My March Essay for the Diplomat: 3 Hypotheses for Korea’s ‘Japanobia’ – 1. Genuine; 2. Post-Colonial Score-Settling; 3. RoK Legitimating Ideology

This, I hope, is my last piece on Japan-Korea relations for awhile. I think everyone is getting burned out by this topic. And I am sick of the hate-mail. But at least Obama got Abe and Park into the same room last week. Park look pretty furious, but at least the meeting was progress.

This essay goes into what purpose or function Korea’s resentment of Japan fulfills. Koreans get a little upset when I phrase it this way, but the extreme nature of Korean resentment of Japan tells me there is more going on than just memory and the war. That picture, from here, is a good illustration of just how instrumentalized ‘anti-Japan-ism’ has become for South Korean political identity.

This essay was originally written for the Diplomat this month. As always, when I write on this topic, I just don’t read the comments there anymore, because the hostility is so over-the-top. So if you’re here to tell me I am traitor to your favored cause, don’t worry. I know already. Thanks. Save your vitriol and try to stick to the social science research question I sketch in this essay. The essay follows the jump:


“Japan-Korea tension has reached a peak in the last year. South Korea’s president, Park Geun-Hye, refuses to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, even after a year in office. Park has meet with Premier Xi Jinping of China, but not the Japanese leadership – even though Korea and Japan are both US allies, and despite China’s controversial expansion of its air defense identification zone at both Korea and Japan’s expense. When US Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel went to Japan in the fall last year to strengthen the alliance as a part of the US pivot to Asia, it was widely read in the Korean media as a snub of Korea. In a pique of outrage, Park jetted off to Southeast Asia to pursue a separate, counter-Japanese diplomatic track in Asia. This was roundly cheered in Korea.

Abe, for his part, has visited the always-controversial Yasukuni Shrine and said nothing on recently reiterated Japanese textbook claims to the Korean-controlled Liancourt Rocks. He has repeatedly allowed the creepiest right-wing elements of his electoral coalition to overwhelm good sense in public without rebuke. The most recent disturbing, atrocity-denying outburst has come from NHK television. (It is long overdue for Abe to make a high-level statement against this stuff.)

China, the major geopolitical beneficiary of such tension, has happily stoked it by constructing a memorial to Ahn Jung-Geun at the request of President Park. Ahn assassinated Hirobumi Ito, an early prime minister of Japan and governor-general of occupied Korea at the time of his death (1909). The memorial was built on the location of the shooting, which is today in China. Inevitably, Ahn is denounced as a ‘terrorist’ by the Japanese and celebrated as a ‘freedom fighter’ by Koreans. Korean-Japanese competition has even arrived in US domestic politics, where intense Korean ethnic lobbying in the state of Virginia produced legislation that Virginian textbooks should use the name ‘East Sea’ instead of the more widely used ‘Sea of Japan’ to denote the body of water between Korea and Japan.

All of this significantly complicates the US pivot to Asia, the US confrontation with North Korea, and America’s slow-boiling competition with China in the western Pacific. Korean tension with Japan is a major stumbling block to a more coherent American posture in East Asia. It is arguably the single most important reason for the lack of an Asian NATO. South Korea particularly simply will not accept alignment with Japan, forcing the United States to maintain parallel bilateral alliances with each, rather an efficiency-improving single multilateral structure. Indeed, were it not for the US alliance, if Korea, Japan, and China were acting alone, I would guess that Korea would align against Japan in a Sino-Japanese conflict. Korean dislike for Japan is that intense. By way of example, read this (Kor), where the sweater of a guest on a Korean TV show, which looked vaguely like the Japanese imperial flag, forced the guest to apologize to offended viewers, or this, where a major Korean paper actually suggests Japanese samurai might invade the Liancourt Rocks.

The question then is why the Korean disdain for Japan is so high that even sweaters are offensive and fantastical samurai invasions go unremarked. I have said many times before (here, here) that Korea’s grievances with Japan are very legitimate: Japan sexually enslaved Korean women into war-time brothels; it attempted to erase Korea as a cultural entity by coercing the use of Japanese, even to the point of re-naming people (there are still Koreans alive who went through this); Japan has not really come clean about the empire and the war – a point made not just by Korea, but in China and the US as well.

