This article from 1939 features the remarkable story of a Tatar family in Imperial Japan. This particular article bids a heartfelt farewell to the family who decided to move to Turkey.
This Tatar family, despite being refugees from Russia, managed to not only learn fluent Japanese but also seamlessly assimilate into the local Japanese community, all while preserving their unique religious Muslim identity. They ran a successful clothing business, actively participated in local patriotic activities supporting the Imperial Japanese military, and fervently promoted the Muslim faith in Imperial Japan.
From what I can surmise from the dates and ages in the article, Karim Suleman was 5 years old when he arrived in Imperial Japan in 1916. He became ‘Japanese’ in 1920 when he was 9 years old, which could mean that he obtained Imperial Japanese residence or citizenship? When he was 18 years old in 1929, he owned a clothing store in Myeongdong in Seoul. Shortly thereafter, he married his wife Munira who was a year older than him, and had a daughter and a son.
They resided in what was then known as Meiji-chō in Seoul, which is now called Myeongdong. It’s a popular tourist destination today. To make it more relatable, I’ve opted to use the contemporary Korean term, Myeongdong, in my translation rather than the old Japanese term.
This article may have also had a propaganda purpose to put this Tatar family on a pedestal as a ‘model minority family’ to encourage the Korean people to follow their example by embracing Japanese language and culture and supporting the Imperial Japanese military.
You might notice that the article refers to them as ‘Turkish’. However, based on subtle hints in this article and other related articles, we know that this family was part of the Tatar ethnic group, refugees from Russia. It’s understandable that the reporter may have been confused. The distinctions between ‘Turkic’, ‘Tatar’, and ‘Turkish’ can be intricate and are often misunderstood. While both Tatar and Turkish peoples belong to Turkic ethnic groups, they are distinct and different from each other. The confusion was likely compounded by the family’s decision to move to Turkey.
Imperial Japan’s support of Islam and Muslim communities has a fascinating historical background. For those interested in delving deeper, here’s a link to an academic paper on the topic: [Link]
Here, you can also find links to other articles about the Tatar people in Seoul during the colonial period that I’ve found in the Keijo Nippo newspaper so far:
- Spotlight on 1943 Seoul: A Glimpse into the Russian Tatar Refugee Community, Marja Ibrahim’s Poetry Tribute to Tatar National Poet Ğabdulla Tuqay on the 30-year anniversary of his death [Link]
- Small community of ~100 Russian Tatars in Seoul featured in 1942-1944 propaganda articles: a young 19-year-old Tatar girl is praised for filling out immigration forms for her neighbors, a Tatar woman is commended for scolding her friends with red fingernails for wearing ‘British-American’ cosmetics [Link]
- In 1942 Busan, Korean pastors and foreign residents (Russian Tatar family, English woman, Chinese consul) praise Imperial Japan as British POWs captured in Malaysia start arriving in the city [Link]
As is my norm, I’ve included links throughout the translation to cultural and historical references that might be unfamiliar.
Gyeongseong Ilbo (Keijo Nippo) June 15, 1939
Nineteen Years as a Japanese Person
Exceptional: Letter of Thanks from the Community
Farewell, Mr. Suleman!
After being forced to leave tumultuous Russia, they have made Japan their home for the past nineteen years. Not only have they fully adapted to the Japanese language and lifestyle, but they have also exhibited a patriotic spirit rivaling the Japanese, evident from the onset of the current conflict. Turkish clothing merchant Karim Suleman (aged 28) and his wife, who have comfortably resided at 2-66 Myeongdong District of Seoul for a decade, have become prominent figures in their neighborhood. This October, they are bidding farewell to Seoul and setting sail from Yokohama, heading back to their homeland, Turkey.
After coming to Korea in 1916, Mr. Suleman traveled around Osaka and Kobe before opening a foreigner-owned clothing store at his current location in July 1929, which was unusual at the time. He remains a fervent believer of Islam to this day. He has a lovely daughter Muslaika (7 years old) and son Gumal (4 years old) with his wife Munira (29 years old), and the family of four have completely become Japanese people.
Not only have they fully integrated into the local community, but they have also adopted Japanese customs and habits, such as going to public baths and wearing summer yukatas. Mr. Suleman, a former leader of the Seoul Muslim Community and a current member of the Japan Muslim Council, was so passionate about the movement for the official recognition of the Muslim faith that he traveled all the way to Tokyo.
Ever since the start of the recent conflict, the beautiful Mrs. Munira has made a name for herself in Seoul, which now has a heavy military atmosphere. She can be seen regularly at the train station, donning the sash of the National Defense Women’s Association diagonally across her shoulders, waving the Japanese flag to welcome and bid farewell to the Imperial soldiers. Not only that, she can be seen standing on city street corners at night, holding sen’ninbari cloths. Furthermore, she has donated to national defense funds and provided care packages several times, endearing her to the military as a “Patriotic Turkish Person”. Last summer, they held an all-Turkish “Prayer Festival for the Longevity and Military Success of the Generals and Soldiers of the Imperial Army” at the Wakakusa-chō Mosque, which deeply moved us.
As tensions between Japan and Britain escalate, the Sulemans are leaving Japan for Turkey, a country which is considered pro-British. When reporters visited, they expressed their farewell sentiments in fluent Japanese with their beloved children on their laps.
“Nineteen years ago, my first step in Korea was when I got off at Seoul Station and stayed at the Hōrai Inn, which was in front of the train station at the time. It has been ten years since I settled in Myeongdong District. Living alongside a battling, strong, and righteous Japan, we have come to share the same sentiments as the Japanese people. My wife intends to take her National Defense Women’s Association sash as a souvenir back to our homeland. One way we plan to repay Japan, where we’ve lived for so long, is to let people in our homeland know about Britain’s transgressions and Righteous Japan’s true position, as viewed correctly from Japan. While we think we won’t have another chance to come back, we will probably never forget our life in Japan.”
In recognition of Mr. Suleman’s virtues, the Myeongdong District Association has decided to honor him with an unprecedented letter of thanks, celebrating him as a foreigner who has truly become part of the community.
[Photo = The Suleman family returning to Istanbul]