Words as weaponsShumpei Mizuno has lived in Korea for 13 years. He is married to a Korean and speaks Korean with a thick Jeolla province accent. With his round features and good-tempered nature, he looks like the guy next door.
He is a guy from next door. He’s from Japan.
Because his last name is identical to the Japanese sportswear brand sold in Korea, it’s easier to remember than most. So it’s little wonder that in a recent survey by Internet broadcaster NGTV, he placed second as the “foreigner who most closely resembles a Korean.”
Mr. Mizuno’s main job is lecturing on Japanese literature at Chonnam National University in Gwangju, but that’s not where most people know him.
Rather, his fame comes from his appearances on Korean TV shows such as “Joeunnara Undongbonbu,” which he hosts with three Koreans. The weekly variety show exposes citizens’ misdeeds and preaches upstanding behavior.
The 35-year old’s first brush with the Korean media came in 1991, on a radio show in Gwangju. Thanks to his fluent Korean and witty remarks on Korean culture, he began popping up on television shows in the late 1990s.
But now a different sort of notoriety has come Mr. Mizuno’s way. A book of his recently translated into Korean pinpoints factual mistakes and errant tendencies of Korean authors of books that mention Japan. Now on bookstore shelves, it’s titled “A Critique of Lousy Korean Books that Make Fools of Koreans.”
The book was originally published in Japan in 2001 as “The War Between Korea and Japan?” but the title was changed after the Korean publisher IDO bought translation rights and published it here.
“The Korean publishers told me that the original name of the book wasn’t catchy enough,” says the author, shrugging. According to Mr. Mizuno, it was only last December that the publisher approached him and he learned of its Korean version.
The publication of such a book in Korea concerned him, but he decided to let it go in the belief that what he wrote will help readers from both countries understand their neighbor a little more. The possibility that Mr. Mizuno might get flak from Korean readers ― enough to affect his TV gig ― didn’t bother him much.
“What I can say in Japan I can say in Korea as well,” he says, during an interview at a Seoul coffee shop. “That’s what I said to myself ― although I must say that my wife was really worried.”
He continues: “My intentions are not to win a popularity contest with the Korean public. I believe that the book will help people understand how little we know about each other and whatever we do know through these books isn’t actually right.”
Mr. Mizuno set out to highlight errors of basic knowledge on Japan, which he believes have created wrongful perceptions of the Japanese and fomented an anti-Japan atmosphere in South Korea.
“You know what? One thing that struck me was the fact that there was so much fiction out there in Korea that dealt with a future war with Japan,” he says. “Naturally, Korea prevails at the end of such a conflict.”
Most Koreans’ ill feelings about Japan result from Japan’s 35-year occupation that included torture, labor camps and sexual enslavement.
Without fudging his words, the Japanese author-lecturer bluntly states why he thinks the plot line thrives: “Koreans want to blow the Japanese to pieces. Considering the history between the two countries, I guess such a reaction is only natural.”
Mr. Mizuno recently talked about the book at Seoul’s Japan Club, which represents the interests of Japanese business in Korea. “The overall reception was that the book will give Koreans a better understanding of Japan,” says Park Mi-ran, a club staff member.
Meanwhile, Oshino Miki, a Japanese citizen living in Seoul, believes that a Korean author should pen a parallel book pointing out exaggerations and mistruths about Korea in Japanese books. Says she: “I think we need more of these kinds of books.”
In the book, Mr. Mizuno writes that while Korean authors’ intentions may not be to slander the Japanese, they risk sending inaccurate messages to Korean readers, who he says tend to enjoy such rhetoric. As an illustration, he brings up the popular cartoon book “Bamsakura,” by Kang Cheol-su.
The book is a tongue-in-cheek travel guide to Japan and includes some basic Japanese language notes. But in the cartoon, Kim Dal-ho, a Korean tour guide, has sex with every Japanese woman he meets as he roams the country.
“I was even asked to translate this book, which of course I refused to do,” says Mr. Mizuno. “It just gives the wrong impression to the reader.”
Mr. Mizuno holds some reservations about the notion that last year’s World Cup matches, co-hosted by the two countries, brought the nations closer.
Shaking his head, he relates an incident that occurred shortly after the World Cup, where he refused a TV script that said the soccer event helped the countries forge tighter bonds.
“I flatly refused to say that. Yes, the World Cup was a great event. Yes, the two countries did a great job. But that’s where it stops. To really bring these two countries together will take much more than that. It’s not that easy. Our problems are deeply rooted.”
The author points to a stark difference in the two countries’ literary interests, which he says suggests a fundamental difference in the mentality of readers. In Korea, he says, fiction describing the nation defeating Japan in armed conflict ― such as the 1993 novel “A Mugunghwa has Blossomed,” by Kim Jin-myeong that sold 3.3 million copies―are frequently best-sellers.
And in Japan? These kinds of books are rare, he says.
“The average Japanese reading such a novel will immediately be puzzled as to why South Korea would fire an atomic bomb at Japan. They would not understand the root of the idea. North Korea they would understand. It just shows the degree of interest they have and their ignorance.”
According to the author, the mentality of the two nation’s peoples contributes to such ignorance.
“Japan was the aggressor, Korea was the victim. That’s the bottom line. To be honest, the Japanese are not as interested in Korea as much as Koreans are interested in Japan. Why should they be?”
To support this theory he notes that although his book was backed by a well-known Japanese publisher, a small portion of the 8,000 copies printed were sold. The decade-long downturn in the Japanese economy holds much greater prominence in the minds of Japanese than something from the past that much of the younger generation simply do not care about.
The economic slide also explains why conservative intellectuals and history professors refuse to acknowledge this dark side of Japan’s past, he says.
“To come out in times like these and admit any wrongdoing publicly would be undertaking a grave risk. Obviously this is a risk not many are willing to take. If the situation were reversed, I believe Koreans would act the same way.”
Citizens of each nation must study the other more, Mizuno insists. In that regard, he believes Japan must try harder. “Right now we (Japanese) don’t have too many colleges teaching Korean studies,” he says.
Mr. Mizuno has received many invitations to discuss Korea-Japan subjects ranging from the official title of the World Cup ― both countries argued over which name should come first ― to territorial disputes between the two.
“I am a Japanese. To ask me these sensitive questions puts me under a lot of pressure,” says Mizuno. He hopes his personal guideline for dealing with these issues will find favor with others.
“We have to examine the objectivity of whatever (information) is out there on both countries and deal with it accordingly.”
Keeping with this philosophy, his next project is to write a study of Japanese books and other publications that contain flaws and stereotypes about Korea.
by Brian Lee