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Cultural Trauma and Healing: The Case of Jeju Island


Many of the world’s cultures have experienced a period of trauma and healing, as a result of war, famine, genocide or other state violence, natural disaster, or other causes. There are ways of healing both typical and unusual or culture-specific; some avoid the issue altogether, at least initially, thereby delaying the healing, often repressed by authority or due to an element of shame — or because the pain is just too overwhelming. Some loudly proclaim their pain to the world, while other cases are little known to others.

How we, as individuals and as cultures, experience trauma and work toward its resolution and transformation can vary widely.

The case of the Holocaust during World War II is perhaps one of the most well-known in modern times. In part, this may be due to the sheer number of countries involved, and while the reality of the prisoner camps was not widely known until after the war was over, at that point it could no longer be hidden. Too, the Jewish population, primary target of genocide though there were many others, has long been dispersed throughout the world, so many countries had a direct connection to this traumatic experience. Less well known, however, is the story of other groups also targeted during that period: the Roma and Sinta, those with disability, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and more.

Many other cases of cultural trauma and healing have been reported globally, that we may all learn from the experience in areas of healing, of justice, and of prevention.

One of the most violating, perhaps, akin to child abuse by a parent, is that of state violence. Numerous cultures have experienced such in one form or another; beyond the physical trauma, which can come in many forms, is the emotional damage, all the worse as the violence comes from the very structures of society that we trust to ensure our security: military and police, backed by government. In addition to this is the sociocultural destruction that can take generations to rebuild.

When such violence takes place on an island, there is yet another layer of trauma: entrapment. This can occur in other circumstances as well, such as in the Jewish ghettos or the concentration camps during WWII, but an island with its wide watery boundary makes for an especially terrifying and thus terrorizing circumstance.

Add to this: an immediately prior and long-term military occupation by a foreign power, the very recent end to a protracted multinational war and new occupying military forces in one’s territory, implementation of a type of government that one’s country has never had before, and which results in a period of instability and power vacuum — and ultimately in an ideological division of the country into two, fueled by foreign powers, and even more historical, social, and cultural layers — and you begin to have the case of Jeju.

Jeju Island is today a prime holiday destination for Koreans, and increasingly so for global travelers; Time magazine, just days prior to this writing, included Jeju in its 2023 list of “World’s Greatest Places,” while the International Convention Center on the island sees numerous events per year, just one of which — IUCN’s World Conservation Congress in 2012 — brought 10,000 new visitors from around the world.

Most who come to the island, while they may know that Korea had a war in the 1950s, have no idea of the period of terror and trauma the islanders experienced in the few years prior. It is just now beginning to be known in university courses and both academic and newspaper articles outside of Korea, and with good reason: though this period took place in the late 1940s, it was subsequently illegal for nearly 50 years to openly discuss or publicize about it at the risk of detention, torture, and imprisonment; the social taboo over same lasted yet another decade after its mention was decriminalized. While there is now official agreement at all levels of society over the events of this period, the topic remains controversial and sensitive to this day.

And so, 75 years later, the world is just beginning to know about the trauma and ongoing healing of Jeju Island.

excerpted from Introduction to Cultural Trauma and Healing: The Case of Jeju Island, author Anne Hilty, ©2023

Tales from the Trails: Jeju Olle


What’s in a trail?

More than 400 kilometers, for a start (437, to be precise, or 272 miles), on an island, in 27 courses, 4 of those on outlying islands…but there’s more. So much more.

Bucolic nature, to be sure — volcanic, often dramatic — along coastline, through farmland, over 130 or so hills (the volcano’s ‘children’), and into dark gnarly forests. The trail system also wends its way through more than 135 villages where locals may be engaged in many a traditional practice, from the renowned breath-hold female divers to sesame stalks drying in the sun, or their seeds being beaten off by a squatting grandma with a bone. The trails pass Buddhist temples and Shamanist shrines, artifacts of resistance to both Japanese occupation and Mongol conquest, and tragic sites of the island’s political massacres.

Jeju Olle trail system, the brainchild of former journalist and island native Suh Myungsook, saw the opening of Course 1 in 2007 and the final course, No.21, 5 years later. Long-established footpaths (and at least 1 goat path) were integrated into the system wherever possible, interconnected by new trail development when needed; one walks the trails, then, in the footsteps of countless Jeju native people from centuries gone by.

Those who trek the Camino in Spain, England’s Cotswold Way, or US Adirondack, universally report the experience as deeply healing and rejuvenating, often transformational; so too, with Jeju Olle. Profoundly peaceful, heartily healthy, astoundingly aesthetic, markedly meaningful.

These trails are not only all that (as if that weren’t enough); they also represent a unique opportunity for learning about the island’s people, culture, art, craft, history, tragedy. Wend your way through many a village, say hello to the local residents and observe the village life. Sit beneath the central tree (for every village has one); take alternate breaths of sea and mountain air. Bow with the Buddhists, shake with the shamans, pet the horses and walk with the cows. Go into the sea with the haenyeo if you dare — but don’t get in their way. (I’d say, get lost in the darkness of the gotjawal…but try not to do that; instead, float there with the butterflies, or follow the crows.) And weep with Jeju people, each time you come across a memorial to their still deeply felt tragedy known as Sasam.

What’s in a trail?

Story. So many stories. We humans are storytellers. Myths and legends, history and culture, nature and the (volcanic) beginnings of the world, tragedy and triumph, trauma and healing…and maybe, a typhoon.

I invite you to take a walk with me. And to listen to some stories along the way.

excerpted from Introduction to Tales from the Trails: Jeju Olle, author Anne Hilty, ©2023

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