More on South Korean ‘Anti-Japanism’ and the Intra-Korean Legitimacy Contest

The challenge to South Korea this picture represents is my argument for where South Korea’s extraordinary national hang-up about Japan comes from.

Last month, I wrote about ‘anti-Japanism’ in South Korea. I tried to make an argument for why I thought it went beyond just what Japan did in the colonial period. Remember that North Korea does not villainize Japan the way South Korea does.

I lot of readers didn’t get the argument, and a lot rejected it. So I thought I’d try again. Once again, when it comes to comments on this thorny issue, spare me the hate-mail and the racism. Read this before telling me that I am a Japanese ‘parasite’ or whatever. Thank you.

This article was first published at the Lowy Institute, here. It starts after the jump.


Last month I wrote about the possibility of ‘Korea fatigue’ – a Japanese term for Korea’s relentless criticism of Japan regarding WWII – coming to the US. That was one of my most-read posts at the Interpreter, and I received a lot of comments and retweets regarding my suggestion that South Korea’s ‘anti-Japanism’ flows from its debilitating, long-term national legitimacy contest with North Korea. So I thought I would flesh out the argument more clearly.

It is immediately obvious to anyone who has spent substantial time in South Korea that both its people and elites have an extraordinary, and negative, fixation with Japan. Korea’s media talk about Japan incessantly, usually with little journalistic objectivity and in negative terms: as a competitor for export markets who must be overcome, a rival for American attention, an unrepentant colonialist, a recipient of the ‘Korean Wave’ (watch for Korean analyses of the Korean Wave triumphantly arguing that Japanese housewives are learning Korean), a lurking military imperialist just waiting to subdue Asia again, and so on.

Korea’s territorial dispute with Japan over the Liancourt Rocks is similarly illustrative. A major Korean newspaper actually suggested samurai might invade Dokdo (the Korean name for the Rocks). The government has taken out advertisements in Western newspapers and Korean pop stars have sought to act as ‘ambassadors’ to the world to press Korea’s claim. The Korean military holds war-drills around Dokdo, despite Japan’s alliance to the US. Political stunts at athletic events have undermined Japan’s willingness to participate in joint sports events with Korea. The government has launched a global campaign to rename the ‘Sea of Japan’ the ‘East Sea’ (in the belief that doing so reinforces its claim to the Rocks) and even considered pushing Psy to rework his hit-song “Gangnam Style” as “Dokdo Style.” Foreign students in Korea get pulled into this campaign too – again on the assumption that (gullible) foreigners add credibility. I have ridden on subway cars painted with the likeness of Dokdo, and I recall watching a documentary on Korean television on the 20th anniversary of Korea’s accession to the UN where the political highlight of joining was defined as the ability to press Japan on Dokdo and the war.

On Korean independence day, Korean children use squirt guns to mock-kill dressed-up Japanese soldiers (yes, really), and I have attended sound-and-light shows on that day which portray the Imjin War of the 1590s as part of one long millennial Japanese effort to dominate Korea, culminating in the 1910 annexation. It is a staple of Korean historiography that Japan has invaded the country dozens or even hundreds of times (most of these were actually pirate raids), and that Japan ‘received’ its culture via the Korean ‘bridge.’ Perhaps the most ridiculous example I can think of is a talk-show guest who was forced to apologize for wearing a red-and-white striped shirt that looked vaguely like the rising sun flag. This ‘anti-Japanism,’ as Victor Cha has termed it, has spread to the United States were ethnic Korean lobbying has brought comfort women memorials and changes to US textbooks. I could continue, but the point is that, as a social science observation, this obsession cries out for explanation, and it is hard to imagine that all this is just about the war seventy years ago. (This is not to say Korea’s historical concerns are not authentic. They are.)

One obvious explanation for the sheer intensity of feeling is that South Korea’s disputes with Japan have graduated from politics to identity. As Cha noted, South Korea’s nationalism is negative, based very much against Japan and, importantly, not against North Korea. The reason for this, I hypothesize, is that North Korea so successfully manipulates Korean nationalist discourse, that South Korea cannot define itself against North Korea, as the West Germany did against East Germany. So South Korea uses a third party against which to prove its nationalist bona fides in its national legitimacy competition with the North.

It is now widely accepted that North Korea’s real ideology is not socialism, but a race-based Korean nationalism in which the DRPK is defending the Korean race (the minjok) against foreign depredation. The ‘Yankee Colony’ South Korea – with its internationalized economy, American military presence, cultural westernization, resident foreign population, and so on – cannot compete with this racial purity narrative.

