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Research Centre for East Asian Studies Groningen Blogs and Postcards

Religion, a very visible matter in Korea

Lisa van den Broek
Yoido full Gospel church main building.
Yoido full Gospel church main building.

When one first arrives in Seoul, the city providesits visitor with many impressions. At first glance the city appearsto be a cosmopolitan westerncity with a never endingcity life. As the saying goes: “There’s always something open in Seoul whether it’s daytime or nighttime”. Yet when spending more time in the city one becomesaware of the unique city life of Seoul that is formed by a mixture of modern values and traditional values. The modern aspects of life such as the high consumerism and the drive for education and welfare aremixed with traditional aspects such as religion anda special levelof respect for theelderly. Each of these aspectscome together in the familylife of the South Koreans,not just in Seoul but also in the rest of the countryto a certain extent. Interesting is that these traditional aspects of lifein Seoul arequite visible to visitors, especially the religious lifeof the Seoulites, when one is willing to observe it.

When walking around in the touristy shopping Myeongdong area of Seoul, one will undoubtedly come across a demonstrator holding up a sign with a religious message. Quite often these demonstrators will also carry a loudspeaker with them to more loudly announce their belief. Most of the time these demonstrators are Christians that call upon the public to refrain from certain acts or object certain causes such as gay marriage. These demonstrators are just one way in which religion in Korea is visible to visitors, albeit a very loud and clearly visible way. Within Myeongdong you’ll also fnd the Myeongdong Cathedral which is the most important Roman Catholic church in South Korea. This cathedral is included on the maps handed out by the tourist information personnel within Myeongdong as one of the sites one should visit when in Myeongdong. Moreover, every Saturday one can witness at least two marriages taking place at the church. Myeongdong is thus an excellent example of where religion mixes together with consumerism illustrating the mixture between the contemporary and the traditional.

But Myeongdong isn’t the only area within the city where the religious life of Koreans is very visible. Whereas in the West traditional religions are declining in membership and churches are becoming empty, in South Korea the number of religious people has been quite stable with the majority of the population being either Christian or Buddhist. Particularly interesting here is that the religion of the Seoulites forms yet another example of the unique mixture between traditional and contemporary in the Seoul city life with the traditional Buddhism and the contemporary Christianity both being very visible and nearly equal in size when looking at the number of followers. Buddhism mainly becomes visible in Seoul by the number of Buddhist temples scattered around the city and the large Lotus lantern parade in Seoul in honour of Buddha’s birthday. This parade is so large that it takes two hours for the entire parade to pass by. The parade participants come from all different parts of life with groups of children, teenagers, students, adults, and elderly taking part in the parade celebrating Buddha’s birthday.

On the other side of the spectrum there is the visibility of Christianity within Seoul. As mentioned earlier there is the visibility and presence of Christianity within Myeongdong. But a perhaps even more visible example of Christianity can be found in the Yeouido business district at the Yoido Full Gospel church. The Yoido Full Gospel church preaches prosperity

through faith and is the largest church in the world when it comes to the number of registered members. Around 800,000 people are registered to this church alone. On Sundays, besides the numerous services throughout the rest of the week, the church holds 7 services that are attended by 12,000 people each service and are translated into 16 languages. To give an impression of the sheer size of this crowd of people one should just take a look at the road in front of the church. The road in front of the church is 8 lanes wide and about half a kilometer long. Every Sunday 4 of those lanes are entirely closed off by parked busses that bring people to the church and back to their homes. As a tourist one could think there is some sort of massive concert or sports event taking place when witnessing the sheer number of people that are transported and not that this enormous crowd is attending church.

Thus religion is a very visible aspect of the life in Seoul whether that religion is Christianity or Buddhism. This is one of the surprising aspects of life in Seoul that one wouldn’t expect at frst glance of the modern and cosmopolitan city yet will be encountered and witnessed when one stays in Seoul for a longer period of time. It is also what makes Seoul and South

Korea in general so interesting as the clear visibility of religion in a modern and urban city forms an excellent example of the interesting mixture between the modern and the traditional that together form the exciting city life of Seoul.

Last modified:06 December 2017 2.05 p.m.