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April 25, 2006




Ahem. You might want to rethink your labor of reason here. Your arguments are only going to infuriate Koreans who will doubtless take umbrage at the notion that sufferings experienced by the nation in view of its "great history" can be compared to the sufferings of Africans, Hindus and others who are of generally no consequence in the greater scheme of things. Better let sleeping dogs gasoline to fire etc.

[...Few of the English "teaching" Nova journeymen who love to berate Nigerians hawking goods in Roppongi could lay claim to a comparable level of fluency, in my experience...]

Do you visit the Japan Today forums? Boy! They do bash those Roppongi Nigerians on those forums once in a though it were a crime to get paid. Though, I have heard it said that fluency in certain West African languages makes it easier to transit to Japanese...I guess the phonetics are very similar.


"Your arguments are only going to infuriate Koreans who will doubtless take umbrage at the notion that sufferings experienced by the nation in view of its "great history" can be compared to the sufferings of Africans, Hindus and others who are of generally no consequence in the greater scheme of things. Better let sleeping dogs gasoline to fire etc."

Yes, you're right of course. What on Earth was I thinking to compare such swarthy inferiors to the travails of Daehanminguk, the only nation in the world which can boast of homogenous pure blood untainted by foreigners in 5000 years of history? That I should even speak of their sufferings in the same breath as with those of mere blacks is obviously an unforgiveable slight on my part which I must devote the rest of my puny existence to atoning for. Where do I go to get my "Dokdo Belongs to Korea" headband?


[...I must devote the rest of my puny existence to atoning for...]

Right you are, sir. And to begin your gruelling passion, first, we send you off to the North Pole, where Saints await to begin your purgatory:

and in succession, you will bear this righteous Gospel to:

Penguins, The Moon People, Desert Tribes, Newscasters and their audiences, Wrestling fans, Jesus Christ himself and his apostles, Aliens and others.

See details in the scared text here:

Make no mistake, you *will* preach this Gospel and you *will* atone. Preach! Lest your blasphemy be your eternal damnation.

PS: Those parodies are just freaking hilarious.


And in other news...


Abiola, I have been looking for that one for ages, thanks! I think the main point here is that when Korean taboos are challenged (in this case by the polemic of the Africans on koko ga hen) the Koreans are unable to participate rationally in discussion without using foul language ("kono yarou!").

Won Joon Choe

Abiola, I wrote a brief response but it could not be posted because I was "comment spamming" or something to that effect. I am bewildered, given:

1. I tried to post it only once;

2. It was not a particularly long post;

3. I have never before intentionally spammed or posted inappropriate material here.


It's nothing to do with anything I've done, so it has to be some sort of TypePad bug. I could post it manually if you send it to me via email.

Actually, I see you already have. Here it is included below:

[Abiola, Kenji sent an e-mail to a number of our mutual classmates to discuss the Japan-Korea conflict in the context of your recent Blog posts, but I missed this particular post.

I can't reply in detail at the moment due to current health problems: I have been bed-ridden with a respiratory infection for more than three weeks, and I also accidentally injured my right eye and partially lost eyesight there temporarily. But even if I were well, it may be prudent if I speak sparingly about this issue in my own name anyways.

But I would like to briefly make a few points at least to demonstrate that not all Koreans are so blinded by faux nationalism (I call it "faux" nationalism, because unlike the real nationalists, South Korean "nationalists" are for most part bourgeois posers who are prone to theatrics but most likely unwilling to undertake the type of self-sacrifice that a genuine nationalist morality requires:

I agree that South Korea's account of its own suffering at the hand of its Japanese colonial masters is greatly exaggerated, esp. in comparison to other colonialist examples. I also think that Japan has more than atoned for its sins with, to mention at the least, its stupendous largesse as a part of Park Chung Hee's Normalization Treaty deal in 1965.

As to the cause of South Korea's continued belligerence toward Japan, I can think of two reasons.

First, there is a sense of perceived cultural and racial superiority stemming from traditional Korean cosmology. In that great Sinocentric chain of being, Japan was an altogether inferior entity. In it, China was at the top with Korea occupying a middle region, above the "barbarian" peoples among which Japan was also numbered.

