Do most young Koreans still hate the Japanese with a vengeance, and if so, what do they do when they meet a Japanese person? (And yes, I am well aware of the all too recent dreadful atrocities the Japanese committed in Korea and continue to disgracefully deny.) A Japanese friend’s husband said that young people don’t hate the Japanese so much anymore, but you imply that almost all Koreans (including young Koreans) possess a vitriolic hatred for the Japanese. And how then are Koreans that marry Japanese then viewed?
Just Kinda Curious
How much of a bad idea it is for me to visit S. Korea, being Japanese American? I just read your "Why Koreans Hate Japanese People" post and my dreams were just shat upon. Do I wear a sign reading "I’M SORRY" at all times? Wear a mask? I was actually considering being an English teacher a couple years from now in Korea but I think it's safe to say that I've crossed it off my list of future careers.
Dear JKC and Susie,
Yet another question about the relationship between Korea and Japan. Apparently, a four-part series devoted to the relations between Korea and Japan has not been enough. Very well, the Korean will add Part V, nearly two years after the conclusion of the initial series.
The Paradox of Koreans’ Attitude toward Japan
The Korean will begin by highlighting two conflicting outlooks in Korea regarding Japan. First is Korean people’s tendency to go completely over the top whenever there is some type of contest between Korea and Japan. Such contest can be as innocuous as a sporting event. The sport does not have to be popular at all, as long as Korea beats Japan in some way. Take figure skating, for example. Is there any country in the world that goes completely nuts over a figure skating championship, like Americans would watch the World Series? Korea does, if it beats Japan in some way.
Currently one of the biggest star athletes in Korea is Kim Yuna, a world-class figure skater who won the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating two years in a row. To be sure, everyone in the world loves winners. It also helps that Kim looks adorable, and even more so when she performs. But it is undeniable that her stardom is partially propelled by the fact that on the way to winning those titles, Kim beat Asada Mao, a prominent Japanese figure skater. Recently Kim set a world record in short program, scoring 72.24 in Four Continents Figure Skating Championship held in Vancouver. When reporting the news of victory, Korean media also invariably reported that Asada finished with a mediocre score.
If Korean people get worked up over something as graceful and non-testosterone-driven as figure skating, one can only imagine the psychopathic heights that Koreans would reach if Korea were involved with Japan in a more serious problem – say, a territorial dispute. Currently, there is a territorial dispute between Korea and Japan with respect to two islets in the East Sea/Sea of Japan. [WARNING: Any comment discussing the substance of Dokdo/Takeshima/Liancourt Rocks will be summarily deleted. There will be another time for that.] To most Koreans, that Japan has the nerve to claim a piece of Korean territory as theirs evokes the images of Japan’s annexation of Korea before World War II, and all the atrocities that followed.
When this dispute flared up in the July 2008, all kinds of over-the-top reactions flowed from Korea, ranging from full page ads on Washington Post to a massive military drill around the islets. But this one definitely takes the cake: a far-right group called Korea Society of Special Agents (named thusly because they purport to represent former special agents for the Korean army – essentially the same as American Legion or John Birch Society in the U.S.) staged a protest in front of Japanese Embassy by bringing live pheasants, Japan’s national bird, and smashed their heads in with a hammer. The Korean will emphasize that the last act was considered insane and barbaric even to those Koreans who profess absolutely no love for Japan. (See this blog for example – one commenter wonders, “Why wasn’t burning Japanese flag enough?”)
The point is that when Japan is involved, it drives Koreans to overreaction, and some Koreans to truly crazy lows. To answer JKC’s question, are these overreactions based on vitriolic hatred to Japan? Yes, absolutely. But confusingly, that does not capture the whole picture, because of the answer to Susie’s question: is it really a bad idea for her to visit Korea? Answer: not at all.
