[Viewpoint]To succeed, act like a jerk

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[Viewpoint]To succeed, act like a jerk

During my stay in the United States, an American professor asked me how to distinguish Koreans from Japanese. I answered with a smile, “If someone tells you 90 percent of what he knows, he must be Japanese, but if someone tells you 110 percent of what he knows, he must be Korean.”
What is interesting is from where this distinction originates. Part of the answer can be found in cultural traditions. But a decisive factor is the totally different roads the two people walked after 1945: a war defeat for the Japanese and national liberation for the Koreans.
Let’s take business concerns as one example. Before World War II, businesses in Japan, too, were owned by proprietors. But things started to change after the American military authority that occupied Japan after the war implemented democratization. More than 2,000 business managers who represented the interests of the old business owners were all fired.
Younger-generation employees took their places. Because they were promoted internally from working-level employees to business executives, they called themselves “managerial technicians” who advocated public interest. Since then, Japanese businesses have became “a community of employees” and the managers were later promoted to become chief executive officers.
Since the Japanese have become accustomed to living in a community, they always keep a low profile.
Korea, by contrast, after liberation was basically a place where people pursued their own Korean dreams. The national liberation in 1945, the Korean War and the political turmoil that followed did not leave people with vested interests unaffected. Korea was a mobile society, and there were plenty of chances for everyone.
Businessmen and the general public, too, staked their fortunes on those chances. The people who moved to Seoul with their families despite not having a job, who went to a university with money their parents got by selling farmland and then went to the United States for further studies, have all overcome challenges in their own way. The passion of the Korean people, no doubt, fueled Korea’s modern history with dynamic energy.
When the Korean people began pursuing their own individual chances for success, they started to act like jerks. Meanwhile, the traditional community norms slowly diminished.
The chances to be successful started to diminish rapidly in the 1990s. And our society has developed to the point where we need to stop ourselves from behaving like jerks and making ourselves look bad. From plastic surgery to falsifying educational records, our society is rampant with excessive self-appeal and self-propaganda. Then what should be done instead? The alternative is that Koreans should become really jerky in a positive way.
While we emphasize the spirit of challenge and vitality, we must change the existing paradigms.
First, we must improve the probability of our chances to succeed.
We often emphasize to our children that they should rely on their own abilities, but we still rely heavily on the old habit of personal connections. The higher we go up the social ladder, the more thoroughly we must keep the principle of honoring one’s actual ability.
We must get rid of the practice of “lining up” people under political heavyweights. This applies not only to the political community, but also to the business world. Business groups should stop their emperor-style management, holding less than 5 percent of the total stock shares but still wielding the personnel rights of all of a group’s business executives.
Instead of letting a powerful owner allocate managerial power to the people of his tilted preferences, we must make sure the chances are distributed evenly and fairly. In that sense the democratization is not yet complete. We need to correct the patterns of our behavior.
There is very little reward for copying things that others do. If we go to a university that others attend, or decorate ourselves with accessories that others wear, we can expect very little from those imitations.
So here’s to jerky Koreans.

*The writer is a professor of economics at Saitama University, Japan. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Woo Jong-won

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