This author has written more than once about how state-sponsored anti-Japanism is one of the cornerstones of the ideology put forth by the Republic of Korea, and unfortunately these processes elicit similar reactions in Japan, thereby creating a vicious circle. Here are a few recent narratives.
In September 2019, the Korean police started an investigation on Liu Seok-cheon, a conservative sociology professor at prestigious Yonsei University, who during one lecture allegedly called comfort women “a certain kind of prostitute” daring to controvert the solely coercive nature of how women were selected for wartime bordellos. The graduate student association at Yonsei University submitted a petition signed by about 3,270 members to the university’s president to have him dismissed. On 7 May, after lengthy proceedings, Liu Seok-cheon was suspended from work for one month.
Meanwhile, in June 2020 Liu wrote an article for the conservative Japanese journal Hanada, in which he affirms that the disciplinary sanction imposed by the university on him was unfair, since it was a fabricated case geared toward suppressing academic freedom and any non-traditional interpretations of the problems experienced by comfort women. Speaking out for a re-evaluation of the period of colonial rule by Japan from 1910-1945, he gave several examples, including that Korean workers forced to work at Japanese factories were not called upon to do forced labor, but worked there voluntarily to earn money. The same is true for comfort women, many of whom were not sent to wartime bordellos by force, but were tricked by sex worker traffickers when they were looking for work.
The conclusions put forth by Liu stand in stark contrast to the testimony of sexual slavery victims who are still alive, but the problem is that not one of the testimonials from the elderly women can be either confirmed or refuted by other sources. From that, it follows that the conditions for both the recruitment and the work itself could vary significantly: from coercion or rape to a voluntary choice.
The article will only be published in August, but the witch-hunt on the Internet has already begun. According to the outraged public, “the university needs to fire Liu, and the government needs to expel him from the country.”
Here is another narrative that this author sees as a landmark one. On 10 January 2020, a 34-year old South Korean citizen whose last name is Bang was sentenced to one year of incarceration for insulting and beating up a 20-year old Japanese girl in Seoul on 23 August 2019. The lawbreaker, who was a little drunk, attacked the girl because she did not want to start a conversation with him, and he yanked the victim by her hair, beat her face with his knee, and used anti-Japanese slurs. The Japanese girl received a concussion and other injuries that required medical treatment for two weeks. On 24 August, Bang was arrested but, since he denied his guilt, they let him go. And only when a video of the attack was published in social media – and caused an international scandal – did the police change their position, and on 26 August they arrested Bang again.
Nevertheless, Bang did not admit he was guilty, did not show any remorse, and did not take any measures to mitigate his guilt before the victim. In these cases, the South Korean courts typically deliver a sentence for as many years as the prosecutor’s office seeks (and they were seeking three years), but since this case involved a patriot of his country, they found extenuating circumstances: the defendant’s young age (yes, he was 34 years old!) , and the particular features of the social environment he resides in. Furthermore, Bang filed an appeal, affirming that one year in prison for beating up a Japanese girl was too harsh a sentence. However, on 7 May 2020 the court of appeals in Seoul rejected his claim, since the video recording makes it apparent that he beat the lady in her head with his knee.
On a separate note, we should take note of the attempts to ban the so-called Rising Sun Flag, which “is on the same level as a swastika”. For example, on 12 September 2019 the South Korean government sent an official request to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to prohibit people from carrying the Rising Sun Flag at the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo. On 30 September, the South Korean National Assembly also passed a resolution on that issue.
On 25 January 2020, one South Korean nongovernmental organization petitioned to ban the use of the Rising Sun Flag during the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo; the petition collected more than 56,000 signatures after the Tokyo Organizational Committee for the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics announced that it does not intend to place any restrictions on public use of the flag.
This also includes posters with overtly anti-Japanese content that were posted in Seoul in January next to the site where the new Japanese embassy is supposed to be built, as well as in social media networks. The most politically correct one shows a drawing of a person holding a torch in his hand but dressed in personal protective gear, with the inscription TOKYO 2020: Olympics in Tokyo in the foreground; this drew an association with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. When Tokyo lodged a protest with Seoul, the Japanese were met with the response that the posters appeared at the initiative of a privately-run South Korean company, and that the country has freedom of speech.
