Dr. Alan Hyun-Oak Kim, a retired Southern Illinois University professor of Japanese and Korean language and linguistics, died at the age of 88 at midday on Tuesday, June 1, 2021 in Carbondale, Illinois. He was preceded in death by his father in Korea, his mother in the U.S., and his five siblings in Japan and Korea, including his beloved brother Hyun-Ki, who died at the age of 24.
After nearly half a century of studying and publishing scholarly articles and books about politeness and honorifics in Japanese and Korean grammar, Kim eventually found name recognition in the academic community for his highly specialized expertise shortly before his retirement at the age of 86. He served as president of the International Circle of Korean Linguists and published the book, Grammatical Encoding of Politeness: A Systemic Metaphorization of Japanese Honorifics.
He was born Kim Hyun-Oak on September 6, 1932 in Osaka, Japan to a family of ethnic Koreans. Kim’s father was a businessman who operated a boarding house for Korean factory workers in Osaka, and his mother was a homemaker and devout Catholic. His family moved back to Daegu, a big port city on the southernmost tip of their native Korea when Kim was 13 years old. As a Korean-Japanese and later a Korean-American, Kim faced his various split identities and attempted to feel at ease in his adopted cultures.
As an academically gifted student in Daegu, he enrolled in medical school. However, he realized that medicine wasn’t his calling, and he changed to studying philosophy, receiving a Master’s Degree at Seoul National University, the nation’s most prestigious college.
Kim had an aptitude for languages and translated on the battlefield during the Korean War for U.S. forces. He eventually worked for the intelligence department of the South Korean government, scanning, translating, and summarizing international news for reports that went directly to the president.
In the early 1960s, Kim was invited to work in the United States by an American executive, who had offices in San Jose, California. But before his immigration documents could be processed, he had to spend one year abroad and chose Colombia, where he studied Spanish and learned how to play the classical guitar. Once he arrived in the Bay Area, Kim chose, instead, to begin work on his second Master’s program in psychology at San Jose State University.
His wife and two children, Elaine and Mirena, remained in Seoul during this time. After four years, he was reunited with his family when they joined him in San Francisco, California in 1970. Three years later, his youngest daughter Serena was born.
In 1975, Kim was accepted into a PhD program at USC to study linguistics, which became his life’s work. He and his family moved to Los Angeles. Kim became an expert in the grammatical structure of Japanese and Korean, which both share highly intricate politeness honorifics.
Kim grew up during the era of the Japanese occupation of Korea, in which Koreans were not allowed to speak or write in the Korean language. As a boy growing up in Japan, where Koreans are still discriminated against, it was important for Kim to demonstrate the similarities in the grammatical structure of the two languages. His linguistic archaeology attempted to unearth related patterns in the two languages, and garnered the animosity of linguists of both Korean and Japanese for political reasons. Nevertheless, Kim persevered for decades. His scholarly work demonstrated how, in both languages, verbs are conjugated relative to the status of the speaker and the spoken to.
Kim had his postdoctoral studies at Harvard University in the early 1980s. He also taught Japanese and Korean as a professor at Portland State University during the late 1980s.
By 1988, he was offered tenure at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. Ten years later, he met Dale Budslick, his wife and the love of his life. A lifelong ballroom dancer, Kim found an enthusiastic new partner in Dale. Together they traveled widely and hosted many gatherings at their historic home, Razzle Dazzle, one of the oldest homes in Jackson County, and one rich in Civil War history.
Kim was a lifelong academic and talented artist who enjoyed playing the piano, listening to classical music, following the news, collecting antiques, and restoring his historic home.
Kim is survived by his beloved three daughters, Elaine, Mirena, and Serena, his wife, Dale, her two children, BJ and Jennifer and a multitude of grandchildren and great-grandchildren all of whom brought great joy into his life.
Friends, family, and colleagues are invited to the Razzle Dazzle courtyard to honor Alan beginning at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, June 4, 2021. For more information, call (618) 305-0972. Memorial contributions may be made to The Professor Alan Hyun-Oak Kim Scholarship in care of the SIU Foundation or to other charitable organization of choice.