So the reversal of fortune, so to speak, where Japan forged ahead in recent history hurts Koreans far more than would have been the case if--say--China had colonized Korea instead. The latter would have been rationalized as merely the "natural order of things," to be only slightly hyperbolic.

Now the point about China brings me to my second reason. Historically, China has inflicted far more atrocities toward Korea than China. Further, the Chinese atrocities were more proximate: see Mao's intervention in the Korean War. So "suffering" alone cannot be the cause of the South Korea's animus toward Japan or South Korea's greater animus toward Japan than China.

My point? Korea is belligerent toward Japan also partly because Japan--unlike, say, China--is not a serious military threat to South Korea for a variety of reasons. Compare South Korea's near-lunatic response to Japan's Dok Do claims to South Korea's more measured and almost docile response to China's claims on Koguryo. South Korea in other words is acting as a bully.]


I have to say I completely agree with your comments by the way: the surest evidence that this is feelgood, cut-price nationalism which involves no costs to those who indulge it is that the very same government which makes a hue and cry over Dokdo is the one which now turns back North Korean refugees, abstains from UN votes condemning DPRK rights abuses, and is unflagging in looking up ways to prop up the regime.

The general impression I get is that for all the "brotherhood" rhetoric, most South Koreans aren't in the least eager to give up their hard-earned prosperity by taking on the tremendous burden that a collapsed DPRK would represent, as they recognize all too well with the East German example to refer to. As such, fanning petty disputes with a neighbor not in the least likely to respond in a threatening manner is a safe way to distract oneself from the pangs of guilt which would otherwise be weighing all these fairweather "nationalists" down.

Won Joon Choe

A "hyung" I know who does a lot of business in Asia sent me this response to my post here, Abiola. I thought it may be worthwhile to post it here as well:

"Won Joon,

While I agree with you on your identification of the causes of the Korean animosity toward Japan, I see those as the sparks and no longer the sole or overriding causes (or maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part to hope policymakers in Korea are more strategic than they outwardly appear). I especially agree with your first explanation, but I am pre-disposed to give weight to economic factors due to my work and education. I don’t mean to entirely brush aside the emotional rationales, but think that policies are often built on a foundation of emotions, but that foundation serves economic interests. Further, I do not know or understand the entire historic context and would never claim to.

As an aside, though you didn't actually say this in the preceding emails, there seems to a hint that you view liberal politicians as more likely to exploit animosity and nationalism than conservatives. I would argue that there has been no shortage of conservative populists politicians who exploited irrational emotions. Case and point are the former autocrats of Korea who used the “red scare” to justify brutality against their opposition.

To go back to my economic justifications tilt, I think that Park’s efforts to normalize relations with Japan had, in part, to do with a desire to get knowledge transfers and direct investments from Japan. Those objectives no longer exist.

I don’t doubt that business interests in Korea are behind some of the rhetoric against Japan. Consider for instance that China is now Korea’s largest trading partner. Also, Korean companies are increasingly competing directly with their far more mature Japanese counterpart both in terms of markets for products and access to human resources and component materials. The battleground for both is being fought heavily in China. So, Korea’s interest is to cause China to consider Korea as the more favorable economic partner than Japan. Korea can’t hope to compete against Japan in sheer economic might, but it can use political means to gain favor.

My contacts throughout Asia tell me that one reason that Korean dramas and music are so popular throughout Asia is simply that Korea is not Japan. After all, the formulaic approaches to pop entertainment in both countries are virtually identical, but many consumers in Asia can not stomach the idea of absorbing Japanese culture as it would psychologically equal cultural colonialism. They don’t realize that Korean entertainment is modeled after Japanese.

The continuing disagreement over Dokdo/Takashima hinges on existing economic interests and potentially huge economic interests. For the Japanese, fishery stock closer to Japan are being depleted and the fishermen of Oki desperately want to exercise what they view as their rights to fish on the waters surrounding Takashina. But the economic ante was heightened with the discovery of what might be a significant natural gas field around Dokdo. Korea has stated that the field may generate enough gas to supply Korea’s entire consumption for 30 years. Japan's Foregin Ministry remarks became less conciliatory once this discovery was made, and it appears the Japanese surveying attempts are intended to confirm the gas fields.