The fact is that despite all of this, there are booming economic and cultural exchanges between Korea and Japan. Each year, 2.5 million Korean tourists visit Japan, the country that they supposedly hate. Japanese tourists visit Korea each year in similar numbers as well, without any concern for their personal safety. Japanese products, when not blocked by Korea’s trade restrictions, are extremely popular in Korea. One of the status symbols for the wealthy in Korea used to be the Zojirushi rice cooker, known as the “elephant rice cooker” in Korea based on its logo. Sony Playstation sells in Korea just as briskly as it sells anywhere else in the world.
Fine, so Koreans like high-quality products like everyone else in the world. But surely they would reject the cultural products of Japan with vitriolic hatred, right? Again, not at all. Japanese cartoons are very available in Korea, and have been highly influential. A cartoon named Slam Dunk by Takehiko Inoue was responsible for single-handedly making basketball popular in Korea in the early 1990s, leading to the golden age of Korean basketball. (The Korean himself has a hardbound collector's edition series of Slam Dunk.) Popular Japanese movies are popular in Korea as well, and the hip crowd in Korea is usually well-versed in the latest Japanese pop music.
So, to answer JKC's question, Koreans do not do anything special when they meet a Japanese person. Generally, they do not harass, nor do they get violent.
To those who have not seen this type of thing, this disparity is an utter mystery. Understanding the relationship between Koreans and Japan requires the full understanding of how nationalism works.
Nationalism is a peculiar thing. Although it is such an amazing force that motivates the actions of many countries in the world, it is not actively discussed like, for example, Communism once was. But the hold of nationalism is strong in many parts of the world, and those who fail to understand it do so at their own peril. This warning is especially relevant for those living in nations who distinctively lack strong nationalism, namely the United States and Canada. In particular, Americans’ utter failure to understand nationalism led to many, many foreign policy failures, of which the latest example was the War in Iraq. ("Greeted as liberators" – seriously, American policymakers believed that. Any Korean with half a brain could have told them otherwise.)
The Korean dealt with nationalism previously, but he intends to make this post the definitive post that explains what nationalism is, because it is nationalism is one of the cornerstones in understanding modern Koreans, especially with respect to their attitude toward Japan.
At the foundation of nationalism, there is a very simple premise: a person is nothing without his country, and his country is in constant danger of disappearance. Therefore, a citizen of a nation must absolutely devote himself to his nation to prevent such disappearance. Every member of the nation must contribute what he can for the country – soldiers must guard their country, businessmen must earn money for their country, artists must display the country’s creativity, and athletes must display the country’s physical prowess.
The corollary to this premise comes from the obvious truth that the world is made up of many nations. For nationalists, every citizen of every country in the world strives to strengthen their country. Essentially, each and every person in the world operates as a member of a team called "United States of America", "Brazil", "Thailand", "South Africa", "France", etc. And each team is striving to outdo one another in a giant world race for power, be it economic, political, social, cultural, or any other type one can think of. And losing this race is not an option, because the losing countries are taken over by the winning countries, and its people are to become slaves of the people of the winning countries.
The validity of this ideology, especially in the context of contemporary international relations, is at least arguable. For example, one can argue as following: “In theory at least, most of the world have come to recognize universal human rights, which include life and liberty. Enforcement of such right is a responsibility of all nations, and it does not depend on whether or not you have your own country.” But for Koreans, nationalism is a self-evident truth, because their recent historical experience of their losing their country proves it.
The Korean believes that this is the historical experience that non-nationalist countries lack. People from non-nationalist countries such as U.S. and Canada do not understand how terrible it is to lose their country, because they have never truly experienced it. Americans, for example, do not seriously believe that any other country will conquer America and subjugate Americans. Even for the most strident national defense hawk in America, the disappearance of America from the world is too remote of a possibility to be true.
