AT what point does one’s reaction to the absurdities of South Korea’s preoccupation with Japan pass from amusement at a diversion that resembles the ramblings of a wild-haired street corner preacher to sadness tinged with dismissive indifference at the frenzied intensity of smallness playing large? This excerpt from an article written by Seon U-jeon that appeared in the Chosun Ilbo — which the newspaper translated into Japanese — comes close to defining that passage for me. It’s titled, What South Korea has but Japan doesn’t.
It’s tempting to answer, “Crazed irrationality about a neighboring country”, but I’ll leave that for you to decide.
There are 290,000 foreign students in China, of which the most, 60,000, are from South Korea.
Japan once sent many students abroad 100 years ago, but it has lost its vitality. This is reflected in the sharp decline in students going abroad, the popularity of Korean pop culture, the strength of Korean corporations, and education.
Today’s South Korea is just like Japan a century ago. From the 19th century to the early 20th century, the number of Japanese going abroad to study reached 24,700. They sent more students overseas than any country in the world. There were 43 students accompanying the Iwakura mission (1871-1873) to visit the Western powers, six of whom were young women. That gives one an idea of their passion for studying abroad at the time. The stunning development of modern Japan resulted from their bringing learning back with them, though many were dismissed overseas as monkeys. They served as a bridge to the Great Powers. It was these students who broke the chains binding Japan during its period of isolation.
The number of Japanese students now in China is fewer than half the number of South Korean students. The number of Japanese students in the United States is just 28% the total of South Korean students. It is not that Japan is a country with nothing to learn from other countries. Even after Japan became a member of the advanced countries, it continued to send many students abroad into the 1980s. The sharp decline in the number of overseas students began when economic growth stalled and society lost its vitality.
Students studying abroad are an accurate reflection of a country’s hopes and the strength of its people. We view Japan’s rightward lurch as the floundering of out-of-control old men, because we now have what Japan had 100 years ago. The passion for Korean pop culture sweeping the world is as resplendent as the Japonism that swept Europe and the United States a century ago. The ability of Korean companies to seize markets is reminiscent of Japanese corporations after the war. Times have changed.
Some observations, though you surely have many of your own.
* I’ve read some of the records of the Iwakura mission, which are still in print. They’re boring and not worth reading in their entirety because they are nothing but hundreds and hundreds of pages of the most basic travelogue. They’re like a postcard expanded into a book. The Meiji-era Japanese were literally visiting a new world beyond their imaginations. Nowadays, Japanese of average means can — and do — hop on a flight to New York after work on Friday to catch a Saturday night concert by a favorite performer and return in time for work Monday morning.
* Mr. Seon might be more accurate in his assessment than he suspects. In this article, Koreans do come off like the Japanese 100 years ago — going abroad to marvel at a new world beyond their imaginations. That says more about Korea, its degree of openness, and its entrapment in the mindset of a previous century than it does about Japan and its vitality.
* What is it exactly that Japanese students need to learn by studying at a Chinese university? Other than getting advanced practice in the Chinese language, very little. And what, for that matter, is it that Japanese students have to learn as undergraduates or masters candidates at the exorbitantly priced cesspools of political correctness that American universities have become?
* Japan sent so many students abroad a century ago because it was so far behind the West and wanted to catch up. Exactly what learning would they be bringing back from China?
* If Japanese universities are so inadequate that education needs to be supplemented by overseas universities, why are so many Chinese and South Koreans coming here to study?
* The only real reason that so many Koreans are studying in China is commercial — that’s where they think the money is. But then Koreans have a long history of fealty to the Chinese imperium.
* The Japonism of a century ago was a result of the admiration for the aesthetics of Japanese art and culture, such as ukiyoe and ceramics. Do Koreans think they have supplanted the Japanese in the West by offering chewing gum pop culture?
I’m glad I won’t be exposed to the internal Korean dialogue when the world forgets about Gagnam Style and they have to pick themselves up off the floor in a daze after the crash of the mother of all sugar highs.
* It always bears repeating: Saying that Japan has lost its vitality is prima facie evidence that the speaker knows next to nothing about today’s Japan.
* And yes, Japan is still the gold standard by which the Koreans judge themselves.
When he was assigned to Japan, the author of this article received the Japan-Korea Cultural Exchange Award as the representative of a Korean newspaper.
Speaking of Korean education, here are some photos of a demonstration earlier this month in front of the Japanese embassy conducted by primary school students and their teachers. Got to start washing those brains early, eh?
Japanese people apologize!
Japanese people, recognize your errors! (That’s a photo of the comfort woman statue on her sign.)
Apologize for the comfort women!
The photo prop on the left is the comfort woman statue and the photo prop on the right is holding a sign saying that Takeshima is our land.
If Korean primary school take their students on field trips such as these, it is a matter of extreme urgency for even more students to study abroad when they reach university age. Even at Chinese universities