I whole-heartedly agree that China poses a much larger threat to security and economic instability to both Korea and Japan. But in Korea’s eyes, China is a behemoth that even if Korea tried to be a thorn, there could only be two outcomes, either China won’t even notice or China would simply obliterate Korea politically and economically. Japan is not, can not and doesn’t want to be a military threat to Korea. The broad Japanese public is pacifist. And if Japan ever engaged in a non-peacekeeping military action, it would lose its public image effort in Asia, especially when Japan wants a greater role in global diplomacy. Knowing this emboldens Korea and China to berate Japan on petty issues. I don’t think Korea is acting as a bully so much as a spoiled younger sibling.

I don’t think that the rest of Asia truly views China as a benign regional power. Throughout Southeast Asia, there is heightened anxiety as cheap labor is no longer their realm. Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are the high-cost alternatives now. Further, each of those countries has had recent violence targeting their Chinese minorities and continuing resentment. China’s vilification of Japan may be an attempt to take the pressure off of itself and its expats throughout Asia who serve as the agents to Chinese inroad in those economies.

Once again, most of what I’ve said is conjecture based on how I look at strategic behavior. Some anecdotal observations from my discussions people in business and finance."


I think I have noted Won Joon Choe's bias towards Korean conservatives before - though the thread eludes me here: Though I must say I disagree with the general materialist trend of the response to WJC's post, even though I totally understand this perspective (it is a common enough one, invoked to explain every blight of bigtory). Why? The rhetoric directed at Japan does not exist in isolation. We must view the anti-Japanese rhetoric of Korea as being part of a mosaic that includes its general anti-Americanism, racial puritanism etc. If the economic competition argument held; then how are we to explain Korean anti-Americanism, which issues from the same fount as its anti-Japanese counterpart? One might argue that these are all different phenomena but I think not: Africa bashing, India bashing, Japan bashing, American bashing: In short, Foreigner bashing is the wider picture here: and an economic explanation will not suffice. Japan is only one part of the picture. Economic man (that bedevilled criminal of all political history) is a tool of fundamentally Psychological man; otherwise, our theories of economic utility and value would make no sense.
But then, I totally agree with the notion that other Asians do not neccesarily view China as harmless tho' I do think that Korea *is* in fact acting like a bully (since the construction of the narrative emphasizes Korean a historical Korean strength i.e. from Hyomilryu: "How it was originally"), I think many Koreans have this deluded sense of their own power which feeds the role of the bully in this narrative.
And I think the reason Japanese art forms arent more popular in Asia has nothing to do with fears Cultural Imperialism. It has to do with the generally restrained character of the Japanese scene itself: If the Japanese were more aggressive in pushing themselves, I do not doubt that more penetrance would occur (as is actually now happening in the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, etc)


Won Joon,

I think your friend has much to say that is of interest, but he overplays the importance of any economic angle to this strife: for one thing, Japan is still a *major* source of both funds and technology transfer for Korea in a way that China is not and is unlikely to be in the next few decades, and on a tradeable (as opposed to PPP) basis, the Japanese market is at least as large a target for Korean exporters as China's: should North Korea ever collapse, Korea is going to find that by far the biggest potential international lender will be its next door neighbor, rather than debt-ridden America. Finally, as far as economic competition in China goes, Korean firms are going to compete on the basis of value for money like everywhere else; even an intense dislike of Japan is unlikely to make a big difference in favor of Korean merchandise: evidence for is that all the Chinese anti-Japanese rhetoric of last year did virtually nothing to dent Chinese demand for Japanese goods. My feeling is that the big firms like Samsung and Hyundai are in fact the *least* likely power bloc in Korea to want bad relations with Japan, just as Keidanren is at the forefront of those Japanese elites pushing Koizumi to adopt a more emollient foreign policy. Profit-oriented exporters aren't as easily distracted by the siren song of ultranationalism as most people.

