Saturday, September 29, 2012

Ask a Korean! Wiki: What to do with Anti-Japan Sentiments in ESL Classes?

Dear Korean,

I am a Canadian living and teaching ESL at a Hagwon in Korea. With all the buzz about Dokdo lately, my Korean students have become increasingly outspoken about not liking the Japanese. I have learned about the history between the two countries, although I am obviously no expert, but these confrontations are really starting to bother me. The students seem angry when I choose not to answer them, or change the subject or when they hear that I don't hate the Japanese. They often do not say their thoughts completely outright (as in, "I hate the Japanese"), even though that has happened too, but are curious as to my stance on things. I do not tolerate racism, but I am trying to be understanding, and to teach tolerance. I'm not entirely sure how I should be handling the situation, and I don't feel comfortable asking my Korean co-workers.

Do you have any suggestions, advice, words of wisdom, or links that could send me somewhere with any of those?

Megan B.

Short answer? No. The Korean is, obviously, blends in with Korea's population rather well such that no Korean person comes to him for a validation of her views on Japan.

But surely, Megan is not the only ESL teacher in Korea who has been dealing with this issue. Readers, any pearls of wisdom?

Given that this is a topic that appears to sidetrack a lot of people, the Korean will issue this caveat: please keep your comments relevant. The issue is how to handle a situation like Megan is facing. Please stick with that.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I'm guessing this person is teaching adults, because the kids will say outright, "I hate Japan! Japan bomb! BAM!" Etc. Because they are kids. I usually just ask them, "Why?" and leave it at that. With the kids, there's not really much behind it, which you realize as soon as you ask, "Why?" I handle the, "I want to kill Lee Myung-bak!" announcements in the same way. The answer to that, "Why?" is usually because he has a rat face. So. They're fourteen, fifteen years old and dealing with a pretty limited vocabulary.

    I haven't really had any of my adult Korean students bring Japan up that often, but when sticky political topics do come up.... I handle it pretty much the same way. Just ask questions and listen. It's not really our issue, so I don't see any need to guide a conversation amongst adults. It's also not really racism, per se.... I have my own opinion about things, but I'm not as invested as they are, and in most cases I'm less informed, so I just take it as an opportunity to hear their opinions and find out more about why they feel that way. It's a conversation class, after all -- not a politics course.

  2. I'm not sure if this helps or not (I'm not a teacher), but if I were you I would simply say that I understand their concerns, but in my culture it isn't appropriate for teachers to bring their personal views on political matters into the classroom. Now, in the U.S. we know this isn't exactly "true" but it might just stop the prodding out of respect to you. As long as they know that you sympathize with their views they should be satisified ... then just steer the discussion back to the lesson as quickly as possible.

  3. I taught in hagwons and dealt with this issue. I started by saying that I understood that Japan did bad things to Korea in history and that now some Japanese people still didn't understand about Dokdo. But then I asked them if they agreed with everything Lee Myung-Bak does. They always say "no" (I can't understand how this man got elected as unpopular as he seems to be with everyone). I then point out that just because your country's government does or says something it doesn't mean that you agree with it and that many Japanese people also don't agree with their government and have different opinions. I also specify that children never can vote and so my students should never hate Japanese children, but should try to make friends if they ever have a chance. I'm not sure if any of this will create world peace, but it does seem to stop the flow of vitriol.

  4. That's a very difficult subject to approach, most definitely. If you're not careful, you can stir up a lot of bad energy and make the situation worse. Sometimes, in a situation like this, it can help by answering their questions with a question. That way you can get some clarity and, maybe, doing so will help you give the right answer.

    Anyways, humans have this tendency to remember the latest offense against them and forget that humans have been hurting each other for years in the name of "progress", "power" and "good intentions". The Japanese (more specifically the government, I guess, since you can't say that all Japanese citizens agreed with what happened) aren't the only ones that have hurt the Korean people, but they are one of the most recent. I would pull away from any group in particular when discussing this issue and focus on humans as a whole. Ask them how it is that we progress and grow as humans? By disliking/hating each other or finding common ground and working together? No one has lived a truly happy and healthy life after spending most of it hating/disliking someone else, whether they know them well or not. I'm not saying that you can't get annoyed or upset every once in a while, but don't dwell on it.

