Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Don't mention the war. . .

JAPAN IS somewhat of a touchy subject in Korea. Resentment over Japan's past actions, as well as their position on some present day disputes, lingers on among many Koreans.

Japan, you see, was a bit of a bully in her younger days. Until the end of WWII, she was the great coloniser of Asia, spreading the tentacles of empire from to Korea to Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and beyond. And she was frequently brutal in her methods.

The Korean peninsula was annexed by Japan in 1910. But what remains the most politically charged legacy of Japanese occupation is the exploitation of "comfort women". These were thousands of Korean women sold into sexual slavery by the Japanese military before and during WWII. Survivors continue to protest for recognition of their plight and compensation to this day. The Japanese government has apologised for its colonial past, first in 1995 and most recently just this week - a gesture which was tepidly "noted" by Korea. Compensation has not been offered, however.

As an Irishman, I am familiar with the feelings of nationalism and resentment that can flourish in a previously colonised nation. But, from what I can gather, Ireland has come considerably further in letting the past lie than Korea has. The Korea Herald regularly runs features on why Dodko -- an essentially worthless islet claimed by both Korea and Japan -- is really part of Korea and why the 1910 annexation treaty was invalid. It simply would no longer be possible to publish such seemingly petty nationalistic sentiment in the Irish media.

Similarly, mentioning Japan to a Korean will likely provoke a strong response. One of the men living at my goshiwon complained to me how the Japanese had stolen Korea's beloved side dish kimchi and given it a name of their own. On another occasion, a girl I was talking to in a bar insisted that Japanese girls were ugly compared to their Korean equivalents. I couldn't help but feel that, to her, being prettier than the Japanese ladies was especially important.

Koreans certainly are proud, and with good reason in many respects. In a relatively short space of time South Korea has achieved first-world levels of wealth and a functioning democracy, while its Northern brother continues to be a poverty-stricken dictatorship.

But perhaps this success would be all the sweeter if Korea could let go of Japan's past injustices. No country or people should be angry forever.

Korea should be no different.


  1. "But perhaps this success would be all the sweeter if Korea could let go of Japan's past injustices. No country or people should be angry forever."
    Ah, tis a tricky subject; and one, i feel, that should not be treated with such sharp statements, Mr. Powers. You can't be that specific - I'm not too competent with my history of Korea, but I've a fair idea of Ireland's history and, just as importantly, its consequences in the present, sociologically, for the Irish people.
    ~ Garbhán

  2. It's a tricky subject, you're right. But I'd apply the same sentiment to the Irish situation. Is anyone's lot really improved, anyone's life made much happier by habouring resentment against the British? In every such case, there has to a time for letting go.

    History, at some point, must be seen as just that - history.

  3. It's funny, because Japan's stance makes the likelihood of Korea getting what it wants impossible: they just sweep the past under the rug.

  4. Hello,

    I wish it were that simple. Japan actively tries to avoid the subject, and put the past behind it despite a series of half-hearted apologies.

    Also, I used to live in Ireland, I found that there was still simmering resentment toward its larger and wealthier neighbour at times, including football games and politics. Given that the issue of North Ireland is still somewhat unresolved, and nationalists on both sides still stir up trouble, it feels like the relationship between Ireland and England is a lot like Korea and Japan though maybe a generation or two older.

    Indeed, on a personal level, I knew lots of English/Irish friends, and I know Korean/Japanese friends, but on a national level, the aggressor nations in both cases haven't fully resolved the issue with the other and thus the issue will continue to linger.