More on South Korean ‘Anti-Japanism’ and the Intra-Korean Legitimacy Contest

Nationwide :

The challenge to South Korea this picture represents is my argument for where South Korea’s extraordinary national hang-up about Japan comes from.

Last month, I wrote about ‘anti-Japanism’ in South Korea. I tried to make an argument for why I thought it went beyond just what Japan did in the colonial period. Remember that North Korea does not villainize Japan the way South Korea does.

The challenge to South Korea this picture represents is my argument for where South Korea’s extraordinary national hang-up about Japan comes from.

Last month, I wrote about ‘anti-Japanism’ in South Korea. I tried to make an argument for why I thought it went beyond just what Japan did in the colonial period. Remember that North Korea does not villainize Japan the way South Korea does.

I lot of readers didn’t get the argument, and a lot rejected it. So I thought I’d try again. Once again, when it comes to comments on this thorny issue, spare me the hate-mail and the racism. Read this before telling me that I am a Japanese ‘parasite’ or whatever. Thank you.

This article was first published at the Lowy Institute, here. It starts after the jump.



Last month I wrote about the possibility of ‘Korea fatigue’ – a Japanese term for Korea’s relentless criticism of Japan regarding WWII – coming to the US. That was one of my most-read posts at the Interpreter, and I received a lot of comments and retweets regarding my suggestion that South Korea’s ‘anti-Japanism’ flows from its debilitating, long-term national legitimacy contest with North Korea. So I thought I would flesh out the argument more clearly.

It is immediately obvious to anyone who has spent substantial time in South Korea that both its people and elites have an extraordinary, and negative, fixation with Japan. Korea’s media talk about Japan incessantly, usually with little journalistic objectivity and in negative terms: as a competitor for export markets who must be overcome, a rival for American attention, an unrepentant colonialist, a recipient of the ‘Korean Wave’ (watch for Korean analyses of the Korean Wave triumphantly arguing that Japanese housewives are learning Korean), a lurking military imperialist just waiting to subdue Asia again, and so on.

Korea’s territorial dispute with Japan over the Liancourt Rocks is similarly illustrative. A major Korean newspaper actually suggested samurai might invade Dokdo (the Korean name for the Rocks). The government has taken out advertisements in Western newspapers and Korean pop stars have sought to act as ‘ambassadors’ to the world to press Korea’s claim. The Korean military holds war-drills around Dokdo, despite Japan’s alliance to the US. Political stunts at athletic events have undermined Japan’s willingness to participate in joint sports events with Korea. The government has launched a global campaign to rename the ‘Sea of Japan’ the ‘East Sea’ (in the belief that doing so reinforces its claim to the Rocks) and even considered pushing Psy to rework his hit-song “Gangnam Style” as “Dokdo Style.” Foreign students in Korea get pulled into this campaign too – again on the assumption that (gullible) foreigners add credibility. I have ridden on subway cars painted with the likeness of Dokdo, and I recall watching a documentary on Korean television on the 20th anniversary of Korea’s accession to the UN where the political highlight of joining was defined as the ability to press Japan on Dokdo and the war.

On Korean independence day, Korean children use squirt guns to mock-kill dressed-up Japanese soldiers (yes, really), and I have attended sound-and-light shows on that day which portray the Imjin War of the 1590s as part of one long millennial Japanese effort to dominate Korea, culminating in the 1910 annexation. It is a staple of Korean historiography that Japan has invaded the country dozens or even hundreds of times (most of these were actually pirate raids), and that Japan ‘received’ its culture via the Korean ‘bridge.’ Perhaps the most ridiculous example I can think of is a talk-show guest who was forced to apologize for wearing a red-and-white striped shirt that looked vaguely like the rising sun flag. This ‘anti-Japanism,’ as Victor Cha has termed it, has spread to the United States were ethnic Korean lobbying has brought comfort women memorials and changes to US textbooks. I could continue, but the point is that, as a social science observation, this obsession cries out for explanation, and it is hard to imagine that all this is just about the war seventy years ago. (This is not to say Korea’s historical concerns are not authentic. They are.)

