Dear Jeju, I love you


There’s something about an island, its people and culture, that looms large in the human imagination. Small islands share certain features, while each retains its own character; far from a mainland, self-sufficiency and hardiness are critical. This isolation, typically coupled with harsh conditions and scarcity of resources, leads to ecological vulnerability. There’s a dependency on the marine environment and subsistence farming, in modern times often a strong tourism focus, and a rich biodiversity as well as a distinct culture.

Jeju Island is on the cusp of what scholars and bureaucrats would consider small, at approximately 18472 km, or isolated, at 82.8 km out to sea; nevertheless, the features above remain applicable. Historically, the island was a sovereignty known as Tamna with documentation of active trading in the region, until 1404 when subsumed by the Joseon Dynasty of today’s Korea; even then, the former kingdom retained a great deal of self-rule – and in 2006 became the nation’s first (and still only) ‘special self-governing province’. While not independent from the mainland by any measure, the provincial government holds a greater degree of decision-making than its counterparts throughout the nation.

Approximately 2 million years ago, an underwater volcano began a series of eruptions by which this island was formed. This has led to some dramatic topography – fire meets sea — and an origination myth involving a giant goddess embodied by its central volcano, both remaining poignant today in the minds of the Jeju people. As is characteristic of indigenous peoples everywhere, nature and culture are closely interrelated on Jeju – the ‘island of 18,000 gods’.

This book takes a ‘nature-culture-psyche’ framework. The people and their culture cannot be separated from the island’s nature, both in terms of interdependency and a core animistic belief system of manifest deity. Thus, in order to understand the island psyche, we must look at cultural underpinnings; and to understand the culture, we must also consider its nature.

Highlights in the Jeju Nature section include its gotjawal, or primal volcanic forests, and its recently developed Olle system of trails that provide an intimate and detailed method for experiencing the island. In the Culture section, the focus is on several defining features: the island’s goddess-oriented mythology, shamanism, and free-diving women; other identified cultural aspects include the local dialect, agriculture and harvest, traditional medicine, death rites and concepts of afterlife, and more. The section on Jeju Psyche begins with general features and then delves into the island’s ‘strong woman’ archetype, and its history of trauma and approaches to healing. Finally, we look at the Jeju of tomorrow – in areas of preservation, the status of women, innovation, and globalization.

There’s much more. It can never be enough.

excerpted from Introduction to Dear Jeju, I love you: The unique culture of Jeju Island, Korea, author Anne Hilty, ©2023