  5. I liked the previous comments but what popped into my head when I read your letter, Megan, was "Oh, I should tell her about Cedar Barstow and her work with kids around the right use of power." To the extent that power differentials are key to these nationalistic conflicts - and they always are - using your English-teaching class as a way to promote a better understanding of how to work towards a state of "Power With" (rather than "Power Over / Up Power" or "Power Under / Down Power") the Japanese might be very useful. Cedar just returned from a 6-month stint as an English teacher in Indonesia and, in a fascinating article, she describes a class she conducted along those lines. If nothing else, you might want to read it for inspiration.

  6. There are a number of ways to handle this. I usually begin by having a discussion as to why they "hate Japan" or "hate the Japanese people." Upon, our discussion it always comes back to the students "hating" what the Japanese did during the occupation of Korea. Therefore, I let them know that they are not expressing their idea correctly. They do not "hate Japan" or the Japanese people, but rather the governmental policies of the nation. It becomes a great English and Civics lesson.

  7. Oops...I see, from a previous commenter, that you are teaching adults (I thought hagwons catered to children). Oh well, you may find the previous link helpful in any case.

    If you are teaching adults, I would also strongly suggest that you read or reread The Koreans post "Racism as Heuristic"

    and seriously consider developing a class around this concept. I'm studying mental disability law and without a deep appreciation for the power of heuristics and logical fallacies, I'd be unable to make sense of the stigma surrounding mental illness. I also have seen this concept open the minds of my fellow students, most of whom are in law school and had no prior experience with individuals with mental illness. What I am saying is, understanding heuristics and being willing to look at them in this context may light some bulbs.

    All the best with this and please let us know how it goes if you have the time.

  8. Korea's historic interactions with Japan are varied and nuanced--sure you have the Imjin Wars and the Japanese annexation in 1910 (6 years + 35 years) and lots of hard feelings (I'm not going to downplay the treatment of comfort women or the abuses--but with any colonial experience, there were also a lot of stories of people working together for mutual benefit, but this cannot be discussed calmly in Korea because of anger about Japanese collaborators)--but there are also centuries of friendly trade and interaction.

    It was the Koreans who taught the Japanese how to read and write Chinese. Confucianism, Buddhism and elements of Shinto all came to Japan through Korea. Arts, technology, agriculture, trade--these are all things that passed freely for centuries between Japan and Korea. There is also the very sensitive subject of their shared linguistic, genetic and archeological history. The relationship between Japan and Korea is much closer and general much more amicable than most people in either country (mostly because of pride/nationalism) are willing to concede. (Romulans and Vulcans are a good analogy from pop culture).

    That being said, I currently have a couple of English language classes in Korea--and fortunately they are all in Christian schools/churches, so I have been able to take this topic in a much more profitable direction when it has come up. I get to bring up things like loving your enemy and doing good to those who persecute you. In 1 Cor 13 it says that love keeps no record of wrongs--if we were to really love our enemies and extend grace to them we wouldn't hold things that their ancestors did against them. With 25% of Koreans identifying themselves as Christians, just imagine what would happen if a significant amount of them would start to act on these teachings of Jesus and start extending grace and mercy towards Japanese rather than continuing the rhetoric of hate and bitterness.

    I have seen changes happening in my students already as they have wrestled with what it means to love their enemies in the context of the Japanese--and our conversations have been very profitable.

  9. I don't really understand the Dokdo issue, as I'm not Korean, can't speak/read Korean, thus mean I don't follow Korean news. But here is my opinion, it'll be best to avoid talking about the issue now, while it is an issue, because its a sensitive one. You can address tolerance later, not now. See, I'm from Indonesia, and we have some island-dispute-issue with Malaysia before, and even I personally open minded enough to see from both side of the argument,i still don't like it. most people aren't even bother to see both side, because they treat island-issue as protecting national dignity and this can get real bad.

    I also agree with mthyme to address question with question. If you encounter people with enough knowledge, you may see from Korean point of view of Dokdo and leave it at that.

    Also, I don't think its racial issue, more nationalism issue. When Japan colonized Indonesia for 3 and half years, wasn't a good time in the history, even compare to the 350years the Netherlands' colonialism.

