to hear more from your views 😉
    (And as well, since both of my paternal grandparents who were born in Jeju Island had moved to Tokyo for jobs and business opportunity, had run rather a successful tailor shop for more than 10 years during the time of Japanese colonial state, I was more drawn to this diasporic story that sets between those particular nations with love-hate relationship: Japan and Korea.)


    1. Thank you very much for your words, and also sharing your experiences. It’s indeed a very complicated claim that someone is “100% Korean,” and I probably should have quotation marks around it to be more precise. It means many different things–is it ethnicity? Is it legal status/citizenship? Is it membership to the nation, or the state, or the community?

      How does Korean diaspora, as your personal experience shows, figure into the claim to national membership? When someone claims their full membership to the nation/state, how are they received, and who has the power to determine it? When people without the blood/ethnic ties claim national membership to Korea, which has been predominantly based on ethnicity, what are the grounds for their claims? What about those who lack legal status (“undocumented”) yet have spent more time in Korea than I, a legal citizenship holder, have? What about those who have blood ties, but do not have legal or cultural relations to Korea?

      I think these questions are the complex issues that we need to address, and in particular, for the question of Diaspora, I highly recommend Sociologist Jaeeun Kim’s book, which you can get a sense from here: http://stanfordpress.typepad.com/blog/2016/08/national-belonging-in-south-korea.html


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