[OUTLOOK]Mixed feelings about Japan

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[OUTLOOK]Mixed feelings about Japan

I have mixed feelings about Japan, a country that always seems to strike a nerve just when I am about to admit to liking it, provoking my “anti-Japan” emotional response time after time. Back in 2002, the joint hosting of the World Cup football games created an atmosphere of reconciliation, but then the problems over Dokdo Island resurfaced, making relations take a turn for the worse once again.
Japan has taken up a big part of my life, working in the semi-conductor industry as I do, and continues to do so even today. My first connection with the country began when I was teaching cadets at the Naval Academy after my graduation from university. Around this time I started to admire and respect Admiral Yi Sun-shin who defeated a Japanese invasion in the 16th century. Thus, my contact with Japan started indirectly through the admiral, recognized as a national hero from the Joseon Dynasty. When you admire someone, you want to be like them and I confess that since I became involved with the electronics business, I learned a lot about management from Admiral Yi and my efforts to follow his example have become more concrete.
I wonder whether there is another leader in world history who had the “wisdom, virtue and courage” of Admiral Yi. His clever tactics and turtle ship design that made guns and swords pointless excelled even the strategic and military tactics of the German General, Erwin Rommel ― “the Desert Fox.” His dauntless leadership, under the slogan “You must die to live, but you will die if you strive to live,” by which he defeated hundreds of Japanese warships with only thirteen boats, was no less than that of Napoleon Bonaparte’s. I learned “differentiation” from his turtle ship, and “risk taking” from his motto.
In 1989 when I entered the electronics industry, I turned down an offer from a foreign semi-conductor company and joined Samsung. It was to pursue a goal that I had dreamed of for a long time ― beating Japan at whatever cost. From the time of the Japanese annexation of Korea, there was a time in which we never beat Japan in any field.
The decisive moment of surpassing the technological know-how of Japan’s memory chip manufacturing did not come until 1994, when we at Samsung developed the first ever 256 Mega D-RAM chip. Before our success, we wanted to “benchmark” Japan’s semi-conductor industry, which was constantly ranked first in the world, but the Japanese did not even acknowledge us. Today, we hold a regular “technology exchange meeting” at the request of Japan, so it is now a completely different world.
The advertisement for the successful development of the 256 Mega D-RAM featured an old Korean flag from the Joseon Dynasty in the background and the slogan, “Korea conquers the world.” However, the day the press conference was held coincided by chance with the anniversary of Korea’s annexation by Japan in 1910. We decided not to release the advertisement copy because we didn’t want to annoy the Japanese people unnecessarily, but it was a very thrilling experience on our part.
A few years ago, the president of a leading digital camera company in Japan told me he was greatly worried by the possibility that demand for digital cameras would drastically fall because of the development of cell phones with a digital camera function. I gave him this advice: “Newspapers are still selling well, despite the development and spread of new Internet journalism. In the same vein, because digital cameras attached to cell phones are limited in their function, I think the digital camera market will remain intact for a considerable period of time.” The digital camera market is still thriving, and when I next visited the company, they had hoisted a Korean flag.
Japan’s competitiveness is not as good as it used to be but their per capita GDP still ranks second in the world, behind the United States, and is almost seven times higher than that of Korea. It is especially hard to know where the limit of its information technology potential is as Japan still leads the world in digital products, having the largest share of the global digital market at 25 percent. The competitiveness of Japanese products in games, the darling of the entertainment industry, is also unrivaled. Korea’s younger generation do not know the reasons why we protest against the Japanese people’s “worshipping” at shrines, but instead think of Japan as the “country of comics and games.”
It is a great mistake to think that we are far ahead of Japan in the semi-conductor industry in general just because we surpassed it in memory chip development. If we exclude the memory chip sector, the level of our semi-conductor industry is poor compared to that of Japan. The gap in the competitiveness of semi-conductor equipment is especially unbelievable. The sales of Korea’s largest equipment manufacturer amount to just $200 million per year, but medium-sized Japanese manufacturers earn billions of dollars each year.
I go to Japan on business once a month. The most important purpose of my visit is to analyze the IT trends in Japan. The reason I take the time to learn Japanese, even though I’m over fifty years old, is because I want to know them better. You need to know them in order to beat them.
Being a member of Korea’s older generation, I may have some bad feelings toward Japan. However, whether it is an apology or compensation for past sufferings, we should ask for and get it fairly and squarely. Being overly emotional is not a solution. We must get rid of the old practice of being “unconditionally anti-Japan.” It may not be easy considering the average Korean’s emotions, but can’t we treat the country with a more resolute and different manner?
Japan is a good target to “benchmark,” at least in the IT field, and the Japanese digital home appliances market will bring endless chances for the future of our IT industry. Is it too harsh to say that Korea’s IT sector does not have enough potential to grow on its own, especially when indulging in complacency and a “nationalist isolation policy”?
I miss the resoluteness of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, respected even when he just wore his sword with no need to wield it in a threatening manner.

* The writer is the CEO of Samsung Electronics. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Hwang Chang-gyu

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