But for Koreans, it actually happened. They have lost their whole country twice in the last century – for 36 years to Japan, and briefly to communist North Korea during the Korean War. At each occasion of losing their country, many Koreans lost everything –their history, tradition, language, their property, family, children, and their own lives. Set against this historical experience, any objection to nationalism rings hollow. For Koreans, it is obviously true that without Korea, Koreans are nothing. Therefore, Koreans are absolutely terrified at the possibility of losing the “race of nations”, and by extension losing their country. It does not matter how remote that possibility is. It happened twice, and it can happen again – and it is simply something that must not happen ever again. There is no room for debate.
Nationalism within Korean Mind
Ok, so that part is easy enough to understand. Once nationalism is understood, the over-the-top behavior of Koreans with respect to Japan becomes completely understandable. But what about the other side of the equation? Why do Koreans nonetheless accept Japan and Japanese culture without much resistance?
Some observers saw this paradox as a sign that Koreans are hypocrites, or that Koreans do not truly take nationalism seriously. Neither interpretation is true. The apparent paradox is very easy to understand once one considers the analogue of nationalism. What other set of belief system puts a non-human entity above humans, and teaches that the value of human beings depends upon that entity?
Answer: Religion. The Korean will not go so far as to say nationalism is equivalent to religion. The Korean is a religious person, and there is much more to religion than there is to nationalism. But the Korean will say this much – the way in which ordinary Koreans, who are generally nationalistic, deal with nationalism is very similar to the way in which ordinary Americans, who are generally religious, deal with their religion. There are those who are fundamentalist and orthodox, and there are those who believe in god but do not think much about religion in their day-to-day lives. That is exactly how nationalism operates in Korea.
In Korea, the “fundamentalist nationalists”, as it were, are relatively few in number. Very few Koreans get violent or rude at the sight of Japanese people. Instead, most Koreans enjoy Japanese product, Japanese culture, and even Japanese people to varying degrees, despite their nationalistic tendencies. This is not very different from what we see in America. 78.5 percent of Americans say they are Christians, but only a handful can be seen firebombing an abortion clinic or holding a picket that says “YOU WILL GO TO HELL” on Las Vegas Boulevard. In fact, majority of American Christians directly go against their own religion by believing that people of other religion and even those without any religious belief can make it to heaven.
Make no mistake about it – Koreans generally believe that they are nothing without their country, and they must devote themselves to their country. Nationalism is a constant presence in a typical Korean mind. But it is hardly the only presence, nor for most Koreans is it the most dominant presence. Koreans are just like any other people in the world – they like high-quality Japanese products, and they find Japanese culture interesting. They know harassing a complete stranger is a wrong thing to do, regardless of nationality. And those countervailing concerns are, for most Koreans, much stronger than their nationalistic zeal.
Korean Nationalism in Practice
It is important to note that nationalism is a constant presence in a Korean mind, although it may not be practiced to the fullest at all times. But there are several specific situations in which, even from “non-practicing” Korean nationalists, the latent nationalism flares up.
The most obvious situation is when a non-Korean makes an insulting statement about Korea or Koreans in general. Such action, for a nationalist, is a clear blasphemy. Similarly, making a claim that poses a threat to Korean territory or Korean self-determination also provokes nationalism.
It goes without saying that leaders of Japan manage to do both quite often. It was only last November when Japan’s Chief of Air Force claimed that Japan actually helped Korea during World War II. In 2006, Shimane Prefecture in Japan declared Feb. 22 to be “Takeshima Day”, advocating for its control of Dokdo islets that Koreans consider theirs. And along with North Korea, Japan is always at the best position to offend Koreans' nationalistic sensibilities because there is so much history between the two countries, and because Japan generally remains either ignorant or insensitive to the crimes of its past.
But another situation is worth a mention – when Korean politicians are in trouble. Samuel Johnson’s aphorism, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” holds true in Korea as well. It is often the path of least resistance for an unpopular Korean politician to stoke the nationalist fire to distract Koreans from more pressing issues, much like the way Richard Nixon used race-baiting to distract Americans from Vietnam War. North Korea has always been the favorite target for the Korean dictators from 1950s through 1970s, while Japan became more of a scratching post for Korean politicians in the recent times.
Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.