I just published a long essay about Korea’s view of Japan for Newsweek Japan. Please contact me if you would like the Japanese version. Below is the reprint in English.
As so often when I write in this area, I immediately got hate-mail. So please, don’t bother telling how much this website sucks, that I’m a mouthpiece for whomever you dislike, that I am ‘taking sides,’ betraying Korea, and so on. I know Koreans and Japanese read critical analyses of one or the other in zero-sum terms. The essay below is not meant as a ‘Japanese win.’ It is meant to explore why Koreans exaggerate Japan so much. Why do Koreans routinely say things like Japan is run by right-wing fanatics who want to invade Dokdo with samurai? These statements are not only obviously false, they are ridiculous.
I have said before (here, here) that Koreans have legitimate grievances regarding Japan, particularly on Yasukuni and the comfort women. But Koreans don’t stop there; they go over-the-top with things like the Sea of Japan re-naming campaign, claims that Japan wants to invade Korea again, that Japanese behavior in Korea equates with the Holocaust, or that Dodko is worth going to war over – even though a Korean use of force against Japan would almost certainly eventuate a US departure from SK and dramatically reduce Korean security. Other victims of earlier Japanese imperialism don’t talk like this, and I think a lot of well-meaning Japanese, who do recognize what Japan did here, are genuinely baffled by all this.
So the puzzle, to put it in social science terms, is not why Koreans dislike Japan. There are grounds for that. But rather, why do Koreans (specifically the media) exaggerate those grievances so much that even sympathetic outlets (like this blog or American analysts more generally) feel compelled to call out the nonsense? That is actually a really good research question – but for all the hate-mail – if you are writing a PhD in this area.
Here is my primary hypothesis: ‘Japanphobia’ – the over-the-top Korean descriptions of Japan as some unrepentant imperial revanchist – serves S Korean domestic nationalist needs. Specifically Japan functions as a useful ‘other’ for the identity construction problem of a half-country (SK) facing a competitor (NK) that openly proclaims itself the real Korean national state against an imposter (SK). Trapped in who’s-more-nationalist-than-thou contest with NK, demonizing Japan is way for South Korea to compete with the North for Korean nationalist imagination. The RoK can posture as an instantiation of the minjok by criticizing Japan, which it can’t do by attacking NK, because NK says the same thing. Given that Koreans are more moved by the blood and cultural associations of the Chosun minjok than the dry, corrupt formalism of the RoK, the RoK desperately needs something to give itself some identity. Japan is that something. The RoK can’t connect convincingly with Koreans as the anti-DPRK, because too many South Koreans are ambiguous on NK. So the (post-dictatorial, democratic) RoK is the anti-Japan instead
NK routinely calls SK the ‘Yankee Colony’ to delegitimize it, but beating up on NK is not so easy in SK. A sizeable minority of S Koreans clandestinely sympathize with NK and agree that SK is too Americanized and not Korean enough. And NK cynically, relentlessly manipulates the evocative symbolism of Mt. Paektu to emotionally confuse the South. By contrast, Japan, the former colonialist, brings a convenient, black-and-white ‘moral clarity.’ It’s morally easy to condemn Japan. As a result, Dokdo gets fetishized (instead of now compromised Mt. Paekdu, the much more obvious geographic symbol of Korea) and Japan (not NK) becomes the state against which the RoK defines itself.
The full essay follows the jump. The framing is the recent trip by US Secretary of Defense Hagel to Tokyo and the furious grand strategy debate that touched off in Seoul. If the language seems a little ‘journalist-y,’ that’s because this was edited for readability by Newsweek.