Your contact has more of a point when he says that Korean cultural exports are preferred in parts of Asia simply because they aren't Japanese, though I think this effect is mostly confined to mainland China - from all indications Japanese music and fashion retain as much cachet as ever in Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong, so that can't be what gives Korean movie and TV an edge in those markets. To attribute Korean success in these fields largely to its merely being non-Japanese is, I think, both to sell its quality short and to ignore certain cultural realities which naturally give Korea an edge: many of the stories being told in Korean film and TV are engrossing in their own right, and the production quality of the latest stuff is generally top-notch, while the much stronger Confucian ethos in Korea means that the "moral values" on show are a lot more comfortable for many Asian audiences than those of a Japan which seems so much closer to the West in matters of sex, individualism, respect for old age, etc.

As for the economic importance of Dokdo, my own perception is that the claims of hidden energy reserves and suchlike are post-hoc rationalizations for investing so much emotional and political energy on retaining command of such an insignificant geographical feature. If Dokdo were some sort of North-East Asian Kuwait, you'd think some oil companies would be sniffing around the place, seeing as they routinely do business in much more dangerous locales. Even the fisheries argument strikes me as mostly unpersuasive: the North Sea fishing catch is worth a lot more than what can be had from around Dokdo, and yet Europeans have managed to contain their disputes over it despite the existence of important domestic fishing lobbies. Also contra your friend's argument, there is in fact virtually no mention of oil and gas reserves in the Japanese press where Dokdo is concerned, and the survey proposal was really just a useful means to get the Roh administration to back down on its feature renaming campaign. Dokdo is purely about symbolism - it is the Stalingrad of Korean-Japanese relations - and the "economics" talk is just a face-saving excuse to continue a clearly silly dispute. The Irish don't go ballistic over Rockall, after all.

In short, I think your contact attributes too much rationality to those invested in continuing this dispute between Korea and Japan, as from everything I can see the two countries have extremely powerful economic reasons to want to get along as closely as possible. Like Chuckles, I have to lay the finger elsewhere, to an exaggerated sense of national pride which is itself an attempt to cover up feelings of inferiority: that is why one sees routine references to "pure bloodlines" and the supposed "bastardization" of the Japanese even by ordinary commenters online, that is why one sees childish displays like the threats against Apollo Ohno, that is why we saw Ahn Jung Hwan's shameless speed-skating display during the 2002 World Cup, that is why the Korean team went flag-planting during this year's WBC, that is why many Koreans where openly ecstatic upon hearing of 9/11, that is why there was a poll not so long ago in which America was ranked a bigger threat than North Korea, etc., etc. Korean ultranationalism is observable in relations with all other countries with the possible exception of China, and Japan just happens to be the one country whose proximity, past overlordship and current greater wealth tests the claims to superiority most intensely, with the "humiliation" of the visible American "imperialist" presence coming not far behind, reminding too many chauvinists as it does that their "great" country relies on these foreign barbarians for its defense (with many of them being non-white "savages" to boot).

By far the strongest points your acquaintance makes, lie, I think, in his discussion of domestic Japanese attitudes towards military conflict, and the much bigger threat China poses in the eyes of most of the rest of Asia. As popularity ratings go, Japan scores extremely well with the rest of the wider world outside of its two angry neighbors

so it really is more than hot air to say that the country's preference for quiet diplomacy has made a difference in perceptions, as opposed to being a prejudice of Japan-partisans. Filipinos and Indonesians love the Japanese even more than the Americans and the Aussies do, and the *only* countries in which it has a net negative rating are in its two perenially aggrieved neighbors China and Korea.

Also as your friend notes, today's Japanese are very much a pacifistic people, much to the regret of many on the country's hard right, and it's only with the incessant sabre rattling of North Korea and China's massive arms build up that Japanese domestic opinion has begun to shift from regarding Article 9 as a sacred creed; even so, deployment of troops outside the country for any reason whatsoever remains deeply unpopular, even if for peacekeeping, while any politician who dared say Japan ought to think about acquiring nuclear weapons would end his career that very instant; if there is a war in East Asia, the one thing of which one can be sure is that it will *not* be started by Japan (China and North Korea are most likely to do so, and South Korea might someday blunder into one with a leader like Roh Moo-hyun in charge).

