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South Korea

Korea and Japan

National or ethnic groups often need an "other," a group of outsiders against whom they can define themselves. While Western countries with their individualistic and, from a Confucian perspective, self-centered ways of life provide important images of "otherness" for South Koreans, the principal source of such images for many years has been Japan. Attitudes toward Japan as an "other" are complex. On the most basic level, there is hostility fed by memories of invasion and colonial oppression, present-day economic frictions, and the Japanese government's inability or unwillingness to do anything about discriminatory treatment of the large Korean minority in Japan. The two countries have a long history of hostility. Admiral Yi Sun-sin, whose armor-plated boats eventually defeated the Japanese navy's damaging attacks in the 1590s, was South Korea's most revered national hero.

The Japanese Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture's adoption in the 1980s of revised textbook guidelines, softening the language used to describe Japan's aggression during World War II, inspired outrage in South Korea as well as in other Asian countries. The textbook controversy was a major impetus for a national campaign to build an Independence Hall, located about 100 kilometers south of Seoul, to keep alive memories of Japanese colonial exploitation. Opened on August 15, 1987, the anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japan, the building houses grim exhibits depicting the atrocities of the Japanese military against Korean nationalists during the colonial period.

During the colonial period, and particularly during World War II, the Japanese initiated assimilation policies designed to turn Koreans into obedient subjects of the Japanese emperor. Under the slogan Nissen ittai (Japan and Korea as One), newspapers and magazines published in the Korean language were closed, the Korean Language Society was disbanded, and Korean writers were forced to publish only in Japanese. Students who spoke Korean in school were punished. There was pressure to speak Japanese at home, adopt Japanese family and given names, and worship at Shinto shrines, the religious basis for which had been transplanted from the home islands. Korean Christians who refused to show reverence to the emperor as a divinity were imprisoned or ostracized. In the words of historian Ki-baik Lee (called Yi Kibeck in Korean), "Japan's aim was to eradicate consciousness of Korean national identity, roots and all, and thus to obliterate the very existence of the Korean people from the face of the earth."

This shared historical experience has provoked not only hostility but also a desire to purge Korean culture of lingering Japanese influences. In the late 1980s, the government continued to prohibit the distribution of Japanese-made movies and popular music within the country in order to prevent unwanted contemporary influences from crossing the Korea Strait.

On a more polite level, depiction of Japan as the "other" involves contrasting the "essences" of the two countries' cultures. This process has spawned a popular literature that compares, among other things, the naturalness and "resonance" of Korean art and music and the alleged imitativeness and constriction of their Japanese counterparts; the "individualism" (of a non-Western sort) of Koreans and the "collectivism" or group consciousness of the Japanese; and the lyric contrast between the rose of Sharon, Korea's national flower, which blooms robustly all summer long, and the Japanese cherry blossom, which has the "beauty of frailty" in springtime.

The search for a cultural "essence" involves serious contradictions. The literature of Korean cultural distinction is strikingly similar to Japanese attempts to prove the "uniqueness" of their own cultural heritage, although "proof" of Japan's uniqueness is usually drawn from examples of Western countries (the significant "other" for modernized Japanese). Ironically, official and unofficial sponsorship of the Tangun myth, although a minor theme, bears an uncanny resemblance to pre World War II Japanese policies promoting historical interpretations of the nation's founding based on Shinto mythology.

Mixed in with feelings of hostility and competition, however, is genuine admiration for Japanese economic, technological, and social achievements. Japan has become an important market for South Korean manufactured products. Both countries have been targets of criticism by Western governments accusing them of unfair trading practices. Friendly interest in South Korea is growing among the Japanese public despite old prejudices, and large numbers of young Japanese and South Koreans visit each others' countries on school and college excursions. Like South Koreans, Japanese liberals have been disturbed by official attempts to revise wartime history.

Data as of June 1990

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