The smallness of Japan

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The smallness of Japan

During my student days in the United States in the mid-1980s, lectures on East Asia were hugely popular. The ascent of the four Asian “dragons” was partly the reason, but the credit for Asian fervor mostly belonged to the ringleader of the Pacific front: Japan. As a teaching assistant, I often had to stay all night preparing for one-hour classroom lectures. The snobbishly elite American students would hardly tolerate any flaws or clumsiness in my lectures.

While I nervously read my notes aloud, moving on from the topic of Japan to South Korea, one student raised his hand and bluntly demanded to know exactly where Korea was on a map. I lost my composure at this ignorant interruption. If it had been a Korean classroom, the obvious response would have been a rebuke of the student’s idiocy. But this wasn’t Korea. And in fact, the other students enjoyed watching the reddening face of a Korean teacher. They knew the Japanese Empire and mighty, postwar Japan. They had no care, or respect, for the bisected peninsula that used to be a Japanese colony. Or the teaching assistant that came from there.

Two summers ago, I had the opportunity to sit with foreign students for a talk on similar lines. While I was expounding on the new East Asian order, one European student raised his hand and asked, “Isn’t South Korea bigger than Japan?” I corrected him, but secretly had the urge to give him a hug.

Global awareness of South Korea, and Koreans, has changed greatly over the last three decades. Samsung and LG advertisements are plastered all over airports around the globe. The whole world was dazzled by Korean Olympic figure skating champion Kim Yu-na. The chiefs of the United Nations and the World Bank are Koreans. Hundreds of Korean students are admitted to top American universities yearly. In every corner of the world, successful Koreans are hard to avoid. My generation still vividly remembers Japan in its heyday. That is why it is sad to watch the Japanese politicians and media belittle themselves with childish territorial claims and obnoxious stances on war crimes.

My experience on an exchange program at an elite Japanese university was somewhat perplexing. Most Korean exchange students complain of incompatibility in the classrooms with their Japanese counterparts.

While Japanese students are focused on specific topics like work conditions at convenience stores or trends in youth hobbies, Korean students want to talk about broader themes like nations, democracy, social movements, revolutions and gender equality. When a new professor arrived at a dinner for lecturers, I asked what area he specialized in. He unabashedly answered he specialized in sex lives. I gulped.

Japan is undoubtedly an advanced nation. We cannot disparage academic integrity or standards in Japan from such a glimpse of campus life. Japan is a society in which small but sold cells are tightly knitted together, the real source of Japan’s inimitable strength. With a firm belief in the power of convergence of devoted and self-disciplined individuals, the Japanese established a symbolic supreme authority to bring together the masses.

The emperor and the imperial cult were instrumental in creating a myth to consolidate the fragments for national unity. The Japanese willingly went to war under the battle cry “Tenno Heika Banzai!” (or “Long Live the Emperor!”) and fell yelling the same mantra. The “banzai” charge, or spirit, helped Japan recover from the war and fueled the postwar economic miracle. But the spectacular success ate away at its vigilance and the symbolic icon was whittled down. When Hirohito, posthumously called Emperor Showa, died in January 1989, the Japanese howled over the end of Japan’s Golden Age.

In her book “In the Realm of a Dying Emperor,” Norma Field, an American sociologist who spent her childhood days in Japan, explored the double standard of panic and humbleness that gripped the Japanese at the bursting of the economic bubble and the death of a mighty national symbol. They feared returning to insubstantiality and at the same time revisited the “banzai” spirit to pull themselves up again.

Both ideas were motivated by an arrogant infatuation with the imperialistic idea. Japan had been humble, small islands but under the emperor charged through the Korean Peninsula and Chinese mainland. The territorial occupations, conscription, forced recruitment of other nationals for military service and sexual slavery all were executed under a hallucinating spell. We were the victims of their fanatic need to overcome smallness.

Japanese politicians audaciously deny any wrongdoing or illegality in their war actions and ask us to prove otherwise. It is a typical response from a small mind. A bigger man would admit to his mistakes and atone. Japan threatens to unilaterally seek international arbitration to settle the sovereignty claim over the Dokdo islets. If it were truly a big nation, it would silently repent for its exploitation of our land and people for 36 years.

On Aug. 29 102 years ago, when Japan forced Korea to sign a treaty at gunpoint making the country its prefecture and stole Dokdo, the Japanese congressmen all bowed their heads before the Rising Sun flag in exhilaration. As the famous quote goes, “There is nothing more dangerous than the conscience of a bigot.” But there is never a happy ending for a bigot.

* The author is a sociology professor at Seoul National University.

by Song Ho-keun
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