The patriotic hysteria only died down when it became clear that there will be no Olympics held in Tokyo due to the pandemic. However, one article in the Japanese journal The Diplomat recalls how the Rising Sun Flag became the symbol of imperialism only in the 2010s. Before the 1990s, South Korea, China, and other Asian countries believed that the Japanese national flag stood for Japanese imperialism, and not the Rising Sun Flag.
However, since 1999 a law has been in effect in South Korea that forbids desecrating not only a person’s own national flag, but other countries’ national flags. In other words, the idea of condemning the Rising Sun Flag arose in South Korea as a substitute to achieve the initial goal. That was how the new concept arose of a “wartime criminal flag”, which was thought up by South Koreans residing in the United States. In addition, many forget that the flag is not a unique symbol for the Japanese Navy of that time, but can be encountered in many corporate logos, and is still the flag borne by Japanese fishermen.
South Korea regularly publishes books entitled something like “18 Reasons Why Korea Will Defeat Japan” that make specific proclamations that the mainstream conservative media outlets in South Korea are “garbage publications” because their coverage of Japan-related issues is not politically neutral.
Against this background, a counterreaction is gaining momentum in Japan. Experts note that previously there still existed the understanding in Japanese society that a hate crime was bad. Now, these kinds of acts targeted at Koreans are becoming systematic, advertised publicly beforehand, and are then published on the Internet in the form of videos by groups like Zaitokukai (Japanese for Association of Citizens against the Special Privileges of the Koreans in Japan). For example, Korean students and schoolchildren avoid wearing Korean national clothes due to a series of incidents involving attackers with knives cutting up girls’ skirts. “Neo-fascists” have organized protests both against the Fuji Television Network, which has broadcast many Korean television dramas, and in Korean neighborhoods.
In this regard, quite telling is the result of one lawsuit, which the Korean school board in Kyoto filed against Hitoshi Nishimura, the former acting director of Zaitokukai, who accused Korean schools of harboring North Korean spies and kidnapping Japanese citizens. On 29 November 2019, the Kyoto District Court ruled that Nishimura was guilty of defamation, but limited that to a fine of 500,000 yen (4,500 USD). The reason was that Nishimura had become involved in “cases that represented societal interests”, even if his proclamations were untrue. “The defendant gave testimony that he believed that his actions would, ultimately, be advantageous to Japanese national interests”, stated the court verdict. “Since his actions aimed to make society at large more aware of the kidnapping of Japanese citizens, we deem his intentions to lie in promoting societal interests.”
Another phenomenon are the so-called “books of hate”, which incite hatred toward Koreans, Chinese, and Muslims and their descendants, who have been living in Japan for many generations. Instead of leveling criticism at the Korean or Chinese authorities, or the policies implemented by these countries, they attack entire ethnic groups. It is believed that the lion’s share of people who read these “books of hate” are well-educated 60-70 year old men, while most of the authors are 30 or 40 years old with experience of living in South Korea, or having South Korean spouses.
If we are to believe one survey done by the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, the people the Japanese don’t like the most are Koreans and the Russians. Their attitudes are the most favorable toward the Americans, and after that the Chinese. Along with that, the attitude toward Koreans is constantly worsening, with the share of those who do not like Koreans jumping up from 58% to 71.5% in 2019, and with respondents affirming that over the next 10 years relations with South Korea will deteriorate, while improving with other countries.
And “as the curtain falls”: a survey done by scientists at Stanford University in 2011 showed that Chinese and South Korean textbooks reflect considerably more revisionism, for example, by omitting references to the role played by the Americans in defeating the Japanese, or neglecting to mention the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan. Along with that, Japanese textbooks state clearly that “the wars in Asia were a product of Japan’s imperial expansion and the decision to go to war with the United States was a disastrous mistake that inflicted a terrible cost on the nation and its civilian population”. The reason for this is the so-called “victim’s mentality” that is nurtured by Seoul, and which demands endless apologies, combined with the political environment. Blogger and writer Michael Booth points the finger at selfish politicians as those responsible for fomenting the public to keep expressing its indignation toward Japan: “Japan bashing is a sure-fire hit with the electorates of both countries; it guarantees a round of applause when a politician’s popularity is waning or offers a useful distraction from domestic crises”.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.