This would not matter if South Korea’s political identity were democratic and post-racial, but it is not. The minjok myth is in fact deeply resonant. South Korean education teaches it (the resultant racism is a huge problem); government media campaigns and commercials stress it; my students write about it in glowing terms; until a few years the national pledge of allegiance was to the minjok, not the democratic state. Nor does South Korea’s democracy (unfortunately) provide a strong legitimacy competitor to race nationalism. Corruption, illiberalism, and an elitist political opportunity structure have generated a robust street protest culture, a strong sign that elections are weak vessels of legitimacy.

If South Korea can only weakly legitimate itself through democratic proceduralism and race nationalism is so powerful, then Seoul must go head-to-head with Pyongyang over who is the best custodian of the minjok and its glorious 5,000 year history. This is a tussle South Korea cannot win, not only because of the North’s mendacious willingness to falsify history, but South Korea’s westernized culture, massive US presence, rising multiculturalism leading to mixed race citizens, and so on. The North’s purer minjok nationalism will always have resonance in the South, where former dictator Park Chung Hee invoked the ‘race’ for a generation for legitimacy, 10% of the public voted for an openly pro-North Korean party in the last parliamentary election, and the main left-wing party has consistently equivocated on whether the US represents a greater threat to South Korea than North Korea.

Enter Japan, then, as useful national Other to South Korea, in the place that really should be held by North Korea. All Koreans, north and south, right and left, agree that the colonial take-over was bad. The morality of criticizing Japan is undisputed, whereas criticizing North Korea quickly gets tangled up in the ‘who-can-out-minjok-who’ issues raised above. This should not be necessary. West Germany was able to define itself against the East and win that legitimacy competition. But the North has dumped Marxism for a legitimacy language that resonates in the South too. Democracy is not enough to combat this (likely due to elitist corruption as much as enduring race thinking), nor can the South out-minjok the North on its own.

So beating up on Japan is great solution. It:

1) bolsters South Korea as defender of the minjok and therefore its ‘state-ness’ as an awkward half-country,

2) sidesteps a brutal head-to-head nationalist competition with the North which might provoke open Northern sympathies in the south, and

3) ignores the long-term need to shift South Korean political legitimacy from race (and the inevitable racism it provokes) toward democracy, which in turn would require a desperately needed clean-up of Korean politics at the expense of today’s entrenched elites, most notably the chaebol.

All in all, anti-Japanism is a pretty good strategy for managing South Korea’s many tensions, and so long as the Americans are around, there are no geopolitical consequences to it either. What’s not to like? If South Korea cannot be the anti-North Korea, then it can be the anti-Japan.

29 thoughts on “More on South Korean ‘Anti-Japanism’ and the Intra-Korean Legitimacy Contest

  1. Several factors have contributed to our anti-Japanism. Professor Kelly’s argument is a good one and is certainly one of the factors. Let me point out another factor.

    Our obsession to compare ourselves with others. The following article (in Korean) explains this very well.

    For example if a Korean gambled at a casino, he would feel happy if he lost less money than his friend did. On the other hand, even if he won, if his friend won more, he would feel unhappy and jealous.

    In a Confucian society, a person ranked higher is always superior and right. And in the Sinocentric world order, Korea is supposed to be ranked higher than Japan. Therefore we are supposed to be superior to the Japanese. Yet in reality, the Japanese seem to do better than we do in many areas. This doesn’t sit well with us. We feel jealous.

    By claiming our version of history as right and glorious and dismissing the Japanese version as right-wing heresy, we are trying to overcome our inferiority complex towards the Japanese. We have created the myth (the first sentence of our constitution) that our provisional government somehow defeated the Japanese and won independence when in fact we fought with the Japanese. We didn’t win our independence. We have created the myth that the Japanese colonial administration was brutal. (Yes it was unequal but not brutal) We have created the myth that the Japanese military police showed up at the doors and kidnapped our young women when in fact it was our men who sold and deceived our women.

    The anti-Japanese brainwashing that started in the media and in our classrooms after the war is another reason why we are so convinced that our version of history is the right one. The following book illustrates very well how our first president, Syngman Rhee, used the anti-Japanese brainwashing to cover up his massacres.

    In this book the author, Sung-Hwa Cheong, concludes that public antagonism toward Japan only became an obstacle to the normalization of diplomatic relations after Syngman Rhee deliberately stimulated anti-Japanese sentiment as part of a calculated policy that originated in his own political insecurity.

    Syngman Rhee massacred hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Koreans in Bodo League massacre, etc.

    In order to cover up his crimes and maintain legitimacy, Syngman Rhee started the anti-Japanese brainwashing so that we would have a common enemy. And every successive president after him had to outdo his predecessor on anti-Japanism in order to maintain legitimacy.

