A Korean soldier stands guard over Dokdo Island

Ever the naive Westerner, I had assumed that South Korea and Japan would have some sort of ”Northeastern Asia Friendship” going on after spending the last 200 million years chilling out next to each other in the Sea of Japan.  Just as Canada and America share some similar cultural attributes and mentalities, I expected the two countries to have some sort of geographical bond between them.  I was wrong.  South Korea and Japan are no more “Northeastern Buddies” than New York and Massachusetts are, and their friendship can be likened to that between oil and vinegar.  Or two positive magnetic poles.  Or a three year old and Brussels sprouts.  You get the idea.  There’s not a lot of love.

Historically, the hostility between Korea and Japan goes back centuries, as Japan has always been popping in and out of the country whenever they see fit, and staying for longer than Korea would like.  A famous Seven Year War from 1592 to 1598 consisted of the Japanese invading the port city of  Busan, and inching their way up towards Seoul, while Korea and China united to oust them.  While it was named the Seven Year War due to its time span, it really didn’t end at the turn of the 17th century, but continues to this day.

While I have been told by many Koreans that they have no issue with the Japanese people, just their government, the tension between the two countries is so culturally significant that foreign English teachers attended a seminar on the subject during our pre-teaching orientation.  In 1910, Korea was annexed by Japan, and forced to live under Japan’s emperial rule, something Korea understandably resented, and continues to resent.  During the Japanese Occupation, Shinto shrines were built throughout Korea, and Koreans were forced to worship at the shrines, despite the fact that most Koreans are either Buddhist or Christian, and Shintoism is pretty much strictly Japanese.  Many Koreans were also forced to change their last names to that which were traditionally Japanese, a huge slap in the face considering the importance of family in Asian culture. And the insults did not end there.

An issue continuing to impact the older Korean generation is that of comfort women, where Japan kidnapped hundreds of thousands of women from Korea, China, the Philippines, and other Asian countries, and forced them to work as sexual slaves for the gratification of Japanese soldiers.  These women were raped, abused, and often killed or left to die once pregnancy or disease became evident. As comfort women were prevalent in World War II, we have accounts of sexual violence by the Japanese documented within the US House of Representatives, and women still marching in the streets of Korea, looking for justice for themselves, their mothers, or their grandmothers.  Japan has never issued an apology for the use of comfort women, and no efforts have been made to help the many families affected.

Persisting tension between Korea and Japan can also be traced more recently to the issue of Dokdo Island (referred to as ‘Takeshima’ by the Japanese)- a small patch of islets located in the Sea of Japan.  To make a long story short, South Korea says it’s theirs, but Japan also claims it as their own.  The issue of who owns Dokdo Island is so important to Koreans that miniature models of the island are displayed in Seoul subway stations, and some cellphones come with complementary charms that say “I <3 Dokdo.”  This sense of fervent nationalism begins at such a young age that when I asked my 13 year old students to recommend a place in Korea for foreigners to see, about half of them wrote about Dokdo Island, saying they wanted foreigners to travel there to see that it’s Korea’s land. While I appreciate the thought they put into the assignment, it truly is a horrible recommendation for tourists, as the cluster of islets are so steep and angular, that it would be nearly impossible to scale them, and it would be impossible to build homes or have any sort of significant popular on the island.  The issue is not so much with the use of the land itself, but with the waters that surround it.  Both the Korean and Japanese rely heavily on seafood as a staple source of both protein and income, and which country takes claim on the island will determine which country can fish in those waters.  There’s a lot at stake financially.

Perhaps more significantly is the sheer nature of the ordeal: Korea feels like, yet again, Japan is trying to take advantage of them, and take what is not rightfully theirs.  I must admit some bias from my side, as I have never talked to a Japanese person about Dokdo Island, but have had it beat into my head from Koreans that the matter is not open for discussion.  Dokdo never was, and never will be, Japanese.  I’d be really curious to hear about Dokdo Island from the Japanese perspective, and understand what Takeshima means to them.

To summarize, these two countries are seperate and different, with unique cultures, languages, and historical perspectives.  They cannot be lumped into the same category, and would surely resent such a comparison.  The best way to understand the relationship between Korea and Japan will simply be to visit both countries for yourself, and feel free to ask around.  Any Korean middle schooler will be happy to tell you exactly why K-Pop is better than Japanese pop, just as I’m sure any Japanese anime fan could squawk for days about the glory that is Totoro.  It’s easy to group countries and cultures into geographical lumps when we haven’t had the opportunity to explore each of them separately, but a quick chat can be all it takes to clear up some massive cultural misunderstandings.

* Photo courtesy of Boston.com’s The Big Picture