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ancient korean painting of cranes

Ahn Ei Sook

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Persecuted from 1939 to 1945, in Korea

Beginning with the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1876, Japan began integrating Korea into its empire. In 1910, Japan officially annexed Korea, ending the ancient Joseon dynasty. This had a profound impact on all aspects of Korean life, including religion.

On the first of each month, the Japanese forced Koreans to gather around a shrine of Japan’s sun goddess and bow down in worship.

Japanese authorities demolished 85 percent of the buildings of the historic Gyeongbokgung compound in Korea’s capital, Seoul, including the primary palace that had for centuries been a national symbol. The Japanese General Government Building was constructed in its place. Japanese Shinto-style golden horns were added near the roof of Sungnyemun, one of eight gates in the wall surrounding Seoul, turning a symbol of Korean pride into a quasi-Japanese monument.

During the 1930s the Japanese attempted to solidify Korean loyalty by requiring all Korean citizens to participate in State Shinto worship practices. On the first of each month, the Japanese forced Koreans to gather around a shrine of Japan’s sun goddess and bow down in worship.

This was an especially difficult command for the students and faculty of the Christian school where Ahn Ei Sook taught music. When the girls were summoned to gather in the playground for the monthly trek to the Japanese shrine, many hid in classrooms and restrooms, hoping to avoid worshipping at the shrine. But it was no use. The principal commanded teachers to find the children and bring them out.

As Ei Sook watched teachers move from room to room collecting students, she was filled with sadness. She wanted to cry, but could not. She closed the door, fell on her knees, and silently prayed to Jesus.

Anyone whom the Japanese authorities found unwilling to bow before their shrines was branded a traitor. They were tortured.

“Miss Ahn! Are you there?” It was the principal’s voice, muffled through the closed door. She had come to escort Ei Sook to the shrine. The music teacher opened the door to face her superior. “Today is the first of the month,” the principal said. “We have to take the girls up the mountain to the shrine. Remember?”

Ei Sook stood silently, staring in defiance. “You are not the only believer,” said the principal. “This is a Christian school. Most of the pupils are Christians. So are all the other teachers. I too am a Christian. Think about it, Miss Ahn. Is there any believer in Christ who wants to bow to heathen gods? We all hate to do such a thing, but we Christians are being persecuted by a power too ruthless to stand against. Unless we worship at the Japanese shrine, they will close this school!”

Ei Sook knew that the pressure to conform was great. Anyone whom the Japanese authorities found unwilling to bow before their shrines was branded a traitor. They were tortured. Christians across Korea had died because they would not give up their faith. Ei Sook pitied her principal, who was responsible for the welfare of the students, the teachers, and the school itself. If anyone did not show up to worship, all would be put in danger. It was a heavy load to bear.

Still, Ei Sook could not see how her superior could cast aside the Lord she claimed to follow. The music teacher didn’t budge. “You can see what great trouble you will cause this school if you fail to cooperate,” the principal said, a mixture of fear and hatred in her voice. “But you don’t seem to care about that. You are thinking only of yourself.”

Finally, Ei Sook answered, “If you want me to go to the mountain, I will.”

The principal led her out of her classroom and down the stairs toward the playground. “And you will worship at the shrine, Miss Ahn. Right?”

 Walking away from the shrine, she thought, I am dead. Ahn Ei Sook died today at Mount Namsan.

The music teacher didn’t answer. As she walked past her students, she thought she could see their faces turn to dismay. “Even Miss Ahn is going,” one girl said. “Now God will surely turn away from us!” Another said, “Our principal has such power! She has made Miss Ahn go to the shrine.” All Ei Sook could do was pray. O Lord, she prayed, I am so weak! But I am your sheep, so I must obey and follow you. Lord, watch over me.

The students and teachers started up the mountain. They fell in line with the large crowd gathering before the Japanese shrine. Ei Sook could feel her heart beating. A voice called out, “Attention!” and the gathered Koreans straightened their backs. Then the voice said, “Our profoundest bow to Amaterasu Omikami [the sun goddess]!” Everyone gathered before the shrine bent their upper bodies in a deep, uniform bow. All but one.

Ahn Ei Sook stood upright, her face tilted toward the sky. A moment before, she had been filled with guilt and fear. Now she was overcome by a feeling of calm. Inside her head, a voice told her, You have fulfilled your responsibility. She heard a murmur pass through the crowd as those bowed around her realized she had not joined them. Walking away from the shrine, she thought, I am dead. Ahn Ei Sook died today at Mount Namsan. She did not fear death, but the thought of torture caused her to shudder.

Seeking safety, she fled. But after months in hiding, in March 1939 Ei Sook decided to go to Tokyo to appeal to the ­Japanese authorities for the persecuted Christians of Korea. She was promptly arrested and spent the next six years in prison. Her disobedience was punished severely, but in the filth and brutality of prison, she shared the gospel with her fellow prisoners. Later she said, “I cannot explain how such a weak woman as I was given such wonderful blessings during times of fear and suffering.”

These are the ones who have not bowed their heads to the idol worship of Japan. For six long years, they suffered severe torture, hunger, and cold.

The Japanese administration of Korea ended in 1945, when Japan was defeated at the end of World War II. The Japanese shrines were burned. In 1940, thirty-four Christians including Ahn Ei Sook had entered Pyongyang prison. On August 17, 1945, when they were finally released, only fourteen remained alive. One of them was Ahn Ei Sook.

As the prisoners made their way out, a sympathetic prison guard shouted, “Ladies and gentlemen! These are the ones who for six long years refused to worship Japanese gods. They fought against severe torture, hunger, and cold, and have won out without bowing their heads to the idol worship of Japan. Today they are the champions of the faith!” The gathered crowd greeted the prisoners as heroes, shouting, “Praise the name of Jesus!” and singing joyously:

All hail the power of Jesus’ name
Let angels prostrate fall.
Bring forth the royal diadem,
And crown him Lord of all . . .


From Bearing Witness: Stories of Martyrdom and Costly Discipleship. Based on Ahn Ei Sook’s personal account of her resistance to the Japanese regime: If I Perish (Chicago: Moody Press, 1977).

Esther Ahn Kim
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