    Our inferiority complex and jealousy towards the Japanese combined with our incorrect understanding of history is another factor in our anti-Japanism.


    • Technically saying Korea sided with Japan in WWIi is like saying that France was on the Axis side in WWII or any other occupied country. However your point in previous posts about the independence fighters being ineffective, lacking credibility, and in disarray are good points. Also women and girls being recruited by Koreans in a similar vein is like Jews being rounded up by local authorities in occupied countries. Perhaps you meant to say that the incorrect history paints it as if Koreans did nothing wrong about it.

      Another point about this is that US and Japan have more urgent things to do than this apology thing such as deal with China. Looking at the at the Philippines and Vietnam both of which were occupied by Japan they are both lining up against China. Park’s antics over this apology issue and her stance is isolating her and make her look very foolish.


      • Bio,

        You are correct regarding the rest of Asia vs. Park’s perception. Not only Philippines and Vietnam, but the ASEAN nations are strongly appealing for Japanese assistance against Chinese militarism and aggression.

        However, the equation with France is not accurate. Vichy France did indeed want to join the Axis with Petain being the most outspoken. Vichy French forces were more aggressive towards the UK troops they fought in Syria and Africa than they had been against the Germans, and collaborators were rife throughout France. Only as 1944 approached was there a viable Marquis or French Resistance movement of any note, and even then most didn’t take up arms until the Allies were close, the UK/US could not rely on them even on occasion to rescue downed allied flyers. Korea is more akin to Texas or Hawaii. These were independent nations that were absorbed into the US. Identity of the persons vs. the metropole continually goes through political evolutions, but the level of indipenence Korea exhibited after 1919 was minimal. Many according to the OSS were ‘more Japanese than the Japanese’ and allied PoWs can attest to this. By ratio more Koreans volunteered (prior to the 1944 draft) for service with the Japanese than the Nisei/Sansei for the US forces. So the analogy with France is a bit off.

        The Jewish analogy is very disturbing, and I hope that you will study the reality of the Holocaust and National Socialism and it’s racial policies towards Jews and Slavs. From the inception Spengleresque forms of anti-Semitic belief were interwoven within National Socialist doctrine and Hitlers personal belief system. From the beginning of the war (invasion of Poland in September of 1939) the eradication of the Jews began, and continued as a main goal throughout. NOTHING like this was ever close to Korea, where, again like Hawaii or Texas, it was seen as part of Japan. The Korean royal family marrying into the Japanese royal family. There is no equivalent to place the Koreans and the Jewish or even Polish experience in WWII, so please, please, do not insult the Jewish experience by this false analogy.

        The Koreans were in many cases very supportive after 1931 (Manchuria) of Japanese programs, as their ability to benefit economically and socially went up by participation/collaboration in Japanese programs. It’s human nature.


      • Thanks for the reply.
        You are correct that the Vichy France did enthusiastically support Nazi Germany. In fact in Operation Torch the landings in North Africa the US was lucky despite the French putting up determined resistance when they contested the landings. The American troops up to that point were freshly trained troops with limited experience. As to French joining the resistance it probably is normal to do that. Just like not many people would be courageous or foolish enough to resist somebody with a gun.

        My point about Jews being rounded up was not meant to be an exact analogy but demonstrate that collaborating locals had a hand in it as opposed to later propaganda that might paint it as just Nazi German were the only ones doing it. Not equating this comfort women thing as being equal to the Holocaust.

        As to the narrative of the colonial period, life just went on as normal. People were not nationalistic as now and people like Park Chung Hee were being more practical than nationalistic. It is the chinilpa label that is causing them to stir up nationalism. In fact this antijapanism is lakin to measuring somebody’s worth by putting down somebody else. It is this weakminded attitude that is causing harm for Korea and undercutting its potential influence. If Philippines and Vietnam do not find Korea helpful in their issue then they’ll bypass Korea and deal with Japan and US only.

        In fact Korea could learn something from the Philippines and Vietnam. The former was occupied by Japan and was a war zone but they prioritized current South China issue. The latter put the fact that the US bombed the hell out of them in their war and is an ideological enemy but they are willing to put that aside to talk and accept aid from the US. Granted it is not much but people should note this. It demonstrate urgency.

        On the Vietnam case what is going on in Ukraine is a factor. Russia is sanctioned by the west, so it is driven more toward China. It cannot afford to antagonize China so Vietnam may have been forced to deal with the US in its rivalry against China. This vietnam-US dialogue is very significant. Korea is letting history interfere with the now, that is inaccurate history.


