Korean Who Died Trying to Save Japanese Man Becomes Hero


His grandfather was a forced laborer in Japan’s coal mines, but college student Lee Soo Hyun came from South Korea to Tokyo voluntarily to study Japanese and build bridges between the two countries.

Over the weekend, the 26-year-old Lee died a hero to both nations.

He and another good Samaritan, a Japanese photographer, were hit by a train Friday night as they tried to rescue an apparently drunk man who had fallen onto the tracks. Both the photographer and the man whom they were trying to rescue died with Lee.


The Japanese Samaritan, 47-year-old Shiro Sekine of Yokohama, was widely heralded here for his selfless actions. But with Japan undergoing a long period of soul-searching, it was Lee who captured the spotlight because of his nationality and youth.

The ill-fated rescue has provided inspiration for a somber nation mired in government scandals and economic hard times. And his heroics came just a few weeks after extensive criticism in Japan of youths who became unruly during holiday ceremonies celebrating their passage to adulthood.

Moreover, it is considered extraordinary that a foreigner would risk his life to help a Japanese he’d never met. In the Kobe earthquake six years ago, many Japanese were inclined to help only those they knew until the arrival of foreigners made it seem more common and acceptable to help strangers. And because of the memory of Japan’s 1910-45 occupation of the Korean peninsula, and Tokyo’s World War II aggression, relations between Japanese and Koreans are prickly.

On Monday, a host of dignitaries lined up in Tokyo to pay their respects to Lee at a memorial set up at the Japanese language school where he excelled. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and other senior government officials bowed at a huge makeshift altar that was decorated with yellow chrysanthemums and anchored by a large photograph of the handsome Korean victim.

“This is a good lesson--that young people have the courage to help others,” Mori told reporters.

Hundreds of mourners, many of whom said they didn’t know Lee, waited for an hour outside in the cold weather to pay their respects.


“I’m just really impressed that this society had this type of courageous guy,” one elderly man told television cameras.

Monday’s Asahi evening newspaper splashed the headline “Japan and Korea Share the Same Tears.” The story also made headlines in South Korea.

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung said Lee’s altruism would always be remembered by both the Japanese and South Korean people. Prestigious Korea University, from which Lee was on leave and where he had just one semester remaining until graduation, was planning to erect a memorial and award him a posthumous honorary degree, the Korea Times reported.

Lee’s parents flew to Tokyo on Sunday from their home in Pusan for the memorial. His mother wailed as she held a large picture of her son at the service.

“My heart aches! He just couldn’t help rescuing somebody!” Shin Yoon Chan sobbed.

Lee’s Web site, written in Korean and speaking of his “treasures”--his family, his friends and his guitar--starts with a picture of him on the mountain bike he used to scale Mount Fuji last year.

“I came to Japan to make a bridge between Korea and Japan,” he wrote. “I’m going to enjoy my life as much as possible. . . . Difficulties are also part of my life, and I’m ready to accept anything.”

Thousands logged on to his Web site ( and many left messages.

“Had I been there, I would have probably just stood and watched the incident happen,” said one.

The tragedy unfolded shortly after 7 p.m. Friday at the Shin-Okubo station near Tokyo’s Shinjuku area on the Yamanote line, which rings central Tokyo and is one of the busiest in Japan. Trains whoosh into the station every few minutes.

Lee had just gotten off work at his part-time job at an Internet cafe. He told friends only moments before on his cell phone that he was on his way home.

It wasn’t clear why Sekine, the photographer, who lived with his 76-year-old mother, was at that station. He normally didn’t use that stop during his commute from a nearby advertising agency.

The man who fell onto the tracks, Seiko Sakamoto, a plasterer, was with a colleague and had reportedly been drinking. Witnesses said Sakamoto was also drinking on the platform: He’d purchased a small bottle of sake from a vending machine and wobbled over the edge.

When Sakamoto fell about four feet from the platform onto the tracks, Lee and Sekine immediately jumped down to help him up. But as they tried to lift him, an oncoming train hit them all.

Many of the stations on the Yamanote line have spaces under the platform where one can duck. Many have sensors that detect when someone has fallen. And most have conductors on duty on the platform. But not Shin-Okubo.

On Monday evening, news stations were blaring advice on what to do if someone falls onto the tracks: Hit the emergency buttons on the platforms, which stop the trains, or, if on the tracks, crawl into the spaces below the platform. Still, the train needs about 500 feet to stop, and the driver of the train that hit the trio said he didn’t have enough time.

Several people at Shin-Okubo told television crews that they themselves had fallen onto the platform at that particular station.

Between April and September of last year, 22 people were killed and 60 injured in Japan after falling onto tracks, the government said. About two-thirds were drunk. Most of the incidents occur in Tokyo and Osaka, and they are more common in the heavy-drinking months of December, March and April amid year-end office parties and cherry blossom celebrations.

Lee had reportedly planned to return to South Korea in the summer after biking around Japan’s main island of Honshu, finish his university education and get into sports marketing.

His father, Lee Jung Dae, told the Korea Times that his own father was drafted as a forced laborer under Japanese colonial rule and forced to work in Japan. Lee Jung Dae said he himself had been born in Osaka.

Meanwhile, a few of Lee’s friends went to the Shin-Okubo station to pour his favorite beverage--beer--on the tracks where he was killed.

Said one classmate on television: “It’s so sad, but I shouldn’t cry. He went to heaven because he did a good thing.”