  10. There are some great ideas in here for what to do with adults or otherwise older students, especially if you are really seriously interested in tackling the subject in class! I'd also add that if you are in that kind of situation, you might consider bringing in material about similar sorts of topics in Canada/the US/Europe/Australia/South Africa/wherever. This doesn't necessarily have to be stuff like, oh, the Holocaust (although that would certainly work), but even things like the history of Christmas traditions and the controversies about commercialization and the War on Christmas would be interesting for them to explore.

    I think one of the reasons your students seem a bit angry or annoyed that you won't comment is that they are forgetting how much the issue of Dokdo is fundamentally related to the national narrative of Korean history. You're not Korean. You don't have that national narrative, you have your own, and it has its own controversial issues and topics that people get passionate about. Your students are expecting you to react passionately because that is what they feel is normal, so it won't hurt them to get some idea about things outside of their own history that people can get equally passionate about. Really, it's a very educational experience for anyone, from any country!

    I have to admit, though, that I tended to try to deflect this kind of topic as much as possible. Since I was an elementary school teacher I could usually get away with just asking students not to talk about it as a personal favor; if they started saying things about Japan, I would generally just look sad, and tell them that of course I can understand their feelings (true) and it seems like a lot of terrible things happened during that time (also true). But, I would add, I have some close friends from Japan, and so whenever I heard them talking negatively about Japan I always felt like they were talking about my close friends, who are all nice people.... and that made me sad. So, I would prefer not to talk about the subject in class. That tended to work pretty well, especially since we usually had pretty busy classes and I could change to some other thing that we were actually supposed to be studying.

    The other thing I sometimes did was tell students that I wanted to teach them to be polite in English, and that (again) of course I can understand their feelings, but that sometimes it's better not to share all of your thoughts. Particularly when it comes to topics like this that can upset people very easily. With kids, I usually just asked them to keep it "in their hearts" during class; with older students you could try to help them find more appropriate ways to express themselves, I suppose. I've never done that, as again I had elementary school students, in large classes, for forty minutes twice a week.... wasn't really practical.

    I suppose another option you have is to just politely say that you aren't from Korea, and you didn't grow up knowing about this issue so you don't really have strong feelings, but that it seems like a lot of bad things happened and you can sympathize. I'm not sure how well this would go over, I think a lot of people would feel that they have to educate you on the topic, but it could at least help make the point that expecting you to have strong opinions about Dokdo would be rather like expecting a Korean person to have strong opinions about, oh, I don't know, First Nations involvement in local government or some such.

  11. My Malaysian friend whose a teacher in China also had this problem with her students. She used her grandmothers experience back when the Japs occupied Malaysia and included their brutality towards her grandparents and the rest of the people back then. Let's just say there is a dead baby involved in the story. But the conclusion was, yes, the Japs did those things but those were Japs back then. She asked whether they (students) hate her (the teacher) if she told them she was a Japanese (she's mixed parentage so without confirmation, she just slyly smiled). Guess what? They said, no.

    So it may be useful to get in touch with someone of the same idealogy. They can be from China or any of the Pacific Asia region with similar story or perhaps another adult Korean too.

  12. If I were Megan’s position, I would say this to the students on the next occasions they become outspoken about Japan and appear to become angry when I choose not to answer them – or when I tell them I do not hate Japan.

    “Japan did not occupy Canada, did not force Canadians to change their names to Japanese, did not forbid Canadians from speaking/learning French or English, and did not abuse Canadian citizens. I understand this happened in your country’s history, but as I am not from Korea and because Japan’s past wrongdoings did not occur to my country and people, I simply cannot share in your anger against Japan.”

    “One day, you guys will be adults. Some of you, and I can imagine many of you, will study in foreign countries – particularly in Europe, Canada, and the United States. You will meet people just like me – people from other races and backgrounds – and you will then see what you do not see now: not every place is a dan-il-min-jok country (단일민족). And because of this, not every country is like Korea – not every country is made up of the same race where everybody or almost everybody thinks the same about historical issues. Perhaps now because you’re students and haven’t lived abroad, you can’t understand this. But one day you will. Until then, I kindly ask you to try to understand that my background makes me a lot different than you.”