  2. I would also like to say this sort of ethno nationalism is a relatively recent creation by a nationalist. It’s because of this that it leads to a debilitating contest with North Korea. That is the “pure” race with the minjok.

    Korea obviously needs to rethink the approach. The current president’s background is not helping but fanning a lot of this.


  3. In the comment above, I mentioned one of the factors that contributed to our anti-Japanism.

    However, I am somewhat optimistic that our anti-Japanism will not last forever. I feel this way because in the late 1990’s, South Korea started allowing Japanese culture to come in. (Japanese culture was banned in South Korea until then, believe it or not)

    So the South Koreans who were born in the 1980’s & 1990’s grew up with Japanese anime & Japanese literature. (Haruki Murakami & so on) These generations typically say, “We like Japanese culture & people. If the Japanese accept our history as the right history, we can get along with them.” This means that when these generations realize that their history is not the right history but the brainwashed history, they will get along with the Japanese unconditionally.

    Will they realize that their history is not the right history? I believe they will thanks to the internet & social media.

    For example on internet, South Koreans now have access to the history textbook comparison study done by Stanford University.

    This study found that the Japanese history textbooks to be based on facts, the Korean history textbooks to be heavy on nationalism.

    There is a Korean who covers Korea-Japan history extensively on twitter. South Koreans can learn a lot about the correct history from this person.

    There is a Korean writer who writes regular columns on The following are the examples of his columns.

    So when the generations who were born in the 1980’s & 1990’s become the movers and shakers of South Korea, (i.e. key politicians, newspaper editors, etc.) the relationship between South Korea and Japan will improve dramatically.

    Right now, the South Korean society is dominated by the generations who were born in the 1950’s, 1960’s & 1970’s. These generations were raised with anti-Japanese brainwashing at schools, and they had no exposure to Japanese culture growing up. So they are hardcore anti-Japanese.

    The generations who were born before 1945 (like my grandparents) are generally very sympathetic to the Japanese because they actually experienced the annexation period. The reason why the Korea-Japan relation has deteriorated so badly in the last 20 years is because most of them have died, and the generations born after the war came into power.

    Our presidents up to Kim Dae-jung all spoke Japanese fluently because they experienced the annexation. Park Chung-hee was anti-Japanese publicly, but in private he shared drinks with Japanese politicians speaking in Japanese. When the Japanese emperor Hirohito died in 1989, Kim Dae-jung went to the funeral and took a deep bow toward Hirohito’s coffin. This would be unthinkable with our last three presidents.

    So it will take some time, but when we have a president who were born in the 1980’s or later, we will not be talking about our anti-Japanism.


    • Hopefully the anti japanism will die down plus the minjok myth that is causing ideological issues with North Korea.

      I feel this is seriously undermining Korea’s geopolitical position. It’s refusal to cooperate with Japan and align with it as well as other SouthEast Asian countries to counter China.


    • Hi. I’ve just watched Prof. John Duncan’s lecture on Korea, and found an error about his short comments on the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute (in the Q&A). In fact, the Korean king Kojong’s 1900 decree referred to Ulleungdo, Jukdo, and Seokdo, and never Dokdo because the name Dokdo didn’t even exist till later. This 1900 degree was about the Ulleungdo district, including the two tiny small islands nearby, but today’s Koreans insist that this “Seokdo” meant Dokdo. Prof. Duncan says, “King Kojong told Japan not to fish near Dokdo,” but in reality what the king said to Japan was not to go near Ulleungdo. The YouTube video doesn’t allow comments, so I’m leaving my comment here instead.


  4. An interesting article in yesterday’s Chosunilbo.

    정신대문제대책협의회는 좌파성향의 단체

    Let me summary translate it in a few paragraphs.

    “I am tired of reading daily articles on comfort women in the South Korean media. The group that hosts Wednesday protests in front of Japanese embassy, Chong Dae Hyup, is a leftist group with close ties to North Korea. The husband of its leader was arrested as a North Korean spy. Other members are also closely related to North Korea.

    The South Korean public, who doesn’t know the background of Chong Dae Hyup, is being deceived by its propaganda. Chong Dae Hyup’s goal is to drive a wedge into U.S.-South Korea-Japan security partnership.

    By publishing anti-Japanese articles on a daily basis, the South Korean media are harming South Korea’s interest. More anti-Korean sentiment in Japan means less South Korean export to Japan and less Japanese tourists to South Korea. More serious than the economic loss is the harm on South Korea’s security interest. If the South Korean media understand this, why would they keep publishing these silly articles?”

