Beyond the boycotts
The author is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.
During the summer, I had a plan to visit Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto with students. My idea was to hold international student workshops and experience culture. But I started to reconsider the plan as Korea-Japan relations worsened due to the reckless economic retaliation by Japan’s Shinzo Abe government. Koreans also started to boycott Japanese products and visits to Japan. The number of my students willing to participate was fewer than expected, and students expressed concerns. At this point, I was worried what people will say if I bring a group of students to Japan.
I wanted to join the wave of protests. After contemplation, I emailed my partner at Ritsumeikan University that I would have to postpone the visit. I also proposed that if he had a chance to visit Korea, we can plan the next international workshop. Three weeks after I sent the email, I haven’t received a reply. Something was awkward. I wondered if what I did would be effective, if it would only add to the Japanese antagonism towards Koreans or if we really missed a chance to enhance mutual friendship.
What is the most effective and desirable way to protest? My experience made me think that a movement to win Japanese hearts is just as important as the movement not to buy Japanese products. We need to think about ways to protest Japan while not creating antagonism. Currently, there are countless voluntary boycotts on Japanese products and tourism, and over 150 of 226 municipal governments are participating in the movement denouncing the Japanese government’s unjust economic retaliation.
In this process, it is important to clarify that Korea is protesting against the Abe administration and the right wing, not Japan and the Japanese people. Also, we can refuse to buy Japanese products and visit Japan but show that we value friendship and exchange with Japanese people. In fact, Korea’s civil society is already mature and has protested wisely. Lately, after the Jung district office in Seoul hung “No Japan” flags, citizens noted that we are opposing the Abe government, not Japanese people. So the flags were removed after a day. Even though we do not use Japanese products, we can try to get along with the Japanese people around us. While not visiting Japan, we can be more friendly and courteous to Japanese people visiting Korea.
Next, we need to band together with conscientious Japanese people who oppose Abe’s economic retaliation and the far-right view on history and make them our allies. Currently, Korean and Japanese civic groups are leading a peaceful solidarity movement in the name of the “Joint Action to Resolve the Forced Labor and the Past.” More than 5,000 Japanese intellectuals, including Tokyo University emeritus professor Haruki Wada, issued a statement titled “Is Korea an Enemy?” and are collecting signatures demanding the Abe government to withdraw the export ban.
Moreover, it would help if the civic groups sharing universal values of human rights, democracy and pacifist internationalism can work together. The Aichi Triennale 2019, Japan’s biggest arts festival, is criticized for censorship and lack of freedom of expression over the statue of a sex slave. The outcry is spreading around the world. “I am the girl” performances reenacting the background of the sculpture of the girl is spreading on social media.
In international politics, this type of protest is called a “boomerang strategy” of transnational advocacy. In short, it is pressuring the Abe government indirectly by allying with international partners in and out of Japan. How about young people who are familiar with how social media creates and spreads fun and insightful online content, like the statue performance and “naming and shaming,” exposing the Abe government’s wrongdoings? Can they gain support from the youth in Japan and around the world?
Korea’s strength over Japan lies in the dynamic and progressive civic society as seen in the Korean Wave and candlelight vigils — not in the power of businesses and politics. In this respect, Japan can hardly compete. Boycotts on Japanese products should be continued resolutely like the statue of peace. But I want to propose winning the hearts of the Japanese people with tolerant and peaceful protests from a civil society.
In retrospect, I have many regrets on canceling the visit. Ritsumeikan University is a notably progressive university in Japan and is famous for the international peace museum exhibiting Japan’s history not as a victim but as an assailant,. It offers a message of peace. The trip could have been a good opportunity for young students in Korea and Japan to share their thoughts. Instead, I plan to visit Taiwan and hold an international workshop with students at the National Chengchi University.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 9, Page 31