Korean and Japanese Self-Portraits

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Korean and Japanese Self-Portraits

Portraying oneself correctly is no less difficult a job than understanding another person properly. Pride, prejudice, ignorance, and misunderstanding keep getting in the way. This has been a recurring problem in the relationship between Korea and Japan.

Several years ago, before being stationed in Tokyo, I was gripped by a book titled 'Japan is Nothing'. It was so interesting, so persuasive, and so appealing to my national pride that I kept reading through the night. But after a few months in Japan, I began to feel that the author had fooled me.

Ms. Park Yu-ha, professor of Japanese literature at Sejong University, has recently published a book titled 'Who Distorts the Image of Japan?' which points out the problems with the way ordinary Koreans look at Japan and the Japanese. A series of anti-Japanese bestsellers, including 'Japan is Nothing', are analyzed and criticized in the book. It was a humbling experience, but also an enlightening one, to realize how I had been attuned to the reflexive, stereotypical anti-Japanese feelings, ego-centricism bordering on chauvinism, and the accompanying spirit of violence. After berating the media and a number of leading figures in Korea for their roles in misleading the general public's understanding of Japan, Ms Park observes with acute insight that "failing to see one's neighbor correctly is both the cause and the result of failing to see oneself in the right way."

The Committee for a New History Textbook, a group of right-wing Japanese historians, has published a textbook it recommends for use in middle schools. While the book condemns the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima as war crimes and genocide, it tries to ignore, or justify, all the atrocities committed by the Japanese. The colonization of Korea was because "the location of the Korean Peninsula means that it may at any time become a threat to Japan." Japan's success at the beginning of the Pacific War, it also argues, gave immense hope for independence to all the colored nations in Asia and Africa. It does not deal only with modern history. The textbook also intends to teach Japanese students that there had been a 'forest civilization' in Japan for 10 thousand years prior to the advent of the four ancient civilizations.

Yes, it is a book full of jokes. The problem is, they are not so funny. Still more problematic is that they are quite popular in some parts of Japan. Can you believe that no less than 107 Japanese members of parliament belong to the group 'Young MPs Concerned about Japan's History Education and its Future', which supports the Committee for a New History Textbook? What makes it so difficult to have an honest look at oneself? Perhaps the 55th anniversary of Japan's surrender is a good occasion for both Koreans and the Japanese to take a good look in the mirror.

by Noh Jae-Hyun

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