But Koreans do not stop there; they go over-the-top with things like the ‘Sea of Japan’ re-naming campaign with no obvious point other than to provoke Japan, unfounded claims that Japan wants to invade Korea again, equating bad Japanese behavior in Korea with the far-worse Holocaust, or that Liancourt is worth going to war over – even though a Korean use of force against Japan would almost certainly eventuate a US departure from South Korea and dramatically reduce Korean security. Other victims of earlier Japanese imperialism do not talk like this, and I think a lot of well-meaning Japanese, who do recognize what Japan did in Korea, are genuinely baffled by all the vitriol.

I see three possible explanations, and for any graduate students in east Asian studies, sociology or political science, this is a great research question. Again, the issue is not why does Korea dislike Japan. Japan’s imperial behavior and continued ambivalence all but insures that. The real question is why Korean animosity is so off-the-charts. Here are three hypotheses:

1. Koreans have always been sharply anti-Japanese since the war; we just did not see that until democratization twenty-five years ago made expression of public opinion easier and less manipulated by the government.

Japanese colleagues often note to me that Korea did not start talking this way until the last few decades – the implication being that tension with Japan is the politicization of something no one cared about earlier. That may not be so, because of what social scientists call ‘hidden preferences’ – under dictatorships, there are strong incentives to keep your true feelings to yourself. Opposition to regime preferences might land you in jail or worse. Korea was such a dictatorship until the late 1980s. So moves by earlier Korean leaders to deal with Japan may not have been approved of by a population which, however, was unable to impact policy. For example, there were mass protests against the Japan-Korea normalization treaty of 1965. Were Korea a democracy at the time, the treaty would likely have collapsed like an intelligence sharing pact did a two years ago. If this hypothesis is right, Koreans really do feel threatened by Japan and reconciliation is far away.

2. The late 1980s/early 1990s rise of intense anti-Japanese feeling coincides with the passing of the first generation of RoK political and business elites.

There is a sharp ongoing historical debate about just how much the RoK’s first generation collaborated with the Japanese occupation. The founders of the chaebol are often particularly suspected, but it is no stretch to suggest that only collaborators would have had the education, political connections, wealth, skills, and so on to enter the post-war elite. This idea would suggest that as these guys died out and were replaced by a second, untainted post-colonial generation, that the new generation wanted to dig into the past the way earlier elites did not. Vitriol today on Japan may reflect embarrassment at Korean collaboration yesterday during the occupation.

3. When the RoK democratized, it needed some kind of legitimating story (unnecessary under authoritarianism).

Because of corrupted institutions, ‘deep state’ elitism at the top, and a debilitating legitimacy competition with the DPRK that confuses South Koreans’ loyalties, the RoK has struggled to connect with its own citizenry. The RoK can not be the anti-DRPK it should be, because not enough South Koreans share a strict ‘enemy image’ of North Korea. Instead the RoK has fallen back on ‘Japanophobia,’ being the anti-Japan, to legitimate itself, because all Koreans, north and south, can agree that Japan was bad.

All three of these are probably somewhat correct, but I would tilt toward number 3. All add important psychological elements that help explain Korean hyperbole on Japan beyond otherwise reasonable concerns about history. Hostility toward Japan is not just a political posture, but a part of South Korean political identity. Americans particularly should stop pretending that this is something that we can resolve with our typical, the-hegemon-is-here-to-save-the-day interventionism. We can’t.”

12 thoughts on “My March Essay for the Diplomat: 3 Hypotheses for Korea’s ‘Japanobia’ – 1. Genuine; 2. Post-Colonial Score-Settling; 3. RoK Legitimating Ideology

  1. Personally, I buy the legitimating story but I don’t think it is a “new invention” under democracy. There will be individual differences even under totalitarianism, yet as a whole people (and thus society) are products of education, and if for 40 years or so after liberation the dictatorship has been feeding them “moderate” messages, by the time they democratize there won’t be very much left.

    Further, it has often been argued that it is authoritarian regimes that need a “legitimating story”. The Chinese Japanophobia has often been explained as a post 1989 policy to give some legitimacy to the post Tiananmmen Communist party, and of course we know how thickly oh the Soviet Union poured on the propaganda.

    Overall, I see anti-Japan propaganda as a kind of “national strategy”. The role of history education in fostering national pride (a motivational force) is actually one of the few points Japan, China and Korea can agree on. Just look at the quibble over how many lines the Nanking (or comfort women) thing should take up in a Japanese textbook, and the diction. Surely, if people didn’t think it was important, there won’t be so much quibbling.

    So it is every nation’s history to tries to put the past in a positive light. America takes pride in how it fought for its independence, and WWI and WWII where it is a kind of “superhero”. Most of the Allies can take away a “We were the good guys” from WWII. Even Japan and Germany can find sources and events to be proud of there, and there are many nice parts in their past. As for Korea … it was part of Japan.