One obvious explanation for the sheer intensity of feeling is that South Korea’s disputes with Japan have graduated from politics to identity. As Cha noted, South Korea’s nationalism is negative, based very much against Japan and, importantly, not against North Korea. The reason for this, I hypothesize, is that North Korea so successfully manipulates Korean nationalist discourse, that South Korea cannot define itself against North Korea, as the West Germany did against East Germany. So South Korea uses a third party against which to prove its nationalist bona fides in its national legitimacy competition with the North.

It is now widely accepted that North Korea’s real ideology is not socialism, but a race-based Korean nationalism in which the DRPK is defending the Korean race (the minjok) against foreign depredation. The ‘Yankee Colony’ South Korea – with its internationalized economy, American military presence, cultural westernization, resident foreign population, and so on – cannot compete with this racial purity narrative.

This would not matter if South Korea’s political identity were democratic and post-racial, but it is not. The minjok myth is in fact deeply resonant. South Korean education teaches it (the resultant racism is a huge problem); government media campaigns and commercials stress it; my students write about it in glowing terms; until a few years the national pledge of allegiance was to the minjok, not the democratic state. Nor does South Korea’s democracy (unfortunately) provide a strong legitimacy competitor to race nationalism. Corruption, illiberalism, and an elitist political opportunity structure have generated a robust street protest culture, a strong sign that elections are weak vessels of legitimacy.

If South Korea can only weakly legitimate itself through democratic proceduralism and race nationalism is so powerful, then Seoul must go head-to-head with Pyongyang over who is the best custodian of the minjok and its glorious 5,000 year history. This is a tussle South Korea cannot win, not only because of the North’s mendacious willingness to falsify history, but South Korea’s westernized culture, massive US presence, rising multiculturalism leading to mixed race citizens, and so on. The North’s purer minjok nationalism will always have resonance in the South, where former dictator Park Chung Hee invoked the ‘race’ for a generation for legitimacy, 10% of the public voted for an openly pro-North Korean party in the last parliamentary election, and the main left-wing party has consistently equivocated on whether the US represents a greater threat to South Korea than North Korea.

Enter Japan, then, as useful national Other to South Korea, in the place that really should be held by North Korea. All Koreans, north and south, right and left, agree that the colonial take-over was bad. The morality of criticizing Japan is undisputed, whereas criticizing North Korea quickly gets tangled up in the ‘who-can-out-minjok-who’ issues raised above. This should not be necessary. West Germany was able to define itself against the East and win that legitimacy competition. But the North has dumped Marxism for a legitimacy language that resonates in the South too. Democracy is not enough to combat this (likely due to elitist corruption as much as enduring race thinking), nor can the South out-minjok the North on its own.

So beating up on Japan is great solution. It:

1) bolsters South Korea as defender of the minjok and therefore its ‘state-ness’ as an awkward half-country,

2) sidesteps a brutal head-to-head nationalist competition with the North which might provoke open Northern sympathies in the south, and

3) ignores the long-term need to shift South Korean political legitimacy from race (and the inevitable racism it provokes) toward democracy, which in turn would require a desperately needed clean-up of Korean politics at the expense of today’s entrenched elites, most notably the chaebol.

All in all, anti-Japanism is a pretty good strategy for managing South Korea’s many tensions, and so long as the Americans are around, there are no geopolitical consequences to it either. What’s not to like? If South Korea cannot be the anti-North Korea, then it can be the anti-Japan.

Filed under: History, Japan, Korea (North), Korea (South), Minjok, North Korea & the Left

1 thought on “More on South Korean ‘Anti-Japanism’ and the Intra-Korean Legitimacy Contest”

  1. Re: More on South Korean ‘Anti-Japanism’ and the …

    Yeah a lot of this anti sentiment is passed from their parents to their kids etc.  So that soon, all the people alive and living in both countries will have had no action or responsibility and have zero participation in the issue at hand.  So even though the next generation will roll around, all the anti-sentiment and hate will get passed to kids im sure.  

    Same thing thing has happened with racism in the U.S.  Its parents passing it to their kids (obviously there are hate groups as well)



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