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Rage Turned to Stone: South Korea's Hardened Resentment Against Japan

Shannon Smith

The few Koreans Smith has met who aren't riding the anti-Japanese bandwagon hint that their open-mindedness makes them feel as if they are shirking their nationalistic duty.

With wide-spread broadband access and the majority of the population clustered in cities teeming with high rise apartment complexes, Koreans communicate constantly, spreading trends across their small but dense country in snowballing mass movements with impressive speed. The objects of the crazes range from films, video games and fashion to flaming nationalistic passions that the rapid spread of information only aids. Japan, it seems, is forever kicked around as a hot target for anger in South Korean cyberspace and psyche. As Bae Myong-bok, the International Affairs editor of the JoonAng Ilbo (a popular daily translated as an insert for the International Herald Tribune) wrote, noting this phenomena in a recent editorial, "We [Koreans] seem to have a resent-Japan gene."

Indeed, while attitudes on other nation-based social issues like North Korean reunification and America's policies vary dramatically from generation-to-generation, commonly shared opinions about Japan span all ages, forming perhaps the greatest consensus in an intensely homogenous society. In South Korea, nearly everyone hates Japan. The few Koreans I've met who aren't riding the anti-Japanese bandwagon hint that their open-mindedness makes them feel as if they are shirking their nationalistic duty. Even among my middle school students, perhaps the most lenient with Japan � on account of their youth spent adoring anime, video games and pop music imported from across the East Sea (because, if you are Korean, that's what you call the body of water that the rest of the world knows as "The Sea of Japan") � hardly hesitate at the chance to show their disdain for the Japanese race as a whole, when the opportunity presents itself.

During a recent school lesson I taught on interacting with neighbors, when I asked if the children liked "neighbor" Japan, I was greeted with jeers and catcalls, as if the classroom had just turned into a baseball game and I'd said the name of the team that beat the home team in last year's World Series. If I instruct the children to draw a picture, even a self-portrait, it's no longer surprising for someone to willfully misunderstand the assignment, and sketch instead a distorted Japanese caricature with slanted eyes and a pig nose, resembling of those newspaper cartoons Dr. Seuss churned out during WWII. When presented with such depiction, I am, of course, expected to laugh.

Perhaps middle school has changed since I left, but I have difficulty imagining a young student in the US showing their teacher, say, an emaciated Arabic person wearing an exaggerated turban and a wielding machine gun in hopes of receiving an approving chuckle from the teacher. Presumably � ideally, anyway � in the states a kid would be punished for such unbridled, racist mockery. Yet while Americans have been trained to codify discrimination, Koreans wear their prejudices on their sleeve. For example, while African-Americans confront socially embedded racism in the US, here, if they were to visit downtown Daegu, they could enjoy a meal at "Uncle Tom's Cabin", a restaurant whose mascot, featured on the marquee and menus is the face of bearded black man designed to resemble a monkey.

Overt racist depictions of black people most Koreans will never meet is one thing; regarding the Japanese, however, Koreans harbor feelings of hatred the word "prejudice" fails to do justice to. Not without reason. Japan turned Korea into a protectorate in 1904 and a full-out colony in 1910, ransacking the country with all the destructiveness one would expect from colonizers bent on completely eradicating the native culture. Gyeongbokgung, the Royal Palace, was 85 percent destroyed and replaced with Japanese government buildings constructed so precisely that when viewed from the air they shape the Chinese characters for "Japan". Changgyeonggung, another palace in Seoul, was turned into a zoo. Confucian topknots were shorn and Japan was taught as the official language in schools. Near the end of the occupation, the Japanese completely forbade the speaking of Korean, forced Koreans to adopt Japanese names, and compelled them to worship at Shinto shrines that had been constructed in Korea to celebrate the national religion of Japan.

During World War II, short on manual labor, the Japanese forcefully removed hundreds of thousands of Koreans to Japan to perform tasks ranging from agriculture to mining to digging a giant bunker near Mount Fuji for high government officials to hide in during the expected but never materializing final battle for Japan. Other Koreans were conscripted into the Japanese army and sent to die fighting against the Chinese with the Japanese military. Even today, the "Zainichi", a Japanese word that literally means "to stay in Japan" but that serves as a name for the descendants of Koreans who remained in Japan after the end of WWII, face such harsh discrimination in their daily lives that most of them assume Japanese names and citizenship in attempts to avoid humiliation. If the Zainichi return to Korea, however, they find themselves fighting prejudice from native Koreans, as if their Japanese childhoods tainted them and made them "un-Korean".

