Re-reading a book on the Japanese-South Korean relationship, published by a South Korean author 17 years ago
I was taking a look at my bookshelf for the first time in a while, when I noticed Excuse for Pro-Japanese by Kim Wan-seop. After learning of this book in 2002 from the magazine SAPIO (Shogakukan), I immediately read it and was shocked by the information within. I wanted to somehow meet with the author Kim, so that August I flew to Seoul, South Korea during the Obon holiday to speak with him. This interview was published in the November 2002 issue of Apple Town under the title, “Opportunity to Build a New Japan.” Kim is a prodigy who studied physics at the University of Seoul, and his books are put together in an extremely logical way with each fact thoroughly investigated. He used to be anti-Japanese, but he wrote this book after his way of thinking changed significantly when he lived and researched various things in Australia. I thought re-affirming his viewpoint 17 years later would be meaningful, now that the Japanese-South Korean relationship is deteriorating. I will cite from the preface here.
Both Korea and Taiwan were ruled by Japan during the important period 100 years ago at the start of modernization. However, the two nations have entirely different stances regarding Japan today. Taiwan and Japan share a good relationship, and the Taiwanese government and people maintain an extremely friendly attitude towards Japan. In contrast, due to the impacts of continually anti-Japanese education in South Korea, there is a persistent, decisively adversarial stance against Japan from the government to civilian level. Both countries were ruled by Japan in the same way during the same era, so what are the reasons for these differences? In general the response to this question is that Taiwan was controlled by Japan for 15 more years than Korea, or that Taiwan lacked a dictatorial dynasty before the Japanese rule.
Yet even taking these disparities into consideration, we cannot easily explain why North and South Korea are extraordinarily hostile to Japan.
The anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea is founded on what seems to be a latent sense of victimization for great damage suffered during the era of Japanese rule. However, I believe the Japanese gave us many blessings. There is a vast emotional gap between South Korea and Japan because of these different perceptions on each side. The growing anti-Japanese feelings in South Korea stem from arbitrary falsehoods and distortions by South Korean historians, as well as the intensely anti-Japanese educational system and ethnic ideological maneuverings based on this.
Since 1905, it seems Japan saw Korea as serving an important role as an extension of Japan, rather than as a colony. During the Japanese rule, people in Korea and Taiwan were treated mostly the same way as those on the Japanese mainland. In particular, Japan is thought to have invested more in Korea – a geopolitically important entry point to the continent – than in its own country. Korea received exceptional treatment, such as the industrial facilities that were brought there.
If we compare colonialization by the European powers to owning a farm in a distant location, the Japanese rule of Korea and Taiwan can be described as buying a neighboring store to expand one’s own establishment. The anti-Japanese sentiment in North Korea started with a mistaken understanding of this point.
Let us imagine a person who lives in Seoul while owning a farm in distant Australia or New Zealand. It is likely his only concern would be investing a certain amount into the farm to obtain profit. Compare this with a poor merchant who operates a store that is both his home and workplace. If he labored to buy the store next door, he would likely work hard to renovate his new acquisition and produce synergistic effects with his existing shop. Japan annexed Taiwan at the end of the 19th century and Korea at the beginning of the 20th. Japan was like the proprietor of a small corner store selling foods, beverages, and daily necessities.
South Korea is anti-Japanese due to history falsified by the government
Accordingly, I think South Koreans would no longer dislike Japan if they accepted the fact that Japan had good intentions towards Korea. In other words, anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea started with history that was intentionally falsified by the South Korean government. I believe this history is being distorted by South Korea, not by Japan, which is also the general view in the international community.
Warped education has made us believe the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1905 and Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 were concluded under duress due to pressure from Japan, but this is absolutely untrue. It seems that ambitious reformers tacitly agreed the Japanese annexation was the only and best way to create a new civilization in and modernize Korea. I think it is valid to say Japan gained control of Korea through legal formalities according to this powerful consensus within the Korean Empire.
Hirobumi Ito, the first Japanese resident-general of Korea, was a driving force behind the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1905. He did not want the Korean annexation to take place in a way that was a political and financial burden on Japan. The annexation was requested by Korean revolutionaries, including the Iljinhoe. The Japanese public quickly came to favor annexation after the assassination of Ito by An Jung-geun. An’s “patriotism” actually helped bring about the annexation, which he did not desire.
Korea underwent extensive development under Japanese rule. In around 30 years the population, which was less than 10 million, grew to 25 million, and the average lifespan increased from 24 to 45. Korea was a primitive agricultural society, but in a short period it transformed into a modern, capitalist society. Talented teachers were sent from Japan to educate the Korean people, and the Japanese government invested enormous amounts of money to build various types of infrastructure. Many Koreans grew rich by exporting rice to Japan in the 1920s, and domestic wealth was built on this foundation.
South Koreans have made no attempt to recognize these Japanese contributions. Even if they did, they would probably undervalue them and say they were result of subjugation by Japan, an external power. However, looking back we can see that Korea was the only country in human history with a doctrine of Confucianist fundamentalism. These precepts were significantly subtler and stricter than today’s Islamic fundamentalism.
Japan’s problems today come from excessive efforts to redeem the past
If the Korean Peninsula had not been revolutionized by a foreign power – and if Japan had not made great efforts to make up for the past – I think Korea would be one of the most delayed regions in the world today, at the beginning of the 20th century. Considering this, I think we can say the Japanese era brought us great joy and blessings. It was certainly not a miserable past we do not want to remember or recognize.
