[Viewpoint] As many similarities as differencesBefore going to Korea, I never really bothered to look up the meaning of the expression han, which so often is said to characterize the Korean mind.
My reason was simple. Since I was relatively new to the culture, I would not understand it anyway, and if I thought I did, I would probably need to change my perception and my interpretation a number of times before grasping the idea.
Better to let it come through direct experiences, I thought.
And now, after having spent several years in this country, I am starting to feel that I should at least try to understand what han actually refers to.
If I check the Internet, I can find a quote from the theologian Suh Namdong, who said that han is a “feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong — all these combined.”
The feeling is one of hopelessness, although this hopelessness in itself carries the seed of hope. You are in despair in one breath and carry on with your life in the next.
When I read the novel “The Poet” by Lee Moon-youl, I felt that the whole story was an expression of han in its purest form. The poetry of Ko Un also breathes han.
Although this state of mind in some way must be the result of a very strict, old social order in combination with countless historical misfortunes, I cannot help but feel that Buddhism has also played a role in shaping this thinking.
In Buddhism, especially in Zen Buddhism, you should never feel sorry for yourself. Self-pity is a good ingredient if you want to miss the whole cosmic concert. So han, while entailing a strong feeling of sadness, does not allow any room for self-pity.
In Japan, where Buddhism through history has played an even more important role in daily life than in Korea, there is a similar concept, aware, or mono no aware, which is perhaps best translated as the “melancholy of this world.”
You can find aware in most Japanese art forms. It is a kind of sadness that accepts the world as it is while wishing to move on to an even more sophisticated expression of art and life.
Neither han nor aware gives you a clear way to feel better. On the contrary, the expressions underline the melancholy of life.
However, if you go deeper, you will find that they give you a very strong tool for resisting your own collapse. It is when you understand that life has its limitations that you can live it in a richer way. It is when you understand that calamities and unfairness occur, and that revenge will usually only create new calamities, that you can find dignity.
Of course, one should never accept injustices as they are, instead, but always try to resist them. But if one’s whole energy is focused on revenge, one will always be on the losing side.
I don’t know if my understanding of han and aware is correct, but I know that this kind of philosophy helped attract me to the study of East Asian history, culture and literature. During my 16 years in Japan, first as a student and later as a diplomat, I felt that China, Korea and Japan had so much in common.
My understanding of Korean history — and the bitterness that I also feel toward what Japan and the Japanese militarists did during the occupation of Korea — was formed through Japanese textbooks.
My research at Kyoto University in the early 1970s was focused on early Japanese history and my Japanese professor was very explicit when he explained the importance of the Korean states for the formation of the early Japanese state.
So, to me, there has never been a real difference in the interpretation of history between the professors of Korea and Japan. The conflict has been created by a limited number of Japanese politicians who have wanted to clear the name of Japan and its emperor from the shame that the earlier actions brought on them.
This will never happen. The more they try, the more shame there will be.
This is perhaps where my own feeling han, or aware, comes in. Korea and Japan have so much in common and still so much to learn from each other that there is really no time for getting trapped in history. It should be enough to have lived through those awful years.
One should also remember the awful suffering that the Japanese militarists forced on their own people. Politicians with a very dark political agenda should never be allowed to set the stage for political, cultural or other debate.
Luckily, the person-to-person contacts between Korea and Japan are developing rapidly.
I was very happy to recently find a special shelf in one of the major bookstores in Tokyo with a sign that advertised Kanryu, or Hallyu, books on Korea. More and more, such books can be found in Japan, and more and more, Japanese books are translated into Korean.
Meanwhile, Japanese tourists travel to Korea to play golf, while Koreans go to Japan to do the same. There is probably no city in the world outside Japan that has as many Japanese restaurants as Seoul does.
More and more, the readers in Japan and Korea are enjoying each other’s authors, while trying to get a grasp on the true meanings of han and aware, respectively. Hopefully, they will find as many similarities as differences.
*The writer is a former Swedish ambassador to Korea.
By Lars Vargö