Opinion | South Korea’s Unhealthy Obsession With Japan

SEOUL — When I was a boy growing up in South Korea in the early 1990s, my mother gave me a 60-volume set of biographies. Half of them profiled eminent global figures — the Buddha, Abraham Lincoln, Marie Curie — the rest were Koreans, many of whom were renowned for one thing: resisting Japan.

I asked why there weren’t more Koreans worth remembering, perhaps for other reasons. “That’s what our history is about, I guess,” she replied. “Fighting Japan.”

For decades Koreans have been unable to move on from Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula — its rapacious rule, the conscription of laborers and “comfort women” sex slaves. It’s been like a form of national brainwashing.

It’s time for South Koreans to let go of these unhealthy emotions. We share too much in common with Japan. We are both modern democracies, economic success stories and fellow U.S. allies. And there is a bigger threat looming over both of us: China.

In school we lionized people like Yi Sun-shin, a Korean admiral who helped repel a Japanese invasion more than four centuries ago, as if it happened yesterday. Japanese depredations were blamed for stifling national development. It didn’t help that Tokyo showed a lack of remorse with its history of using school textbooks that were seen in Korea as glossing over its wartime brutality and with visits by Japanese politicians to the Tokyo shrine where convicted war criminals are honored.

As in many post-colonial countries, our feelings were often conflicted. In the early 1990s, a South Korean book, whose title could be roughly translated as “Japan’s Got Nothing,” was published. A litany of Japan’s supposed national flaws, it was a best seller. Shortly after, another best seller came out: “Japan’s Got Something,” which took a more generous view.

President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea, a conservative, realizes the need for a change. With one eye on China (and North Korea), he has been busy making nice with Japan. Last month his administration proposed a compromise resolution to a decades-old dispute over compensation for conscripted Korean laborers during World War II. (Rather than insisting that Japanese companies that used the laborers pay the compensation, a South Korean government-run fund would do it).

Mr. Yoon quickly followed up with a state visit to Japan — the first between the two countries in 12 years — where he tossed back a beer with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan.

My first trip abroad was to Japan in 1992. It seemed like everyone I knew wanted me to bring coveted Japanese goods back for them — Sony Walkmans and Toshiba rice cookers. But we were careful about speaking positively of Japan. South Korea’s political class has long thrived on anti-Japanese rhetoric, and any hint of admiration for Japan could have you labeled a traitor (I’m bracing for that as I write this).

In a cathartic release of resentment, the South Korean government in 1995 began demolishing Japan’s grand former colonial headquarters — a great architectural loss — that had dominated central Seoul. After the Japanese left, it became a government building and, later, a museum. I wandered through it as a child, enthralled at the wondrous exhibits of Korean history and art, and I couldn’t quite understand why it had to be leveled. But such vestiges of the colonial era had to be “eradicated,” we were told, as if they were cockroaches. Even now, the site of Japan’s embassy in Seoul has an under-siege air to it, with protests regularly held on the street out front as a statue of a young girl, representing “comfort women” victims, stares at the embassy.

However, fear of China, the powerful neighbor on our opposite side, is helping to break the anti-Japan spell.

China has exerted tremendous influence on Korea for more than 2,000 years, and for centuries was viewed by Korean intellectuals as the source of all that was civilized. We avidly embraced Chinese literary, cultural and philosophical traditions and used China’s writing system for much of our history. I was one of the admirers. My mother enrolled me as a child in private lessons on reading classical Chinese, which was considered the height of sophistication. The elegance of the texts moved me deeply.

Despite South Korean antipathy toward communism, and China’s entry into the Korean War on the side of North Korea, many of us looked to China with hope that it could use its influence to promote a peaceful reunification of North and South.

But North Korea is as belligerent as ever, and China is now viewed in the South as part of the problem, propping up its communist neighbor while doing little to prevent its acquisition of missile and nuclear technology. In 2016, in the name of countering the North Korean threat, South Korea agreed to let the United States deploy a missile-defense system on its soil. China reacted with rage, its government-run media calling for boycotts of South Korean products.

My fascination with China led me to bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Chinese studies. But my feelings began to sour when some of my Mandarin teachers, who were from China, insisted that Taiwan, a successful, progressive democracy, was a rogue province that must be brought under China’s control. Four years ago, I participated in a panel discussion on Chinese state television and was asked how East Asian countries could cooperate better. When I started to say that vastly different political systems remained a stumbling block, the Chinese host cut me off, apparently trying to stop me from criticizing Chinese authoritarianism.

South Koreans now have some of the world’s most negative views of China, according to surveys, citing the emergence of the coronavirus from Wuhan, repression by the Chinese Communist Party and air pollution that wafts eastward over our country. The gradual phasing out of Chinese characters since the 1970s in favor of a native Korean alphabet has made Chinese culture feel outdated. Many South Koreans fear that Beijing’s stated intention to “unify” with self-ruled Taiwan — militarily, if necessary — could drag us into a devastating regional conflict.

Still, Mr. Yoon has been vilified by his political opponents who, reverting to the same old playbook, denounce his outreach to Japan as “humiliating.” His already low approval ratings have dipped further.

But many South Koreans seem ready to move on. Even beyond their shared anxiety about China, South Korea and Japan are bound by their mutual fascination with each other’s culture and entertainment, such as K-pop, K-drama and Pokemon. Japan is wildly popular with Korean tourists, more Koreans are positive toward Japan than negative and most South Koreans favor better relations with Tokyo.

Swapping one boogeyman for another may not be healthy for the Korean national psyche, but perhaps that’s the fate of a country like ours, sandwiched between powerful neighbors. And for once, at least, I can agree with my politically conservative parents, who have come to share my distrust of China and affection for Japan.

I took my mother to Japan last month to see the cherry blossoms in bloom. Post-pandemic travel between the two countries has surged, and Korean tourists were everywhere. As we strolled along the Sumida River in Tokyo, its banks ablaze with the soft pink of cherry blossoms, she let out a contented sigh, turned to me and said, “This country is so beautiful and civilized.”

Se-Woong Koo is a South Korean-born writer and journalist.

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