Today I happened to be talking to a former senior official with the Foreign Ministry about President Lee’s demand for an apology from the Emperor. He said, “Until now, we’ve been considerate of South Korea, and handled them with reserve, but South Korea has crossed the line. We now know just what the South Korean conservatives are like. This is a good opportunity for both countries to establish normal bilateral relations.”
There is now a consensus in political, bureaucratic, and media circles throughout Japan, however, that we’ve stopped putting up with whiny brats like the South Koreans and will just brush them off.
– Abiru Rui
SOME years ago, when the bloodletting in the region had subsided to a relative trickle, a geopolitical think tank reminded the readers of its website that “peace in the Middle East” was a mirage. Conditions in the region would always slide along a scale ranging from simmering animosity to outright warfare, and that the state of simmering animosity was the best anyone could hope for.
The behavior of the South Korean government and news media for the past two months suggests that the same observation can be made about bilateral relations between Korea and Japan. That is not to say there will be bloodletting and open warfare between the two countries. Rather, it is to say that the Korean view of Japan will always slide along a scale ranging from simmering animosity to outright hysteria, fueled by the permanent South Korean wildcat strike against reality.
Japan can do nothing to change that, because that’s how South Korea wants it.
This was confirmed by the most unlikely of sources: A column by Donald Kirk in the Korea Times. That’s the English-language arm of the Hankook Ilbo, a major South Korean daily. The column itself is remarkable only for exposing how little Kirk knows about Japan, though he once worked here and occasionally visits. He’s become marinated in the Korean weltanschauung after spending many years there, so refuting his shallow, inaccurate, and ill-tempered exercise in disinformation is a waste of time.
Reading one small part of it, however, was like reaching into muck and pulling out a diamond.
The article is called The Japanese Just Don’t Get It, and includes passages such as these:
Japanese have trouble understanding. Why do all the countries surrounding Japan seem so hostile? What is it the Japanese have done to incur the wrath of the Chinese, the Koreans, and the Russians? The sense here is that of Japan encircled, the odd power out, the pariah at the party.
Now someone`s saying the Japanese emperor, Akihito, should apologize. So what? As if that would make a difference…Not that the Japanese could not make amends. Compensation for comfort women? Abandonment of the claim to Dokdo? Revision of textbook accounts of Japanese imperial history and World War II? Forget it. The Japanese don’t get it. They’re not going to do any of these things. They’d rather fret and fume over “why Japan is not liked” than do anything substantive to repair the image, much less redress wrongs.
It makes no difference whether Kirk made all that up about “the sense here” because he likes the sound of it, or convinced himself that his alternate universe is real. It still constitutes journalistic malpractice. The Japanese attitude toward South Korea today is as expressed in the quotation at the top of the page. If someone in the country has fretted and fumed over why the Japan of the Kirkian imagination is not liked, it has been hidden very well in the daily, weekly, and monthly news media and the blogosphere. Mr. Abiru, a newspaperman, captures the tone of that commentary. Does Kirk access enough of that information in the original Japanese to say otherwise? I think not.
His piece also contains overwritten cheap shots more suitable for a ragged street corner pamphleteer:
So, aside from the economy, stupid, what`s grabbing headlines here? Nothing like a fracas with China to charge the atmosphere with memories of old times, of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s when Japanese troops rampaged over the Chinese mainland.
Yet despite having us forfeit irrecoverable minutes from our lives to read the column, he does say something of value:
The bitterness is a permanent condition. It won’t go away.
He even knows why, too, but gets it out of sequence.
The wounds, the sense of Hahn, go too deep into the Korean national sub-conscience.
An understanding of han is critical to an understanding the people on the Korean Peninsula. Indeed, people often speak of the “han culture of Korea”. Kirk chooses to capitalize the word and add a second h, but it’s most often spelled han in English. (It is 한 in Korean).
The word is derived from the Chinese character 恨, which the Japanese are familiar with and use in 恨み (urami). It can be translated as grudge, hatred, or rancor. In Korea, however, the word has several other dimensions.
Translator D. Bannon quoted a Korean source to provide an explanation:
“Han is frequently translated as sorrow, spite, rancor, regret, resentment or grief, among many other attempts to explain a concept that has no English equivalent (Dong-A 1982: 1975). Han is an inherent characteristic of the Korean character and as such finds expression, implied or explicit, in nearly every aspect of Korean life and culture.
“Han is sorrow caused by heavy suffering, injustice or persecution, a dull lingering ache in the soul. It is a blend of lifelong sorrow and resentment, neither more powerful than the other. Han is imbued with resignation, bitter acceptance and a grim determination to wait until vengeance can at last be achieved.
“Han is passive. It yearns for vengeance, but does not seek it. Han is held close to the heart, hoping and patient but never aggressive. It becomes part of the blood and breath of a person. There is a sense of lamentation and even of reproach toward the destiny that led to such misery. (Ahn 1987).”
The theologian Suh Nam-dong describes han as:
“…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 extreme intensity of the feeling is self-evident.
Having observed the Koreans at close range for more than a millennium, the Japanese have their own explanations. Not being directly involved, they have no need to romanticize or glorify the phenomenon. Tsukuba University Prof. Furuta Hiroshi, a specialist in East Asian political thought, explains han in Korean culture as:
“…(arising) from a traditional framework, based on circumstances for which the responsibility can’t be imposed on someone else. It is the accumulation of dissatisfaction at the lower level in the hierarchical order, and the wish for its resolution.”
He also notes that longing and sadness are elements in the mixture, and cites as the origin “long years of oppression, both external and internal, by the ruling elites”.