    I read a book by Professor Park Yuha of Sejong University, and she had a similar view on the comfort women issue as well.


  5. “I lot of readers didn’t get the argument, and a lot rejected it. So I thought I’d try again. Once again, when it comes to comments on this thorny issue, spare me the hate-mail and the racism.” I’m probably terrible at getting my points across, but here goes: I presume your “point” is the necessity of greater cooperation between Japan and South Korea. But posts like this and the earlier June 7th one, even when meant to criticize nationalism, actually just rehashes old nationalist grudges rather than focusing on other issues that are supposedly being neglected by Japan and SK. So of course it’s extremely likely that a good deal of the responses you’re going to get are “defensive” Korean nationalists and maybe Japanese nationalists who want to chime in about “Yeah, see how Koreans can’t be reasoned with?” and not a lot of talk about J-SK cooperation. Acknowledge the issues between Japan and Korea (for what it’s worth, I think Japanese imperialist apologia is overkill as a response to alleged Chinese/Korean intransigence on “Japan bashing” but anyway), but it might be better to focus on a “counter narrative” that dwells on other specific issues that necessitate close J-SK relations.


    • It is immediately obvious to anyone who has spent substantial time in the US that both its euramerican people and elites have an extraordinary, and negative, fixation with everyone else. USA’s media talk about China and just about every other non ‘white’ country and people incessantly, usually with little journalistic objectivity and in negative terms, a recipient of the ‘Western Wave’ (watch for white analyses of the ‘western Wave ‘triumphantly arguing that –insert here– housewives are learning English), a lurking military imperialist just waiting to subdue the ‘western civilization’. I could continue, but the point is that, as a social science observation, this obsession cries out for explanation, and it is hard to imagine that all this is just about democracy, law and order, first amendments, human rights, etc, etc. One obvious explanation for the sheer intensity of feeling is that white’s disputes with everyone else have graduated from looting to identity. white people’s nationalism is negative, based very much against everyone else. It is now widely accepted that white people’s real ideology is not democracy, but a race-based ethnic nationalism in which they are defending the ‘western’ race against foreign depredation.

      need i go on?

      by the way, south korea has not been culturally ‘westernized’ but modernized – which means modern global best practices and influences from everywhere, not just the ‘west’. and if you are implying americanization that has happened to a large degree, like it has everywhere around the globe including europe – do remember that usa is made up of western, eastern southern, northern, and every other civilization and people on this planet. it’s not like south korea selectively took ‘western’ culture from america and left everything else behind. frankly, with the korean culture defines as it is by k-pop which is influenced by hip-hop and rap cultures specific to afro-americans and not westerns like you, one could argue that they are more everythingelse-ternized than westernized. and what would westernization mean anyway? do south koreans start wearing european traditional dress of skirts? and stop wearing central asian pants? do they stop reading books and stop wiping their asses with toilet paper and start using whatever ‘western’ culture did before it asianized?

      south korea has a minjok myth? and ofcourse you dont have an aryan myth right? hell even the term aryan is indian. who ofcourse ‘received’ their culture – from ancient europeans – as did egypt right? i get confused. should i call fox media and rupert to get confirmation. nope – i can just go down to the local library for an ‘authoritative’ historiography written by most euro-origin academics.

      what yardstick exactly does south korea have to measure itself against to display that its ‘political’ identity is democratic as opposed to race-nationalism? it certainly can’t be european right? or any other political sub-national entity masquerading as an electorate in us or australia.

      “an elitist political opportunity structure have generated a robust street protest culture, a strong sign that elections are weak vessels of legitimacy” – wow! were you describing south korea or the us, or just about any other country on earth?

      and how ridiculous that this article is being published in the website of an australian ‘thinktank’, a country that has a majority of european migrant imports who have installed a british queen as its official royalty, that has a tribal racial extremist past which has radicalised it’s society and continues to rip-off native australians. not to mention the ‘racial solidarity’ that led it to host british nuke tests harming australia and the pacific and continue to contribute to current french nuclear weapons research. not to mention the recent political dog-whistles that buying japanese subs would ‘bail-out’ japanese companies that are ‘struggling’ apparently, as opposed to the thriving economies of mother-europe. with ethnic euro-american articles appearing touting faulty, sub-par german subs as ‘stealthy’, desperately trying to compete with japanese, and all of a sudden a few thousand jobs seems like a national issue to euro-australians.


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  17. Hi Robert, I know you don’t care about the replies from Koreans.

    But Korea is a free country that even allows you to write this kind of incomplete and personal insist that can even be leveraged by Japanese rightists. In Japan, you can hardly do the same. Why don’t you go to Japan and give it a try?


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