I was telling my homeroom class of Korean students about the devastating earthquake in New Zealand. I told them how maybe 200 people had died (they were saddened by this). Then, I told them that 30 Japanese students might be among the dead. They cheered. This was a class from a prestigious Christian high school, intelligent students who exhibited a remarkable degree of callousness I wouldn’t have expected. There is still a lingering resentment of the Japanese in Korea, something that at times is hard to believe. If there is one thing that a divided peninsula can agree on, (forgetting about 4,000 years of shared history, language and culture), it would be negative feelings towards Japan. Something like the enemy of your enemy is your enemy or something. I had never realized before arriving in Korea how much Korea dislikes Japan. I thought that it would be a case of big brother-little brother, like between Australia-New Zealand. It’s not at all like this relationship. It’s much more than that. Korean bitterness of their treatment by Japan is much more epic.
The list of Korean grievances towards Japan is long. The most prominent cause of Korea disgruntlement is over the contested islands known in Korean as Dokdo, in Japanese as Takashima and in English as Liancourt Rocks. To people who are not Korean, Dokdo seems insignificant. Lonely Planet Korea describes Dokdo as a neglected, barren fruit tree in the backyard. Neglected until the neighbour takes an interest in the fruit tree. Then, you take an interest in it, big time. Korea has a legitimate claim to the uninhabited islands that are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and potentially large natural gas reserves. It has been shown as being part of Korea on maps since the 6th century. Japan’s claims centre on the fact that after the liberation of annexed Korea, Dokdo was not explicitly listed in the surrender. In 1949, the UN decided that Dokdo was Korean, a decision overturned in 1951 by the US secretary of state. However, in 1952, the South Korean president claimed the islands for Korea, which remains the disputed status quo. South Korea has now positioned soldiers on Dokdo in a bid to maintain their grip on the disputed island. Prefectures in Japan celebrate a Takashima Day and some Japanese have listed their address as Dokdo.
|Dokdo, Takashima or the Liancourt Rocks. Take your pick but the right answer is probably Dokdo.|
Another issue is the name of the sea Dokdo is in. Commonly known in the West as the Sea of Japan (the name you would find on most maps), Koreans object to this sobriquet. The centre of this argument is that Japan nefariously promoted the name while Korea was under imperialistic control. Korea argues that their preferred name, the East Sea, was found on a majority of European maps published before Japanese predominance in the peninsula. Japan maintains Sea of Japan was the choice of most European cartographers before Japanese dominance of Korea, and that the Sea of Japan is the most appropriate name. This view was upheld by a congress in 1928, which has influenced future discussions. Korea counters that as an effective Japanese colony, it had no effective say in the name. I probably say Dokdo’s Korean but Sea of Japan is fine. 1-1 then.
A more bizarre claim is that Japan deliberately changed and influenced the spelling of English spelling of Korea from Corea to Korea. Allegedly, this was done so that during Olympic Games and the like, Japan would be in front of Korea alphabetically during the opening ceremony. Imagine the disrespect of a simple colony appearing before their masters. Actually, this ignores the fact that Koreans actually competed for Japan at the Olympics after the 1910 annexation. A Korean marathon runner called Sohn Kee-Chung who ran for Japan under his assumed Japanese name, Son Kitei, won the marathon for Japan at the 1936 Berlin games. A staunch nationalist, he refused to sign his name in Japanese, drawing the outline of Korea beside his signature and made sure reporters knew Korea was his homeland. This gave him a degree of notoriety in Korea which was further developed when a picture of him on the dais was published in a Korean newspaper which deliberately obscured the Japanese flag. Late recognition of his patriotism was given in the 1988 Seoul Olympics when he led the Olympic torch into the stadium.
|Sohn Kee Chung, a Korean who won the gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics while running for Japan.|
Rather than a master trying to keep down its dog, the spelling of Korea is more likely a case where the flexibility and inaccuracy of English and the problems associated with accurately translating foreign names is at fault rather than a grand Japanese plan. As one blogger wrote, Korea should feel lucky that the transliteration is close and actually is related to Korea (Korea is believed to be derived from Koryeo, an early Korean dynasty). After all, China bears no relation to its Mandarin counterpart, Zhong Goa. Or Japan itself, which is Nippon in Japanese. And the Japanese themselves didn’t refer to Korea as Korea, instead they called it Tae Han Chejkuk or Choseon. These seem similar to South Korea’s current name Tae Han Min Guk or North Korea’s name Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk. Think this is another case of Koreans being too easily wounded.
