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     Apr 21, 2006
Comics stoke Japan-Korea tension
By Matthew Rusling

A Japanese comic book that puts down Koreans will do nothing to ease tensions between the neighbors. The 288-page Japanese manga, which has sold 400,000 copies and with a sequel having just been released, is titled Ken-Kanryu, which can be translated as Hating the Korean Wave.

Making inflammatory statements such as "there is nothing at all in Korean culture to be proud of", the authors say they are responding to the wildly popular "Korean wave" that began when Japan and South Korea co-hosted the 2002 World Cup of soccer. Since then, there has been a surge in Japanese demand for

Korean pop music, films and television dramas.

"The [Korean boom] has provided Japanese people with opportunities to realize what South Korea, a county that they have not known well, is really like, resulting in the sharp increase in the number of Japanese people who have come to dislike South Korea," Akihide Tange, one of the book's editors, wrote in an e-mail to Asia Times Online.

While many Japanese are caught up in all things Korean, Tange said the so-called Korean wave has also sparked a backlash of anti-Korean sentiment, especially on the Internet, and that Japan's leftist press, as he deems it, has ignored the trend.

The two countries are already at odds over a variety of volatile issues, including Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni war shrine where high-profile war criminals are honored, other matters relating to Japan's aggression before and during World War II, territorial disputes, and a flap over Japanese school textbooks authored by right-wing scholars.

"The mass media in Japan have not picked up these voices, only trying to stage friendly relations between the two nations ... Especially [on] the Internet, [there] is another 'Korean boom', and I have named it the 'anti-Korean boom'," Tange said, adding that Japanese media have exercised a self-imposed restriction regarding issues concerning South Korea.

Tange said he wanted to "let general people, beyond the world of the Internet, know [about] this 'anti-Korea boom', and to meet the demands of those who feel uncomfortable with South Korea".

During the 2002 World Cup, claim the authors, Korean fans compared the Japanese flag to a used sanitary napkin. The book also says Korean fans booed during Koizumi's speech, as well as every time Japan scored a goal, while Japanese fans applauded both teams. It further says Japanese media portray South Korea in a positive light while Japan is often demonized in the South Korean media.

While some of these statements may contain elements of truth, the authors also make more spurious claims. In one chapter, the book says Japanese colonization resulted in improved economic conditions for Koreans. It also says the Korean government invited the Japanese to colonize their country, so that Koreans might become enlightened by their more Westernized and modern Japanese neighbors.

"It is ... a gross oversimplification to say that the Korean government 'invited' Japan to colonize their country," said Sheila Miyoshi Jager, Luce assistant professor of East Asian studies at Ohio's Oberlin College. "While there were certainly those Koreans who had ... sought to emulate their Japanese neighbor in their modernization reforms against an increasingly ineffective and decrepit Korean government ... they never had it as their goal to become a Japanese colony."

According to historians, Korean leadership had lost control over its own internal affairs by the 1880s and sought to play surrounding powers against one another to ensure its own survival. When China and Russia could no longer keep Japan in check, Korea had no choice but to become a protectorate of Japan.

"The idea that Japanese colonialism somehow laid the foundation for Korea's modernizing reforms should not be offered as an apology for Japanese imperialism, since colonialism was not Korea's only possible route to industrialization and social change," said Jager, who added that the tremendous suffering brought on by Japanese colonization of Korea, such as sexual slavery and forced labor, should not be forgotten or excused.

The manga's authors have misunderstood the legacy of the Japanese colonization, Jager said. "The fact that many Koreans were able to improve their lot and were able to carry out their modernizing reforms ... is a testimony not of Japanese benevolence or enlightenment, but of Korean capability, talent and determination."

Kanji Nishio, honorary chairman of the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, an organization that has evoked controversy for trying to have references to Japan's wartime aggression removed from junior-high-school textbooks, has also written a chapter in the comic book.

The New York Times quoted him as saying Japan should cut itself off from South Korea and China. "Economically, it's difficult. But in our hearts, psychologically, we should remain composed and keep that attitude."

While anti-Koreanism is far from the sentiment of all Japanese, a United Nations report conducted last year concluded that the island nation harbors deeply xenophobic attitudes. Some experts say such thinking can trace its roots to the Meiji period, when Japan's establishment actively tried to copy Western ideas and culture, and reached a high point in the 1980s.

"In the '80s, when Japan was riding the crest of the wave, there was a great deal of hubris and sense of superiority," said Jean-Pierre Lehmann, professor of international political economy and founding director of the Evian Group, a Swiss-based organization promoting global market economy.

"Forecasts were that the Japanese economy would take over the US by around about now ... Then the bubble burst and the last dozen or so years have seen ... the collapse of the economy, the decline of many hitherto global champion firms ... the unexpected and spectacular rise of China, shunting Japan to the sidelines, [and] the total lack of support for Tokyo's bid for a permanent seat at the [UN Security Council]."

These dynamics have culminated to form a nationalist sentiment among some. "Japanese nationalism is defensive and reflecting a growing sense of uncertainty, insecurity and inferiority," Lehmann said.

The popularity of the comic book also underscores what many view as a worrying educational trend in Japan. "What strikes me is how ill-educated the younger generations are in respect to history. While Japan does not have a monopoly on lousy education systems, there is no doubt that it is one that encourages conformity ... young Japanese are not confronted with alternative ideas and views ... [they] are probably the most insular I know among non-dictatorial countries."

Still, foreigners, including Koreans, now take up more of the spotlight in Japan than even a few years ago. Indeed, the coach of this season's Japan Series baseball champions is from the United States, and two of the nation's most popular sumo wrestlers are from Bulgaria and Mongolia. Marriages in which one partner is Chinese, Filipino, Australian, Canadian, American or Korean are also increasingly visible.

And animosity between Japanese and Koreans is far from one-sided, as Koreans are known to harbor harsh resentment against their Japanese neighbors. One of many examples was in 1999, long before Koizumi began his Yasukuni Shrine visits, when South Korean rap group DJ Doc produced the single "F... Japan", allegedly written in response to an anti-Korean song by a Japanese rap group. The song includes lyrics such as "F... these pigfoot Japs! Let's kill them", and takes delight in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

But other Koreans and Japanese have reported good relations, especially college students on study-abroad programs in North America, Japanese and Korean business people and travelers. The two countries having similar traditions, culture and sense of humor, some relationships have even resulted in lifelong friendships and marriages. One blogger also pointed out that sales of Ken-Kanryu represent less than 1% of Japan's population.

Notwithstanding, the book continues to sell.

Matthew Rusling is a freelance writer in Osaka. He can be reached at mjrjapan@yahoo.com.

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Year of the Rooster nothing to crow about (Jan 7, '06)

A chronicle of Korea-Japan 'friendship' (Dec 23, '05)


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