    And if the students really pressed the issue, I would say:

    “Students, in 1965, your former president Park Chung-Hee agreed to a historic treaty which re-established diplomatic relations between your country and Japan. This treaty is known as the Treaty of Basic Relations, and in Korean, 한일기본조약. Under the terms of this agreement, Japan agreed to transfer USD800mm as reparations and compensations for Korean survivors of the colonial period. The Japanese delegation wanted the money to be given directly to survivors, but the Korean delegation insisted on taking the money, claiming it would then hand it to them. Japan’s negotiators agreed. In return for that money, Korea’s representatives agreed they would not pursue settlements or reparations for grievances suffered by Koreans during Japan’s colonial rule. As your parents or even grandparents may have told you, there were massive protests in 1965, because the Koreans of that time were not happy with the re-establishment of diplomatic ties. Furthermore, class, take note that it was only in 2005 that the government of Korea declassified the contents of that treaty. Therefore, please note that while your people and society most definitely have legitimate reasons to resent Japan, that as far as diplomatic relations between the governments of both South Korea and Japan, that this is a settled issue; South Korea’s leadership cannot legally now complain to Japan and demand money or reparations. Your politicians speak against Japan in large part because they know that in your society, anti-Japanese sentiment remains quite high and volatile, and that they would commit political suicide by doing otherwise. But they know what I just told you is true.”

    1. It is true that Japan has compensated for some atrocities that they've committed in the past, such as force-labouring, however, they have failed to recompensate the comfort women. If you take a close look in the treaty, (I don't remember specific statements, but one thing that I am quite sure is) it excludes the women who were treated as sex slaves,so-called "comfort women". It is only recently that the past-comfort women decided to come together and lobby against the Japanese embassy, asking for apology. But as you can see, Japan hasn't apologized at all, and they are, in fact, denying that they did such actions despite overwhelming evidence.

    2. Hello, An Jay.

      This issue is not as simple as some people (not you) make it out to be.

      The 1965 Treaty stipulated that all grievances from survivors, bereaved Koreans, and Koreans injured/maimed during the occupation were now settled. The Japanese side proposed to provide direct monetary compensation to the Korean civilians who had suffered under Japanese rule. But it was the South Korean government which refused this idea, demanded the money for itself, on claims that IT, and not Japan's authorities, would then disburse the money to Koreans.

      The Japanese agreed.

      Now, a major reason that the Korean politicians of the mid-1960s didn't even care to mention the comfort women in the Treaty was that at that time, the cultural atmosphere of Korea insofar gender relations was concerned was very sexist. Choson Korea as well as Showa Japan were both masculinist societies; attitudes towards women and gender beliefs eased the rise of commodified women’s sexuality for consumption, formally and informally, as well as during the Japanese occupation. This sexist mentality, which still exists in both Korea and Japan today, was at work when the 1965 Treaty was signed.

      Bluntly speaking, the Korean negotiators didn’t really care at all about those women. They were more concerned in getting money from Japan to atone for Japan’s crimes during the occupation, and once they had the money, they showed where their heart was: Korean economic and industrial growth. This is why Korea’s economy grew so much under Park’s presidency.

      “It is only recently that the past-comfort women decided to come together and lobby against the Japanese embassy, asking for apology.” – no. They’ve been doing this since the 1990s.

      You said, "Japan hasn't apologized at all" – see the 1993 Kono Statement.

      Below are other statements of apology from Japan to Korea.

      "There was a period in this century when Japan brought to bear great sufferings upon your country and its people. I would like to state here that the government and people of Japan feel a deep regret for this error." September 7, 1984: Nakasone Yasuhiro, to South Korea

      "I would like to take the opportunity here to humbly reflect upon how the people of the Korean Peninsula went through unbearable pain and sorrow as a result of our country's actions during a certain period in the past and to express that we are sorry."
      May 25, 1990: Kaifu Toshiki, to Roh Tae-woo

      "[Concerning the comfort women,] I apologize from the bottom of my heart and feel remorse for those people who suffered indescribable hardships."
      January 1, 1992: Miyazawa Kiichi, to Roh Tae-woo

      "What we should not forget about relationship between our nation and your nation is a fact that there was a certain period in the thousands of years of our company when we were the victimizer and you were the victim. I would like to once again express a heartfelt remorse and apology for the unbearable suffering and sorrow that you experienced during this period because of our nation's act." Recently the issue of the so-called 'wartime comfort women' is being brought up. I think that incidents like this are seriously heartbreaking, and I am truly sorry."
      January 17, 1992: Miyazawa Kiichi, during a speech in South Korea