While sometimes you could feel Korea is trying to invent ways that Japan has insulted it, the truth is it has been severely wronged by Japan in the past. Japan has invaded Korea twice, once in the late 16th Century and again in the late 19th Century. The latter invasion is where most of today’s bitterness and hostility comes from. Japan started a policy of replacing China as the major player in the Korean sphere of influence in the 1870s shortly after the Meiji reform. Starting with gunboat diplomacy, they forced Korea into unequal treaties before upping the stakes in 1895 with the assassination of the strongly nationalistic Queen Min, who was making appeals to both China and Russia for help to overcome the Japanese dominance. In 1905, Japan persuaded the puppet emperor to sign a treaty that made Korea a protectorate and in 1910, encouraged by a non-intervention treaty signed with the USA, completed the formal annexation, effectively ending the 500-year-old Joseon dynasty. Opposition to this was widespread in the community. In 1919, US president Woodrow Wilson’s speech to the League of Nations about the right of people to be independent was seen as a sign the world would help Korea. However, a non-violent protest on the 1st of March 1919 was brutally repressed by the Japanese occupation forces (up to 8,000 were slaughtered) and it wasn’t until 1945 that Korea finally gained its independence.
During the occupation, Korean language and writing was banned with Japanese promoted as the language of education. The study of Hangeul (Korean script) was relegated to an elective. Its use was discouraged in homes. People were required to adopt Japanese names, like Sohn Kee-Chung did. Koreans were supposed to adopt Shinto, and leave behind their traditional Confusion-Buddhist thinking. Instead of aspiring to universities in Korea, now the highest honour was to attend Tokyo University. Koreans were expected to worship the Japanese emperor. Popular songs and poems written for the Korean emperors were changed to now give praise to the Japanese emperor. Korean history books were burnt. Inscriptions were changed in an attempt to conceal history. Local palaces and temples were burnt down or converted to other purposes, like Changdeokgung in Seoul which became a zoo. Gyeongbokgung, later rebuilt, was burnt down and replaced with the Japanese Governor-General Buildings. Looting of artifacts and national treasures was widespread. Koreans were used in military medical experiments, in tests involving biological warfare and experienced hardship from preventable famines. The Japanese seized ownership of traditional land. Koreans were shipped to mainland Japan in great numbers to work in military factories and heavy industry and put to forced labour in the mines of Manchuria. Military police patrolled the streets and dealt with rebels and independence fighters severely. Reports of massacres of villagers who collaborated with rebels being burnt alive in churches were not uncommon. Koreans living in Korea could not vote and didn’t have any local representation in the Japanese parliament. It has been branded a genocide, both of Korean humanity and culture.
|Changdeokgung was made into a zoo during the Japanese occupation.|
After the 1919 uprising, some concessions were allowed, including the publication of Korean newspapers, like the one that published the altered image of Sohn Kee Chung. A provisional Korean government was established in Shanghai and was popular in China, especially in Manchuria and Russia (where the future North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung was born). Armies were founded and guerrilla warfare was fought, especially in North Korea. Since the liberation and subsequent splitting of Korea in 1945, both North and South Korea have listed grievances and complaints with the Japanese government. Some of these have been addressed but the Japanese reluctance to offer apology and recompense is well known. The wording of Japanese textbooks of history over the war period has raised South Korean hackles. One major issue yet to be fully resolved revolve around the use of Korean woman as sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial army, euphemistically known as comfort women. These poor women served as mere sex objects for countless Japanese soldiers, many left with on-going medical complaints, broken both physically and mentally. These women have appealed for compensation and recognition of their suffering, something that has been denied to them by Japanese courts that cite lack of evidence. No formal apology has yet been made by the Japanese government and the woman, most of whom are now elderly, must fear they will never see one. Their very existence is rejected in school textbooks that omit any mention of comfort women, and downplays the impact that the Japanese occupation had on Korea, China and to a lesser extent South East Asia.
