The Buzz

Why South Korea Is So Obsessed with Japan

Last month I wrote about the possibility that 'Korea fatigue' – a Japanese phenomenon arising from Korea's relentless criticism of Japan over its World War II conduct—might be coming to the U.S. It was one of my most-read posts on The Interpreter, and I received a lot of comments and retweets regarding my suggestion that South Korea's 'anti-Japanism' flows from its debilitating national legitimacy contest with North Korea. So I thought I would flesh out that argument.

It is immediately obvious to anyone who has spent substantial time in South Korea that its people and its elites have an extraordinary, and negative, fixation with Japan.

Korea's media talks about Japan incessantly, usually with little journalistic objectivity and in negative terms: as a competitor for export markets which must be overcome, as a rival for American attention, as an unrepentant colonialist, as a recipient of the 'Korean Wave' (watch Korean analysts triumphantly argue that Japanese housewives are learning Korean), as 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. 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, 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 the world body 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 a 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 apologies 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 U.S., where 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 it is all 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 notes, South Korea's nationalism is negative, defined very much against Japan and, importantly, not against North Korea. The reason, I hypothesize, is that North Korea so successfully manipulates Korean nationalist discourse that South Korea cannot define itself against North Korea in the same way 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.