PS: The discussion on the following page

substantiates what I and Chuckles have said about Korean chauvinism: its most obvious target is Japan, but it is very much a general thing. I quote one participant on his (her) experiences teaching in Korea:

[" Yes, they hate Japan and there's a bloody, sad hisory there. But Dokto/Japan/comfort women/stealing our Kim chee is just the tip of the iceberg. Korean children hate - and that's the word they always use - all other races. No matter what age group I'm teaching, If there's a picture or reference to any race other that Korean, it's teacher I hate them. They are ugly. They are gargage. They are bad. One textbook has pictures of Nat King Cole and his daughter Natalie. Every day some kid inevitably flips forward to that page and starts making vomiting sounds. Teacher this is your "gorilla" wife. This is not normal, it's a sickness and I've told the Korean teachers so. Who is teaching them this? Why does a 7 year old feel the urge to vomit when they see a photo of a distinguished well dressed black man who can play the saxophone? What kind of future is in store for the world's 12th biggest economy, heading headlong into the international scene but still populated by people who believe ( and reinforce to their young) that anything not Korean is bad, less than human, and something to be used. For one's own gain. And they don't "grow out" of it. Times Square, Toronto, Timbuktu, where ever there is racism it is wrong and should be identified as so. "]

and another fellow says this:

[" Hey, yes this hate thing is the tip of the iceberg. All koreans are taught that Korea is the best and every other country is inferior (didnt another european country believe this? and commit atrocities in WWII?) I have a japanese wife and when i told my korean students this they were all shocked and demanded to know why i was married to a monster!! I have been told that she must be very bad, stupid and smell!! why? because shes Japanese!! Yes japan did some pretty atrocious things during WWII and earlier!! but stop blaming the young generation for the crimes of the old!! There was a write up about how the shrine in japan was visited by a korean whose father was buried there!! The shrine is in fact a memorial against ever waging war!!! it just seems some people with political motives just want to keep playing this card for their own agendas!! I also love my students!1 they work hard, have no social life or life that western children consider normal and for this they are rewarded by being fed rubbish like "fan death" and "korea is the best country in the world, so clean and the people friendly" almost laughable if it wasn`t true!!"]

and I won't even mention the absurd excuses for why such thinking is alright which were proferred by certain commenters in the thread. Here's more in the same vein:

I could multiply such examples indefinitely, but the pattern is consistent enough, I think, and *very* different from what one can read, say, here

written by a black American teaching in the outskirts of Kyoto, by the way. One shudders to think how he'd have been received in Korea, had anyone even bothered to offer him a job, that is (which, given rampant employer discrimination, would have been most unlikely) .


"yet Europeans have managed to contain their disputes over it despite the existence of important domestic fishing lobbies."

Some poking around Wikipedia prompted by Won Joon Choe's friend's post led to this article about the "Cod Wars" between the UK and Iceland involving ships actually attacking each other -

though from the article at least Britons and Icelanders didn't seem to be worked up in a frenzy about this.


I think it says something about the sheer lack of emotional involvement of the average Briton in such quarrels that I'd never heard about these "Cod Wars" until now. Interestingly enough, the same article mentions relatively recent clashes between Spanish ships and the Canadian Navy over fishing, which I also hadn't heard of. I'm also aware that there's some sort of dispute between Canada and Denmark over certain Arctic territories, but the general tenor of the commentary I've seen on the issue from both Danes and Canadians has been one of mockery (see e.g. this):

Arguments over sea rights are common all across the world, but only in certain countries - Greece and Turkey, Korea and Japan - do such clashes seize the imagination of the general public, and then only because of their nationalistic symbolism. In the case of Dokdo, the disparate responses of the two countries' citizens shows this up most clearly: the average Japanese person has either never heard of Takeshima or could care less what happened to it, while in Korea the President himself besmirches his office by virtually threatening war over a barren little bunch of rocks. If Dokdo didn't exist it would be Yasukuni, if not that textbooks, and if that too suddenly ceased to be an issue the pretext for a quarrel would shift to renaming the "Sea of Japan" to the "East Sea" or something equally absurd: the point is that some reason or other would be found for a dispute which at least very many Koreans seem intent on having.

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