Daehan minguk – an introduction – part two

August 17, 2006

Daehan minguk – part 2 – Japan looms large

I meant to get this entire introduction completed on August 15th, a key date in both Korean and world history. While it passes largely unnoticed these days in the USA (older readers no doubt remember it as VJ day), in Korea, August 15th is “National Liberation Day,” marking not just Japanese surrender to the Allies, but more intimately, the end of Japanese colonialism.

The identity of Daehan minguk, or in shorthand, Hanguk (pronounced like the ‘han’ in Han Solo from Star Wars, and guk – well, that sounds like the slur used against Asians, “gook”), is defined in many ways as much by the “other” as it is by the “self,” and thus, Japan holds a pre-eminent position in modern Korean history.

Materially speaking, much of early modern Korea was developed during the Japanese colonial period, as Japan sought to utilize the entire Korean peninsula along with Manchuria into the Japanese imperial war machine. Transportation, education, utilities, resource extraction, and political institutions were ramped up during the first half of the 20th century, organized along the lines developed by Japan during its own period of early modernization begun with the Meiji revolution in 1871. Thus, when one looks at the infrastructure of present day Korea, there is much similarity with Japan. Moreover, dictator and general

Ideologically, Japan plays two key roles in contemporary Korean identity. First, and more difficult to ascertain, are the theoretical similarities that stem from the relationship between Korean reformers in the late 1800’s who studied in Japan and were highly influenced by the success of Japan in becoming the first Asian nation to reach global power status and one of the only Asian nations (besides Thailand) to resist imperial conquest. Most important, perhaps, and continuing down to this very day, are the theories developed during this time (and continuing to the present day) on nationalism in the Asian context – made up of a mixture of Social Darwinism, homogeneous ethnic struggle, “Asian exceptionalism,” and “Confucian capitalism.” The influence, or confluence, of these theories is rather ironic and largely unrecognized by the average Kim on the street. “Similarities with the Japanese” is generally not a favorite topic of conversation among Koreans, which leads us to the second key role played by Japan.

Japan is enemy number one in Korea, bar none. Sure, the USA can sometimes be an easy target, due to the fact that there are still tens of thousands of solidiers stationed on the peninsula, but the fact of the matter is that attitudes towards the USA are always ambivalent (e.g. students who want the US out of Korea, but want to get a Ph.D in the United States). While the most radical critics may want absolutely nothing to do with the USA and would deny any positive influence played by the USA in Korean history, almost everyone else would be grudging or whole-hearted supporters of the role the superpower has played in South Korean history. Not so with the Japanese. Pure, unadulterated hatred for the Japanese is easy to find in Korea.

For now I lack the time or inclination to recap the record of Japan in Korea. Suffice to say, they formally annexed Korea in 1910 and only lost their control with their defeat in 1945. During this period, tens of thousands were killed and strident efforts were made to erase the Korean identity from existence, up to and including the policy of forcing Koreans to take on Japanese names and to prohibit the use of the Korean language in Korea. Fortunately, the project failed. But the enmity remains, and with this enmity, a deep-seated fear that to this day, Japan doesn’t really regret what they’ve done to Korea (or the rest of Asia for that matter, the Chinese aren’t big fans of Japan either) and are itching to reconquer the peninsula if given half the chance.

All of this serves as context then for understanding Korea’s reaction to the event that inspired this post, the visit of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the Yasukuni Shrine.

The Yasukuni Shrine is located in Tokyo and serves as the resting place for the “kami” (spirits) of all the war dead in Japan’s modern history (indeed, the shrine lays ultimate claim to the war dead – various survivors of war dead have protested the inclusion of their deceased loved ones in the Shrine, only to be rebuffed by the government which claims that the family has claim to the loved one’s memory, but the State has the ultimate authority over the “kami”). Way more than just a park, or even a cemetery, the shrine is rooted in the ideology of State Shintoism, spoken of in mythic terms by its proponents but only really invented in the last century as an ideological means of uniting a newly formed nation and creating the idea of “Japan,” itself a relatively new idea used to unify the far reaching islands and diverse populations inhabiting them. This religion holds that all things in the universe are inhabited by spirits, and that among these human spirits are amongst the most precious, and Japanese human spirits – most notably those within the family line of the emperor – are especially precious. It was within this theological system that the Emperor Hirohito was referred to in the West as a “divinity” and indeed, it was this characterization that had to be refuted as a stipulation in Japan’s instrument of surrender on August 15, 1945.

The issue that causes such grief nowadays, not only in former vicitm nations like China and Korea, but in Japan, too, is whether or not the Prime Minister should pay official visits to the shrine to “honor the war dead.”

It should be noted that this controversy is not simply a Japan vs. its detractors issue. Even within Japan, there has long been protest against the shrine visits, and in fact, it was only recently that the Prime Minister again began making visits to the shrine. In the past, the Emperor himself admitted that such visits were indeed unnecesary breaches of propriety given the pain inflicted by Japan on its neighbors. Such nuances are, of course, lost on those who most stridently support the visits, always in terms of a victimized Japan being set upon by the evil, ungrateful, backwards Chinese and Koreans. It is far easier to simply ignore such internal complications in favor of an us/them argument, but the record is clear – the shrine visits are bitterly contested provocations, domestically and internationally.

The argument of supporters for the shrine visits – most popular among right-wing Japanese (including the infamous Yakuza) and US apologists for Japan (a sizeable majority among US students of Japan, at least in my experience) – is simply that Japan follows a tradition like that of other nations. The act of honoring the war dead should transcend the politics of the wars themselves. Such visits are no different than the US President laying a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery. Any other implications are merely the result of political posturing of Japan’s enemies, addicted as they are to their “vicitmization complex” or unfair hatred and/or jealousy of Japan.

The website of the Yasuki shrine is perhaps the best source for the “happy sweet and light” version of what the shrine, and invariably, the official visits to it, really means:

The noble work of building the nation of Japan that was one with His Majesty the Emperor was accomplished through the blessings of the ancestors of each one of you.

Nevertheless, to defend the independence of the nation as well as the peace of Asia, the sad development of wars with other countries arose. In the Meiji Period there was the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War. In the Taisho Period there was the First World War. Then in the Showa Period occurred the Manchurian Incident, the China Incident and the Greater East Asian War (Second World War). [emphasis mine – that’s some rich use of the passive tense, no?]

Detractors protest that such generous interpretations fly in the face of the willful suffering that Japan caused across the Asian continent. They point out that visits to German cemeteries to honor SS troops or the like are roundly criticized and that Germany has rightfully refrained from taking part in any such rituals that either downplay responsiblity for the war or deny individual responsibility for taking part. In other words, “I was just following orders” doesn’t cut it in Germany, and shouldn’t cut it in Japan either. Moreover, the religious nature of the cemetery makes the visits that much more highly charged, something qualitatively different than US visits to Arlington. Most egregious, according to the protestors, is that within the shrine are certified class A war criminals. For protestors, the existence of the shrine itself is already more than enough. Yearly showcased rituals are just so much “rubbing their noses in it.”

Well, regardless of your take on this issue, hopefully you know a little bit more about why the headlines pop up every year about the visits and what their implications are. In the process, it offered me an opportunity to address one of the key building blocks in the modern Korean identity – Japan.


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