We have believed Japan was lucky to avoid being divided into two parts like the Korean Peninsula after the war. Discussions on integration are limited to North and South Korea – no one has mentioned integrating with Japan or Taiwan. However, when Japan was defeated in World War II, its empire was divided into five regions and conquered. Korea itself was not divided in two; the victorious nations saw the Korean Peninsula as merely one Japanese territory. They divided up the Empire of Japan into five areas that were occupied: South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, Sakhalin, and Japan. Only Sakhalin is still Russian territory, while the remaining four have become independent nations. The victorious countries’ logic was to divide up all territories in the Japanese empire acquired from the Meiji Restoration on. This was a clearly forced division – we did not choose to be separated, nor was Japan in favor of the division.
Japan did not want to be separated from Korea. In the postwar process of independence, Japan made efforts to at least remain an integrated state with the Korean Peninsula. However, the division went forward because no one listened to the desires of this powerless, defeated nation. The United States and Soviet Union divided and controlled South and North Korea, setting up their own puppets as rulers in these satellite countries. Accordingly, the current division on the Korean Peninsula (or more accurately, the division in this former part of Japan) was caused by the U.S. and Soviet Union. They forcibly broke apart what was a single nation (although it was defeated in the war). Japan tried to prevent the division, not carry it out.
When I was young, I remember being intrigued by a war movie called Tora! Tora! Tora! I cannot recall what was so fascinating, but I think I watched it about two times. Japan is depicted as an awful, despicable country that makes a surprise attack on the Americans living peacefully in Hawaii. I detested the Japanese soldiers and hoped for a sequel showing the U.S. defeating the Japanese Army. However, no sequel was ever produced.
Much later, I recently found myself cheering for the Japanese army while watching Pearl Harbor. I was deeply moved and astonished by the great nation of Japan, which brought huge aircraft carriers halfway around the world 60 years ago to destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Back then we were Japanese citizens as well, and my grandfather fought in the war as a Japanese man. Koreans definitely supported Japan at that time, so why is South Korea today on the American side? This is simply because Japan and South Korea – formerly part of the Empire of Japan – have been shackled by American rule until today, which is neither desirable nor natural.
The systematic anti-Japanese education by the South Korean government, and the anti-Japanese sentiment that results, function as the most vital political ideology in South Korean society. Since the division, political groups that gained power in South Korea have portrayed North Korea and Japan as targets of hatred to maintain their structures. Now that the hatred against North Korea has decreased to some extent, the ideological operations and anti-Japanese movement are becoming increasingly necessary to the powers that use them. Despite this, the anti-Japanese movement provides no benefits to South Korea, and is a means of self-harm. We must absolutely banish this legacy from the past if we are to obtain a position as a legitimate member of the international community.
Japan has done many great things since the Meiji Restoration, and has made magnificent contributions to Japan and the history of humankind. It is sad and vexing that a country like this, with such an impressive history, has no pride in its own history and engages in self-oppression just because it lost one war.
Japan’s current problems do not exist because it has not reflected or apologized enough, but rather because it has made excessive efforts to redeem its own past. Japan gained independence after the end of the war and build a new nation that became a major economic power, yet its spirit is still under American colonial rule.
Distorted history and the anti-Japanese movement are isolating South Korea from East Asia
In recent years, people in Japan are trying to re-think its history [referring to the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform and other movements]. These are reasonable efforts to amend untruths, and are totally unlike the despicable acts of the South Korean right wing. In fact, these Japanese people are not members of the right wing, merely patriots that love their country. A scandal has broken out in recent years about these textbooks, and the South Korean government has made false charges about this movement in Japan. The government has shamed us on the global stage with its senseless behavior. This stems from the low level of historical awareness and self-serving way of thinking that are widespread among the South Korean authorities and citizens.
Although Japan does not directly respond to these impolite words and deeds, South Koreans must not foolishly take this as proof that they are correct. Japan’s flexible responses are inspired by its culture of avoiding direct conflict with others, and this defeated country has had an established custom of self-deprecating behavior for many long years. If Japan expressed itself like a Western country, I think the Japanese-South Korean discord would be clear today.
It is difficult to justify colonial subjugation by Europe at the end of the 19th century. However, Japan’s expansion into Asia clearly included some aspects of Japan wanting to embody the global spirit. During the Meiji Restoration, Japan became the first non-European country to carry out a revolution and build a modern social structure. It autonomously carried out this bourgeois revolution, a major marvel in terms of world history. After that, Japan’s ventures into East Asia were not to exploit or plunder like Western imperialist aggression, but were premised on its intent to promote revolution and modern ethos, and its efforts were legitimate in that way. The Empire of Japan swept away the old systems in Korea and Taiwan that suppressed their people, and successfully introduced government via modern law. As a result, the people of these regions ruled by Japan became part of civilization and were able to enjoy more humane ways of living.
These shameful historical distortions and anti-Japanese movement will likely isolate South Korea from East Asia. And at some point, I think this will become a disgraceful past everyone wants to forget, and a scar that remains on history.
The anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea, as described by Kim, is wholly unchanged today. In fact, it has been further inflamed by the Moon Jae-in administration. To learn about the sources of these feelings, I highly recommend getting a copy of Excuse for Pro-Japanese on Amazon or another store.
August 23 (Friday), 2019, 6:00 p.m.