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
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,
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
"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
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
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[email protected]