    Worse, when you zoom out, there are not many easily identifiable pride points in Korean history. It was usually a Chinese vassal. Then it was a Japanese protectorate. Then it was part of Japan (and they didn’t even really fight back until they were eaten). After having the “yoke of the Japanese” lifted off them (they can’t even claim they played a big part in throwing it off themselves), Koreans decided to use this opportunity to start a war among themselves instead of working to build a bigger better Korea. Then it is an American protectorate (some may quibble on this last point, but one may remember that Korea doesn’t even have wartime command of its own army). Where’s the pride point?

    From the visible results, it would seem that the Korean leadership’s strategy was “If we can’t have a pride point, at least we can have a hate point.” And education was subtly altered for this end. It is part of a workable strategy, and certainly South Korea lifted itself off the ground to respectability by the time the dictatorship turned to democracy – if we say that Korea didn’t have usable pride points before, it certainly has some now. Further, the side effect of this kind of education can be minimized in a military dictatorship. The reduced need to be sensitive to the people’s mercurial moods *can* allow for a more strategic, less parochial foreign policy to be taken.

    Unfortunately, they have “overdosed” their population on it, and now they can’t stop.


  2. First of all, I would like to say that I truly enjoy your blog. I found your blog last November, and I have been a regular reader of your blog ever since.

    I have always been baffled by the intensity of anti-Japanese feeling among Koreans (or in the Korean press, to be more precise). I count myself liberal, and I am not satisfied with the way Japan has confronted its wartime past. I think the presence of class A war criminals in Yasukuni is a problem, and I do think that more could be done on the comfort women issue. Abe (and his entourage in particular) has not been very helpful. But as you point out, I feel that what the Korean press says is often completely over the top, and I think that this Japanophobia (or is it Japanobia, as you say?) is harming Korean national interests (arguably more so that Japanese national interests) in many ways. Your posts, including this one, have been truly illuminating in understanding this.

    I feel that even among well-meaning Japanese (which, I believe, still constitute a significant portion of the Japanese populace), there is a sense of fatigue about the whole Korean colonial history issue. I think that the increasingly prevalent sentiment in Japan is that no amount of apology seems to be enough. Japan has contributed significantly to Korean post-war development. It is not that Japan has not apologized; in fact, a respectable academic historian in Japan has commented that Korea may be the only (or possibly one of very few) former colony that has received a formal apology for its occupation by its former colonial master. Indeed, there is even a column in Chosun Ilbo, dated yesterday (March 29th, 2014) which argues that Korea has indeed received quite a bit from Japan. I think this sense of fatigue can also be evidenced in the editorial pages of Asahi and Mainichi shimbun, two of three or four major dailies in Japan, which are reliably liberal. Of late, I feel that there has been a subtle shift in tone in which the dailies are calling for restraint on the part of Koreans, something that I had not seen much before.

    What I find sad about Korea media coverage on this issue is that it is often completely black and white. There must be Korean people who think that anti-Japanese feeling/media coverage is truly over the top and harmful. But it does not seem to surface very often. Comments that even hint at moderation against Japan seem to be quashed. I feel that Japan is much more mature at least in this sense. There is vigorous and open debate about Japan’s wartime past, and in any sizable bookstore in Japan, you can find bookshelves full of scholarly (or maybe only semi-scholarly) work on everything from atrocities committed by Japan to the harsh nature of Japanese colonial rule. In fact, as is often pointed out, the comfort women issue was first publicized in the Japanese press before it caught attention in Korea.

    I have heard it said that one of the (many) reasons why Japan-Korea relations are so strained today is that the older generation, who grew up under Japanese colonial rule, can no longer be found among the political elite in Korea. These elders would come into the scene as voices of moderation when Japan-Korea diplomacy get stuck in gridlock, restraining Korean negotiators and nudging their Japanese counterparts (in fluent Japanese).

    Given your analysis, Japanophobia is a structural thing that is unlikely to lessen in the near term. This is truly unfortunate. (thank you for reading my rambling prose to the very end!)


  3. This was as usual very good work and an interesting analysis. I only wonder, Robert, and I mean this with no cheek at all, why you don’t ask more Koreans? I know that this is difficult in formal or conference circumstances where Koreans feel obligated to tow the party line, but there must be people of various ages and careers who might clarify some of these points without anger over a private beer.

