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Physically Close but Psychologically Distant: Japan and Korea

By YEONSOO SONG

A Japanese book that criticizes Korean society | Photo by author

There is a famous phrase in Korea: “If you make a mistake in a foreign country, say Sumimasen and pretend as if you are Japanese”. Also, whenever there are international competitions such as the Olympics or the World Cup, Koreans say, “We don't care about our rankings and scores as long as they are higher than Japan’s”. These jokes are meant to be funny, but when we think of them, they connote the antagonism Koreans feel towards Japan.

Meanwhile, Japanese’ antagonism towards Korea is often sensed as well. In October 2016, a sushi restaurant in Osaka was accused of deliberately putting more wasabi when Koreans ordered sushi. Koreans claimed that these restaurants wanted to give them pain and that they laughed at Koreans sufferings after they had taken a bite of sushi. This incident, known as the ‘Wasabi Terror’, triggered boycotts on traveling to Japan among Koreans. In March 2018, near a park located in Tennoji, Osaka, a Korean man was injured by a Japanese man who attacked him with a knife. The police said there is a high possibility that it was a hate crime against Koreans. Furthermore, it is known that there is a ‘Kenkan’ [嫌韓](anti-Korean sentiment) section in Japanese bookstores, and some of the bestseller books are those that criticize Korea.

Though these two countries are geographically close, have hosted the 2002 World Cup together, have been actively trading with each other and have vast interaction of tourism, hatred towards each other can be found frequently. Korea and Japan share a tragic history, which is 35 years of Japanese colonial rule in Korea from 1910 to 1945. Based on this, it is not really a surprise why the two countries often show animosity towards each other. More than 75 years have passed since the colonization has ended, but anti-Korean and anti-Japanese sentiments strongly remain in both countries up to this day.

A Japanese book that criticizes the characteristics of the two Koreas and Koreans | Photo by author.

There still are unresolved conflicts from various fields between Japan and Korea that add up to the antagonism. For example, ‘Liancourt Rocks dispute’ is a territorial dispute in which both Korea and Japan are claiming sovereignty over the island ‘Dokdo/Takeshima’. This dispute started in 1905, and continues till this day. In Korea, there is even a song called ‘Dokdo is Korean territory’ and is taught to children in elementary school. Starting from a young age, Koreans are naturally enforced upon with the idea that Japan covets our territory. Additionally, the Japan-South Korea Comfort Women Deal has not met a proper negotiation. In 2015, the Japanese government transferred 1 billion yen to the Korean government, demanding for the removal of the comfort women statue in Seoul. Though Korea accepted the money, they are asking for a sincere apology and adequate reparation. Japan argues that at the moment Korea accepted money, the deal had been done. These conflicts seem to make reconciliation between the two countries nearly impossible.

However, it is not only hatred that exists between Japan and Korea. Recently, more and more Japanese are visiting and have interests in Korean culture due to the influence of K-pop and Korean food. As a Korean student in a Japanese university, I encounter many Japanese students who approach to me and profess their interest in Korean culture. Some of them ask me to teach them Korean, and to take them to authentic Korean restaurants in Japan. Many Koreans love Japanese culture as well, especially food and anime. According to the Korean Educational Development Institute, 60.3% of high school students choose Japanese as their second foreign language. Among 317 high schools in Seoul, 85.5% of them (or 271 schools) provide Japanese courses. According to statistics released by Korea Tourism Organization, Japan has been ranked as the most visited country for straight 33 years, from 1984 to 2017. Surveys show that Koreans do not genuinely hate Japanese people and society; it is the history of colonization and Japanese government they feel uncomfortable with.