      "Nothing injured the honor and dignity of (comfort women) women more than this and I would like to extend words of deep remorse and the heartfelt apology."
      June 23, 1996: Hashimoto Ryutaro, to South Korea at a news conference with Kim Young-sam

      "I would like to face history with sincerity. I would like to have courage to squarely confront the facts of history and humility to accept them, as well as to be honest to reflect upon the errors of our own. Those who render pain tend to forget it while those who suffered cannot forget it easily. To the tremendous damage and sufferings that this colonial rule caused, I express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and my heartfelt apology."
      August 10, 2010: Naoto Kan, to South Korea

  13. What type of English class are your teaching? If it is public speaking or writing different types of papers; argumentative etc..., then these topics would be relevant. In situations like this there are etiquette rules for effective argument. One is that "hate language" is not a very effective tool for really changing someone's opinion.
    Also the purpose of these types of speeches or papers is for the student to prove their opinions and do not require your response or approval beyond the technical aspects.
    I have only home-schooled young children, but adults can sometimes be as unreasonable as first or second graders. I had to tell my niece that although we did have times where she was free to do things her way, this was not one of them. The class was for her to learn facts and nothing else.

  14. For one thing, the more one knows about a subject, the more leeway one has to express opinions that vary from the Korean norm, and for another, the more one knows about Korea, and dealing with Koreans, the more skilled one is in having the tact necessary to frame things in a way that will be received. A few years ago I wrote a blog post titled "Do not talk about dokdo" because it's a minefield, and it's easy to underestimate how strongly some particular Korean feels about it, and why.

    Me? I teach adults, and I like to take the topic in a different direction -- to say that while I understand the situation, and I think it's sad that ALL the countries of East Asia (I always bring China into it, because it's a three-way relationship that's been poisoned in each direction by nationalism) are missing a chance to strengthen the region vis a vis other world powerhouse regions by working together better.

    A suggestion might be to ask students to make a list of what EACH country could do to make relations in the east asian arena healthier.

    I also find it useful to humanize the story again -- stories about children hating japan without understanding why (they'veclearly been taught to hate -- what parent does that?) . Or I ask if they think a taxi driver should refuse to pick up Japanese tourists, or a Korean family should force a Japanese person to apologize personally for 80-year-old war crimes, before allowing her to marry their son (I've heard stories) -- and try to bring humans back into it.

  15. What relevant information! Hitting subscribe! :-) What did Megan end up doing?

    I found your website when I googled for asian american/bloggers, because it's part of the things I'm exploring as I'm beginning to blog at

  16. I tend to avoid sensitive subjects but if pushed would steer the topic into a discussion of the dangers of excessive nationalism, and the fact that we're all capable of bad actions, especially when everyone around you is doing them. I was pretty much raised anti-Japanese because my parents still remembered the war, but there were plenty of willing or even enthusiastic Korean collaborators in the Imperial Japanese army that Koreans will not bring up. Perhaps it's too soon for the Koreans to face up to certain facts about their own history, but then they shouldn't criticize the Japanese so harshly for being largely ignorant of what they did. We Brits also know far less than we should about our record as imperialists. We all have to try and be fair-minded despite our prejudices, and that means facing unpleasant facts about our own nations' pasts - and not succumbing to mindless nationalism.

  17. I think there is also a little thing about Japan and Korea are not first class countries which rules the world, or have any weight in world. Cuz I had a lot of discussions about this dislikness with both of them. I live in Russia, and I`m English/Russian sync translator, I meet a lot of them here, in my country. And they hate each other but Japanese Don`t hate us for Kurils, Koreans Don`t hate us for creating north Korea, and Korean WWII deportation from east to Kazakhstan. When I`m asking «why?», they say something that could be combined in one thought: you are big and strong and etc _place other gradations here_. So if the country is big and strong, they hide their hate, if it's same size and weight: let word_war begin. Lol, it really funny, when they trying to explain this, I always think that they are children, noisy little children in a sandbox. People should live free of such thoughts, as government is the only source of such bad things) it's imho, so no aggression please.

  18. If I were Megan, I would ask my students if they realized that Korean soldiers routinely massacred innocent civilians during the Vietnam War .... and how would they feel if the Vietnamese constantly hated on them for the actions of these soldiers?


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