    I’m going to throw out two more theories that really are off the top of my head. Perhaps they duplicate formal IR theories, or perhaps they are simply rubbish. 4. Does it not seem that some countries become more belligerent toward past humiliations as they become MORE successful? It seems to me that both Korea and China (Ireland, WWI Germany?) are becoming increasingly resentful of past enemies as they take more confident stances, not less. Is there anything to this? 5. Why is it that every island I’ve ever lived on had a persecution or martyr complex? I’ve lived in Hawaii, Newfoundland, and Korea (pseudo-island/peninsula) and all had overblown grievances and fears of being exploited by outsiders. Is there a sociological or IR basis to this, or again are my experiences lacking context?


  4. I find that this topic of South Korea’s Japan bashing is mostly an endless rehashing of things so I didn’t want to comment on it, but a thought popped up while I was taking a shower so perhaps you would indulge me.

    I now think that Japan-bashing in South Korea is actually playing into the hands of the North Koreans.

    We have two models on how to unify a divided country. One is the German model. In this case, the West Germans proved to the East Germans that their society was wealthier, freer, and overall just better. In the end, this was what caused East Germany to collapse. The East German government lost the confidence of its people.

    The other model is Vietnam. In this model, the North Vietnamese claimed that they were the true independent Vietnam and that South Vietnam was but a colonial legacy, a puppet of United States. After the United States pulled out of South Vietnam, its government could not resist the North Vietnamese army from simply marching down the country and conquering the southern capital of Saigon. This too was mainly because the South Vietnamese government did not have the confidence of its people. (The propaganda worked, even if North Vietnam got tons of aid from China and Soviet Union, because there were no Chinese or Russian troops fighting in Vietnam.)

    The more I look at the 2 Koreas, the more I see parallels with Vietnam and not with Germany. As long as the South Koreans try to use the anti-colonial stance to legitimate themselves, I think they are playing a losing game. A capitalist country cannot win this argument. A socialist country could always claim that the revolution is the only way to wipe out the legacy of colonialism. Furthermore, the US made a mistake by overstaying in South Korea. Since the North does not have Chinese or Russian troops, this propaganda from the North hits home hard if you believe in ethnic Korean nationalism.

    Moreover, this argument sounds more true after the Cold War. Today North Korea has built nuclear devices, and just last year by killing its #2, has bitten China’s feeding hand. When they say that they are the truly independent Korea and that South Korea is but a lackey of American imperialism, Korean ethnic nationalists cannot argue against that. (This is where I think the whole denial of its past as vassal state of China kicks in. Korea wasn’t a vassal state even if the King had to perform kowtow to the emissaries of the Qing emperor or that the crown prince had to be sent to Beijing as hostage. It was more or less independent, just like today, even though South Korea does not have operational commands over its own army.)

    Germany was never colonized, so they didn’t have this problem (of proving to be the “real” Germany), and so West Germany just had to prove their system produced better economic results. Plus both East and West Germanies had Russian and American troops stationed. But Korea unlike Germany was colonized and currently only the South has American troops. So as long you play this game of “who is the truly independent Korea?,” South Korea cannot win. If this emotion is given full reign (as expressed in anti-colonialism, Japan bashing, and anti-Americanism) then when American troops withdraw and if North Korean troops march south, the South will collapse just like in Vietnam, 1975.

    The only hope for South Korea to absorb the North is to make life for their citizens much better (than is now). Currently it’s clear that the elites in Seoul are living a good life, but the snippets of newspaper reports are giving me the sense that ordinary South Koreans are not doing well because of the global recession. While the even fewer information from North Korea seems to be indicating that life has significantly improved over there since the famines of 1990s. This is not a hopeful sign.


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  6. Hi,
    I am a Korean American, and has been hooked up to your blog posting for my projects of the Korea-Japan relations in school. I was grown up in Korea, so I understand how they feel.
    I believe time will solve it some days. Still, many Koreans are under victims psychology that all those hardship in early 1900s are because of Japan, which is very true. But like what Obama has said, they can’t always stay with the past. I think (including me) many Koreans know Japan will never apologize the sexual slavery issues or they give up its title on Dokdo until Japan just sink overnight by earthquake or 2nd great Tsunami hit Tokyo. What I am saying is, as a Korean, I wish they just take the historical facts and real facts as some happenings in the past (that Japan will never give up its claims), but look for how to make national powers stronger. That is more wise.

