A stubborn morality

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A stubborn morality


Bae Myung-bok
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Renowned scholar Lee O-young described Japanese people with the key phrase “reduction-oriented.” In Japan, Kyoto University scholar Kizo Ogura defined Koreans as “morality-oriented.” Without understanding Koreans’ morality-oriented psychological structure of distinguishing right from wrong, it is impossible to properly understand and explain Koreans and Korean society, he argued.

Ogura majored in German literature at the University of Tokyo and studied philosophy at Seoul National University for eight years in the late 1980s. To him, Korea was an absurdly profound and mysterious world. He spent many sleepless nights investigating the psychological world of Koreans. In 1998, he published a book, the title of which can be roughly translated as “Korea is a Country of Philosophy” in Japan. It was translated and published in Korea last year. The book is a product of his determination that he would define Korea once and for all so that no further explanation would be needed about the nation.

As the title states, he defined Korea as “a philosophy.” The philosophy concerns itself with morality — more precisely, Confucianism. It is Zhu Xi’s neo-Confucianism, more specifically. A century after the Joseon Dynasty ended, Ogura claims that Zhu Xi’s neo-Confucianism is the only philosophy dominating Koreans’ mental world. Pursuing morality and being moral are different, of course. He argues that Koreans are morality-oriented as people use morality, or justice, as the yardstick to determine people’s words and acts and strictly distinguish right from wrong.

The Joseon Dynasty embraced Xi’s, and thereby Song Dynasty China’s, neo-Confucianism as its national ideology. Based on neo-Confucianism — which pursues a perfect unity of Heaven’s will and human morality — scholars in Joseon established elaborate theories. Joseon scholars fiercely contested how to best explain the various areas of human existence, the world and universe based on the connection between li, or reason, and qi, emotion. The group that won the debate had moral authority, power and wealth. The losing faction would be excluded from power and even be killed. Ogura sees that Korean society is still a gigantic theater where power and wealth are contested over with moral justifications. This is the origin of Korean society’s dynamics.

In the geopolitical situation surrounded by major powers, Joseon chose to be armed with morality rather than force. After the Qing invasion of Joseon in 1636, Joseon secretly considered the Qing a country of barbaric Jurchens and posed as the true successor of China’s moral civilization. In the late Joseon period and through periods of global turbulence, Joseon kept the country closed and focused on neo-Confucianism. Toward Japan, which invaded Korea in 1592 and 1597, Joseon had a closed sense of moral superiority.

Ogura said that Korea is morality-oriented while Japan is “amoral.” Unlike Koreans, Japanese people have a strong tendency of accepting reality as fate. In a Japanese television drama, a couple would break up by saying, “It’s not working out.” But in Korean dramas, a couple would give moral reasons why the relationship was not working out, he claimed. Japanese dramas are often boring, while Korean dramas constantly offer emotional clashes based on moral reasoning.


From the beginning of the year, Korea and Japan have been clashing over the Supreme Court decision upholding compensation for forced labor victims during colonial days and a Korean warship’s alleged aiming of its radar at a Japanese patrol aircraft. Whenever the two countries disagree about history and territorial issues, there is a small number of people in Japan who support Korea’s position, but the inverse is not true. When it comes to the friction between Korea and Japan, the freedom of philosophy, conscience and speech virtually don’t exist in Korea. Can this be explained only by the wounds from the Japanese occupation? While Japan prioritizes reality over morality, Korea cannot find common ground and sticks to the yardstick of morality. It is an endless process. As China rises and the United States and China clash over trade — a source of major instability for us — is it OK for Korea to neglect diplomacy with Japan?

It’s been over 70 years since Korea was liberated from Japanese rule. Korea’s per-capita income is over $30,000. But Korean people’s mental state has not developed since the Joseon period when people vehemently fought over the purity of morality. As long as Korea uses moral measures on Japan and treats it as an enemy, Korea will hardly be able to get over Japan.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 8, Page 31
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