South Korea’s Unwavering Fascination With Japan

Image credit: The New York Times

Opinion | South Korea’s Obsession with its Occupation by Japan is Unhealthy—It’s Time for the Country to Move On

For centuries, South Korea has been burdened with the weight of their wartime experience of Japanese colonialism from 1910 to 1945. It became a form of national obsession that inhibited the country’s development and growth. It’s time for South Koreans to move on.

Japan and South Korea have more in common than they think. Both are modern democracies, economic powerhouses, and U.S. allies. They face a bigger threat looming in the shadow—China.

Past generations have been preoccupied with battles that occurred four centuries ago against the Japanese. Anti-Japanese rhetoric remains rampant, such as the protests held outside of its Embassy in Seoul, which is highlighted by the statue of young woman representing “comfort women” victims.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol lately seeks to improve the relationship with Japan. In the wake of decades-long compensation disputes due to Japanese enslavement of Korean laborers during WWII, President Yoon’s administration proposes a compromise: a South Korean-run fund will be established instead of insisting Japanese employers shoulder the costs. The President followed it up with a state visit to Japan, which was the first in 12 years, toasting the Japanese Prime Minister and the Japanese people.

Despite the antipathy toward Japan, the sentiments towards China were largely conflicted, rooted in the two-thousand-year-old relationship marked by admiring its literary and cultural elements and looking to it for hope of reunification with North Korea. However, North Korea’s belligerence and China’s reluctance to prevent its nuclear and missile acquistions shifted the view of Chinese authority as part of the problem. In 2016, the South Korean government entered an agreement with the U.S. to deploy a missile defense on Korean soil, bringing down swift criticism from the Chinese government, who called for boycotts of South Korean products.

Still, South Koreans yearn to break the Japan-fixation and the open-arms extends to their neighbor to the east. Even with the willingness to retaliate, people more often view Japan more positively than negatively and most South Koreans would prefer better relations. Popular culture and entertainment such as K-pop and K-drama and Pokemon, along with the country’s beauty, drew immense fascination from the South Koreans and Japanese alike.

President Yoon has been receiving criticism from political opponents for reaching out to Japan, hence lowering his already declining approval ratings. But a majority of South Koreans are ready to move on.

Yoon’s parents, who were once cynical of Japan, have come to share his affinity for the country. Yoon recently visited Japan to enjoy a view of the cherry blossom and surveyed the number of South Korean tourists in Japan.

South Korea’s obsession with Japan, for decades, has disabled it from viewing the country favorably. It’s time for the country to let go of such anxieties and to look forward to a future where history no longer determines the fate of bilateral ties, but rather the hopes and dreams of two peoples side-by-side.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida sees the potential between two countries as not only friends, but partners coexisting for stability in East Asia. Despite the rocky history between Japan and South Korea, the future looks ripe for taking the first steps toward understanding and, ultimately, progress in the relationship.

As mentioned in the article, Yoon Suk Yeol is the President of South Korea, He is a conservative, who is actively trying to improve the ties between South Korea and Japan by offering a compromise on a decades-old dispute regarding compensation for Korean laborers during World War II. He is applauded for seeing the need for a positive change in the relations between the two countries.

In addition,China is featured prominently in the article. China has exerted immense influence on South Korea throughout its history, and historically was viewed as the source of civilization. However, South Koreans have become increasingly distrustful of China due to its reluctance to prevent North Korea from obtaining missile and nuclear technology. Further, South Korean sentiment has been further soured by the suggestion from China that it will “unify” Taiwan, along with Wuhan coronavirus, Chinese Communist Party repression, and air pollution drifting eastward. Therefore, China is seen as a larger threat to South Korea than Japan at this moment.