Many of the women in occupied Korea fared little better. Japanese forced an estimated 200,000 women across Asia (the figure the Korea government uses; other estimates range from 20,000 to 300,000), about 70 percent of whom where Korean, into the position of "comfort women", today's polite euphemism for "sex slave". The women serviced from 10 to 30 Japanese soldiers a day and of those who survived abuse and disease, none have yet to receive any legal compensation. At the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on every Wednesday since 1992, surviving "comfort women" demonstrate outside the Embassy walls, demanding an apology and restitution.

As one may guess from Japan's refusal to settle with the comfort women, after WWII Japan did little to heal rifts with Korea. Japanese prime ministers have offered apologies in regards to war crimes in general, but their "deep remorse and heartfelt apology", as Prime Minister Koizumi recently put it, is contradicted, in Korean eyes, by the frequent visit of Japanese leaders to Yasukuni Shrine, a shrine that commemorates Japanese war dead and houses war criminals. Last Friday, for example, the same day that Koizumi was offering apologies in Jakarta, a large contingent of national lawmakers were paying their respects at Yasukuni. Further lending support to Korean claims about platitudinous regrets is Japan's continuing refusal to educate their schoolchildren truthfully about its militaristic and cruel wartime ways.

It should be said, though, that despite their outrage over Japan's textbooks, the honesty of Korean textbooks towards the Japanese remains eminently questionable. Publishers must receive government approval for their books and although Korean leaders approve of historical lessons of the hardships Koreans endured under Japanese occupation, they currently forbid teaching history that addresses such complex matters as those Koreans who collaborated with the Japanese colonial government, and they certainly won't authorize lessons on the role Japan played in modernizing the occupied country, improving especially banking, railroads, and agriculture to the point where economic growth rates for Korea often surpass those of Japan.

Despite the oppression and force used to obtain it, this industrial modernization was hardly insignificant. For the centuries before the Japanese "opened" Korea, the occupied country had shut its doors so solidly to the outside world and its innovations that it earned the nickname, " The Hermit Kingdom". Although I lack the linguistic skills to read Korean textbooks, the fact that the books alter history to promote government PR becomes obvious when one enters classroom after classroom full of students eager to profess, with the nodding approval of adults, their hatred for Japan.

But ironically, these severe historical transgressions � the enslavement of the Korean people, the near-destruction of their culture, and the Japanese refusal to admit to their wrongs in history textbooks � are not at the center of the current anti-Japan tsunami tearing through Korea. Rather, the emotional issue tugging at the heart of the average Korean more than any historically important and therefore, dare I say, "rational issue", and a matter that invokes cultural responses in video game programming, sloganeering advertising, captions on t-shirts � all the way to excruciating but highly symbolic bodily disfiguration and even death � is a little place called "Dokdo". Or "Takeshima", as the Japanese call it.

Dokdo is a cluster of disputed volcanic islets located in the East Sea/Sea of Japan. For decades, Korea and Japan have squabbled over the islets. Korea claims and occupies Dokdo, arguing that Japan returned it to Korea, along with some other troublesome crags, at the end of WWII. But every so often Japan issues a statement that these islets are under Japanese control and mayhem ensues -- in Korea at least. For Koreans, these tiny, oceanic bumps have come to symbolize the total sum of Korea's anger with Japan. It seems that most Japanese citizens are comparably disinterested in the fate of this midget volcanic outcropping. In Korea, stirring up the ceaseless anti-Japan protests this time around is an incredible double whammy of Dokdo insults: Japan issued new, controversial textbooks that claim Japanese rights to Dokdo and one of Japan's government prefectures declared a "Takeshima Day" to celebrate Japan's possession of the islets. Koreans passionately cite such declamations as tantamount to another "invasion" of Korea and the Korean President, Roh, proposed retaliation with a "merciless diplomatic war."