    I also am totally agreed with your analysis of 1st year Park Geun Hye anniversary. Especially, when you mentioned former president Lee Myung Bak led the public opinion to improve relation with Japan, but Park took the worst voice of Korea in terms of relation with Japan. The Japanopobia you mentioned in this post is not worst in Korea. I never purchased any made in Japan products (one time I had to buy electrical clock from Sharp, tho), and this is very prevalent among Koreans. They try to not buy Japanese products from the first moments. I myself have never considered to drive any Toyota, Honda, or Nissan, but replaced it with Volkswagen in America. (Of course, many Korean Americans are big fan of Toyota or Honda, but there still are significantly other Korean Americans who do not even consider Japanese auto).

    What I am saying here is not how Japanopobia is so intense among Koreans, but that stance is the very difference between former president Lee Myung bak and incumvent president Park Geun Hye. From the early stage of her political career, she has an advantage that as a strongman’s daughter supported by many many Koreans, she does not really have to engage in political controversy, but choose the winner. I meant, she does not make the chance, but she only exploits the chance for her best interests. That is the essential difference between the two, whereas Mr. Lee had to fight from the beginning since he did not have political supports.

    So here, we can predict (At least I predict) that Park would be less likely to try to improve diplomatic tie with Japan until Japan takes some actions, which is probably not gonna happen under Abe and his friends regime.

    In fact, this personality difference can be revealed in what Koreans say as “Sajupalja” (or Eight character and Four Pillars destiny in English). Its difficult to put it in English, but in short, Park is very mysterious personality type, and without her proactive efforts for a concern, her neighboring environments are strong enough to solve it. On the mean while, Lee is exactly the reverse type, in which he speaks out loud about his opinion and makes concern solved by himself, which is similar to Obama’s personality (so actually Lee-Obama’s chemistry was actually way better as Obama always picked up Lee as his best friends than Obama-Park). Like Mr. Lee’s foreign policy was more actively participated in many global issues and voices out, but Park’s policy was just to wait and see what happens (=who wins?) and take advantage of the situation.

    The Eight Character and Four Pillar destiny might be overlooked easily by non-Asians (notably Westerners), but it makes lots of sense and predicts the future for not only an individual but also for a state in big picture (such as elections and economy in Korea). It is about astrology where birthdate and time of birth is important with the Five Element theory. If you lived in Korea for years, you probably grab the 5000 KRW and 1000 KRW, whose bill figures were Yi-I and Yi-Hwang. Commonly, they are known as great scholars in Neo Confucianism, but this Neo Confucianisms put high emphasis on the Eight Character and Four Pillar destiny. That is why Yi-I petitioned to prepare the war with Japan to the king at the time since he was able to see the Imjin war (1592-1599) coming but it was not accepted (I think he probably knew his proposal to prepare a war with Japan was not gonna be accepted, but he probably intended to give historical lesson to his great grandkids).

    This type of Astrology is very common both in Korea and Japan. I would comment the today’s Samsung is established by Pusan Master Park, who was permenant advisor to Samsung Group, the late Lee Byung Chul, who wanted to succeed to his first son, but Park strongly opined the destiny of first son was such bad that Samsung would not go too far, but if third son, Lee Gun-Hee, was succeeded, Samsung would prosper. There have been similar story to Hyundai, LG, as well as political figures such as Park Chung Hee. Actually he knew the Pusan Master Park who was a non-commissioned soldier under Park Chung Hee’s command during his military service time, and was advised a lot, but later when Park Chung Hee amended constitution for his long term presidency (Yushin Constitution) and inquired if the amendment of constitution was good idea or not. Pusan Master Park noted Yushin would eventually take away Park Chung Hee’s life, which was true as you might know.

    Anyway, I am interested in this type of astrology, based on which I hope it gives some predictions for tomorrow. I am not that savvy in it but a Korean expert that I have known since 2009 has been accurately able to tell major events such as Obama’s re-election over Rommney in 2012, Park’s slight win over opposing party members and how Ahn Chul Soo would quit his campaign for presidency, and when Kim Jong Un faced his personal hardship, which is coming soon.
    At least, this is useful to make deep friendship or marriage.

    So my comment goes too far, but again, I agree your comments. If interested in the destiny thing, I guess you can talk to your Korean friends who are trustable. I am sure they will know it and hopefully they can tell you in English because many Koreans heard of it, and some think it very important (when my cousin gets married, my aunt inquired many experts about the chemistry with my new cousin-in law to see if they are fitted well, and I know some parents reject the marriage just because of the bad chemistry interpreted by experts in this field). I am a just student, but the more I know of this destiny thing and how the future folds out, the more it is surprising.


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