Another Korean grievance involves the visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese Prime Ministers. This Tokyo Shinto shrine in a peaceful idyllic setting memorializes all of Japan’s war dead since the Meiji reform. Unfortunately, it also honours non–Shinto Korean soldiers whose families wish to see their names released from the shrine so that they can be worshipped in a way they feel more appropriate. The biggest issue involved with Yasukuni Shrine involves the internment of the souls of 23 executed Korean war criminals (Class B and C) as well as 14 Class A Japanese war criminals from the top echelon of the Japanese war machine. Basically what infuriates Korea and China is that a visit to the shrine effectively serves as a worship of Japan’s war dead, including these notorious war criminals, some of whom were responsible for atrocities in both countries. The visits by former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi “to pay homage to the servicemen who died for defense of Japan” led to the pullout of summit talks with Japan by both China and Korea.
Talk of compensation and apology are still a burning issue. While compensation was agreed upon and paid by Japan in 1965, the money given to the South Korean Government was mostly used for economic development and not used as compensation for individuals. The South Korean government at the time chose not to have Japan grant individual compensation. This has been challenged of late and groups of war survivors have actually filed against the South Korean government to seek compensation. Apologies have been offered by the Japanese government to the people of Korea but have been made in a way that the true intent and sincerity have been questioned. For example, politicians have made apologies overseas that have been recanted when in Japan. Apologies have been made but actions then cast a shadow on their sincerity e.g. Koizumi giving a heartfelt apology but then he or other politicians attended the Yasukuni shrine.
It seems strange to me that the Japanese can inspire such long-lasting resentment. When traveling in Japan, I found the Japanese to be courteous and kind people. Sometimes, it seems that hatred and resentment of Japan is encouraged. The area of Seoul called Seodaemun houses the impressive arch called the Independence Gate, a nice park and a chilling museum that was used by the Japanese during their latest occupation to jail Korean independence activists.
|In a cell in Seodaemun prison, one of the most brutal museums I've been to.|
Both male and female freedom fighters were housed here and their plight is detailed graphically. The bottom floor has animated mannequins of both the Japanese and Koreans. One scene shows Japanese raping Korean women, another shows Japanese torturing Koreans by inserting bamboo rods under their fingernails. The ground floor of the museum was kept like it was when it was a prison, with some of the small, poorly lit cells open for the public to look in. Outside the main building were photos and stories of some of the dead and an execution room, where people were hung, shot and tortured and otherwise killed. The day we went was a Saturday morning and several school groups were there (Korean kids attend school every second Saturday morning). Some of the pictures and the animated mannequins were disturbing enough for adults, let alone kids. But the schoolchildren seemed to be taking it all in. Their teachers seemed to be encouraging them to view the most horrific scenes. And some of these kids were under 10. If museums could be rated, this would be an R18. I guess it might be part of a great plan to ensure that Koreans don’t forgive and never forget that the Japanese committed such atrocities, no matter how much they might like manga or Japanese bands.
I will put my hand up and say that this hatred of Japan and that’s not a word I use lightly, could be used to a teachers advantage in class. Mention Japan to an unresponsive class and you would be almost guaranteed an impassioned response. Students with seemingly no English ability would string together an English sentence of violent vitriol directed to the Japanese. An articulate dismantling of Japan and a coherent listing of legitimate Korean grievances.
I have been guilty myself of small scale protest against Japan. My first year in Korea, a Japanese film crew come across the East Sea to discover and document how the kids coped in an all English immersion environment. We were filmed playing a type of genetically engineered scrabble where the kids made sentences using oversized scrabble letters. I must have been bored or in a subversive mood so I didn’t mind when the kids spelt out sentences like “Dokdo is ours”. The kids got into the nationalistic spirit composing messages like “Koizumi (Japanese PM) is a monkey”. The feed was beaming live into TV sets all over Japan, with the Japanese reporter commenting on how great our English program must be, considering the great phrases the kids could come up. And the best part was that no one (the Japanese film crew or our administration) picked up in it. In hindsight, I was lucky it didn't cause a diplomatic feud. I’ve been to Japan three times and I’ve always come away with positive feelings. I wish I hadn’t encouraged this slice of anti-Japanese sentiment. Why can’t we all be friends?