In prior textbooks, Japan displayed far less nationalistic passion than in the in new, hotly contested and much bemoaned in Korea, editions. As in Korea, in order to publish a text, the publisher must gain approval from and meet certain requests of the national government. Previously, Japan's most popular publisher, whose version of history is used by 60 percent of Japanese middle schools, refrained from mentioning Dokdo. But in the new books they reclaimed Dokdo for the Japanese. Worse, Fusosha, the most radically conservative of the textbook publishers, decided that in their book Korea "illegally occupies" Takeshima. In previous editions, Fusosha had written the essential truth: the islands are "under territorial dispute". The Japanese ambassador to Korea further angered Koreans by refusing to deny the validity of his country's sudden territorial leap.

But complicating matters far beyond the textbook setback, one of Japan's 47 prefectures, the Shimane prefecture � not the whole government of Japan � decided to institute "Takeshima Day" in order to raise awareness about the island. This prefecture depends heavily on fishing for its economy and the fishing waters surrounding Dokdo are rich. They also contain possible natural gas deposits, giving the islets some unsentimental value, but the monetary worth is never the crux of the issue with Dokdo. For the most part, the citizens of the Shimane prefecture ignored the motion and the central government of Japan refrained from either sanctioning or criticizing the prefecture's declaration of Takeshima Day, until, that is, the Koreans reacted so violently that their temperamental fires � both literal and metaphorical � became impossible for the national Japanese government to ignore.

At the Japanese embassy in Seoul protesters burned effigies of Koizumi, the Japanese Prime Minister, and torched Japanese flags. But don't imagine that the fires stopped with inanimate objects: Koreans do not protest half-heartedly. One man set himself on fire in front of the Japanese embassy and died about a month later. His family and friends say that they will continue to protest and bring his coffin with them.

More recently, over a month after the original Takeshima Day announcement, an ill-tempered group of 50 Korean ex-special forces soldiers conferred at midnight upon the residential home of the Japanese ambassador to Korea in order to shoot flaming arrows at his windows. While shooting, they shouted demands that he retract his allegation about Dokdo belonging to Japan. Korean police, quoted in The JoonAng Daily, mentioned their reluctance to arrest the men because "charging anti-Japanese protesters could upset Koreans at a time when anti-Japanese sentiments are prevalent."

In another form of demonstration, a 61-year-old women and her 43-year-old son, made use of the Korean belief that if suicide, the Korean's most virulent form of opposition, is too difficult, one should find some other form of bodily harm to symbolize dying for a cause. In front of the Japanese Embassy the pair each sliced off their pinkie fingers and threatened to mail the digits to the Japanese Prime Minister so that he personally would feel the pain of their nation.

For those who are unwilling to mutilate themselves but are still concerned about Korea's pride, plenty of alternate outlets for their anger exist. Stores hawk "Dokdo - A Piece of Korea" T-shirts. The image of Dokdo's barren rocks, barely thrusting up above the sea, look like a place ripe for a tropical vacation. A "Defending Dokdo" video game has been spreading between cell phone users with idle and bloodthirsty thumbs. TV advertisements stressing Korean solidarity showcase people of all ages singing the popular anthem, "Dokdo is Ours". For a few weeks a hiking store near my house strung up a giant banner with a picture of Dokdo topped with the Korean flag hung by the entrance. And now that a tourist agency in Seoul offers trips out and back to the island for 350,000 won ($345 US), perhaps the hiking store's boots and rain gear will help someone make it to the island. The pricey expedition includes a 12-hour roundtrip drive from Seoul to the ferry terminal and about five hours on the ferry itself, with a short stroll on Dokdo sandwiched in the middle of the trip. A recent The JoonAng Daily piece quotes one woman who could barely afford the trip making the arduous journey as her "duty . . . as a caring Korean citizen" And indeed, Dokdo is becoming something of a trendy pilgrimage destination, despite rocky seas and inclement weather that sometimes prevents sightseers from landing on the islet.

All this comes in the middle what was to be "The Year of Korea-Japan Friendship", a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Seoul and Tokyo. Now business meetings and sports matches between the nations have been cancelled. Thirty-seven percent of Koreans believe Japan to be the country that threatens them the most, a jump from 7.6 percent back in January, before the Dokdo controversy began.

And how will the issue be solved? It probably won't be. The protests will simmer down, the Japanese textbooks will be distributed and economic trade will go back on the upswing between the two countries. That is, of course, until the next round of Asia's rising nationalism begins.

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