[Viewpoint] Friends for life

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[Viewpoint] Friends for life

Despite our long and tangled history with Japan, the country is still a kind of wonder to us. Natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis and erupting volcanos are exotic to South Koreans. The way the Japanese cope with such unfathomable natural calamities comes across as equally bewildering.

The Japanese style of enduring such an apocalyptic disaster has been exceptional. Instead of collapsing into self pity and lamenting over sudden misfortune, the people stood firm and remained stoic. They patiently waited in lines to receive aid and food. They were equally orderly in endless queues at gas stations and grocery stores. Shop thefts and criminal behavior can’t even be imagined. Instead of resorting to selfishness, people tended to their neighbors. Their collective calm and dignity amid such a catastrophe is mind-blowing.

The country’s grief and losses are incalculable. Yet instead of howls of resentment, there were only muffled sobs and dignified grieving. The TV news didn’t broadcast scenes of bodies of victims or families in mourning. Such displays of extraordinary restraint are completely foreign to Koreans, who easily give way to emotional releases and rage against misfortune.

On the tragic day Japan’s eastern coast was ravaged by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and a 30-foot tsunami, Korean TV news showed an emotional embrace at Incheon International Airport between a mother and daughter who escaped the disaster and came home safely. Our broadcast news has a penchant for the temperamental and uproarious. Such journalism is second-rate and demeaning.

The calm and order of the Japanese people comes from their empathetic nature. The people innately abhor causing trouble for others. They are taught not to impose on others (meikaku kakeruna) from a young age. Outbursts can be contagious, inciting excitement, chaos and panic. So the Japanese instead swallow their grief and hide their feelings so as not to stir and disturb others.

This level of willpower has inspired the world. Japan and its people have again amazed the world with what they are capable of. Their dignity has raised the country’s image.

This behooves us to look inward. In Korea, customers rush to complain to ground staff when flights are delayed due to bad weather. Loud people win regardless of who is right or wrong. Drivers on the roads don’t yield. The blame game is a national sport.

Our society has not always been so shallow. The older generation was discreet, ready to accept blame and maintain their dignity. These people were the heroes of the Miracle on the Han River and today’s prosperity. Then suddenly finger-pointing, selfishness and vulgarity took hold of our society.

I hope these impressive revelations from Japan can reawaken the better part of our national psyche and society.

Our neighbor across the sea has always been our inspiration. Its success spurred rivalry. Industrial powerhouses like Sony and Toyota and Japan’s athletes are the direct inspiration for Samsung Electronics, Hyundai Motor and our baseball players. Japan has been the locomotive of South Korea as well as other East Asian economies. It has co-produced and starred in the story of Asia’s ascent.

Too much self-dignity, of course, can lead to disproportionate nationalistic pride and ambitions. The by-products can be war and tragedy inflicted on other peoples.

We were victimized by Japan’s overweening aspirations. Mutual geniality usually takes place when two countries are more or less equal in power. South Korea is now mature and stronger. Civilians have set aside their past resentments to send relief to our Japanese neighbors in their time of catastrophe.

The so-called Hallyu, or Korean wave, helped the younger generation cultivate an affinity for Japan. A decade ago, former President Kim Dae-jung paved the way for cultural exchanges between the two countries.

In one address to the Japanese parliament, Kim said, “Our history goes back a long way but relations between the two countries took an unfortunate turn because of Japan’s seven-year invasion 400 years ago and 36 years of colonization a century ago. It is foolish to discount more than 1,500 years of bilateral relations and cooperation because of less than a half-century of unfortunate history between the two nations.”

His address was sensational. He threw an entirely new perspective on bilateral relations: the two countries had been more amicable than hostile during most of their history. We need to return to such a radical approach to history and the future.

We need improved relations with Japan for the goal of unification, too. A collapse of the Pyongyang regime could trigger a huge exodus of North Korean residents. We need help and cooperation from both of our closest neighbors - China and Japan. Japan is our partner in a lifelong friendship.

*The writer is executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Park Bo-gyoon
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