Here’s another Japanese source. Note the last sentence:
“Han is a sense of intoxication due to grief and self-pity as the sufferers of the Korean people for their history and hardships as an ethnic group. It arises as a shared feeling that transcends time and space, and is an emotional adhesive. For Koreans, one’s pain is identical to another’s pain, and your pain in the present is the same as the pain of your ancestors in the past.
“Han accumulates over time, and its elimination can be expected if there is an interval, but the method for that elimination is revenge. Also, because han accumulates only among the sufferers of the Korean people, their racial memory of gratitude does not remain.”
Prof. Furuta explains one way that relates to Japan:
“Korean independence was achieved not as the result of their own efforts, but because of the Japanese defeat in the war. That becomes a source of han for later generations. Sports are now a substitute for the victory they were unable to achieve then.”
There’s the reason for the Dokdo is Our Land sign on the pitch at the London Olympics. There’s the reason Koreans became so defensive about the criticism they received for it, they concocted the story about the rising sun flag on Japanese gymnastics uniforms.
Oshima Hiroshi wrote a book published as a trade paperback with short explanatory articles comparing and contrasting the Koreans and Japanese in their daily lives and culture. One article focuses on han. Mr. Oshima presents a review of a movie to help explain.
The film is titled Seopyeonje, and a photo from the DVD cover is shown at the top of the post. In Chinese characters, that’s 西便制, and it’s the name of one style in the traditional music of pansori, performed by a vocalist and a drummer. The style was developed by a master of the late 19th century, Bak Yu-jeon. The film was shown in Japan under the title, Kaze no Oka wo Koete.
Here’s the plot. Orphans Dong-ho and his sister Song-hwa were raised by the pansori singer Yu-bong, who treats them harshly and imposes a strict training regimen in his attempts to make serious artists of them. Yu-bong feels that a truly great pansori artist must suffer. The training is so difficult that Dong-ho runs away, but his sister stays behind. The singer gives Song-hwa some Chinese herbal concoction that causes her to go blind. His objective was to implant in her the concept of han, which would enable her to become a pansori singer.
On his deathbed, Yu-bong says, “Do not be buried by han, overcome han.” Later, the brother looks for his sister. After he finds her, she sings, and they part once again.
“Han is harsh and difficult, but nothing can be done about it. It refers to the emotion buried in the heart. The heart filled with the emotion of han is han itself. Yu-bong causes Song-hwa’s blindness to implant that emotion. It does not take root, however, because she remembers the father who reared her.”
He also notes that Dong-ho and Song-hwa have feelings of love for each other. Because they are not relatives, they could get married, but feel they cannot because they were raised as brother and sister. Some have pointed out that this also creates han.
“Grudges in Japan can be eliminated by revenge, but han cannot be immediately eliminated by one act. It is deeper than that.”
This reviewer called it “perhaps the definitive work of Korean cinema.” It was a cultural phenomenon in South Korea. In the age of multi-screen film debuts, it was shown first at only one theater, and later at three. It was the first Korean movie to sell one million tickets in Seoul alone, and roughly a million more people saw it throughout the country. The Dong-a Ilbo cited director Im Kwon-taek as the Man of the Year. Im has continued to explore han in the other films of his career.
More from the reviewer:
“Some critics have stated that this movie glorifies the father’s patriarchal power as he seeks to limit his daughter’s sexuality.  But most believe that the pansori singer is symbolic for (South) Korea, transcending a history of suffering to achieve greatness…
“Many Koreans commented on how the film represented the purest portrayal of Han they had yet to see on screen. ..To quote Chungmoo Choi, Han basically entails “the sentiment that one develops when one cannot or is not allowed to express feelings of oppression, alienation, or exploitation because one is trapped in an unequal power relationship”.”
Here’s a trailer for the film:
There’s also an expression in Korean for “resolving han”. South Korea’s feelings about Japan are unresolved han.
The following are excerpts of articles and op-eds that appeared in South Korean newspapers over the past two months. Reading them in the context of the foregoing might offer a new perspective on bilateral relations. Remember that the Japan-Korean merger lasted only 35 years, it ended 67 years ago, and the treaty between the two countries that legally resolved everything was signed 47 years ago.
“If Japan is to truly understand the han of the people of the Republic of Korea and seek our forgiveness, it must begin with the recognition that Dokdo is the territory of the Republic of Korea.”
– Jeong Ui-hwa, Saenuri Party, former deputy speaker of the national assembly, quoted in Yonhap
“Only the truth will make the Japanese king kneel. The South Korean government must investigate the truth and condemn those who committed the vicious crimes.”
– Ahn Byon-ok, Daegu University professor
“The piteous suffering inflicted on us by the Japanese has not changed for their descendants, 100 years ago or today.”
– Yuk Cheol-su, Seoul Shinmun, 29 August
According to a government spokesman, Takeshima for South Koreans “is sacred and inviolable land that is a symbol of our sovereignty and independence….Japan took it from us temporarily, but it is recovered Korean land. Now, Japan is finding a pretext to create a quarrel and trying to take it from us again.”
– Jiji news agency, Seoul, 26 August
“Here and there, the form of Japan is changing from that in the recent past. A particularly gruesome surge is evident. This is a typical Japanese political pattern of dispersing their accumulated domestic dissatisfaction through a policy of attack directed outwardly. In particular, the ulterior motive of putting South Korea on the cutting board instead of China or Russia is obvious.”
– Chosun Online, 25 August
“Tactics are the technique of warfare. Strategy is the means for understanding the entire battle, and for fighting resolutely. Tactics alone will result in defeat in a great battle.
“Victory in battle depends on a search in a greater dimension. The search involves what part of the enemy to avoid, and is a very important part of strategy. We think it is a mistake to expand this battle. We must conduct a strategic search to determine how to fight effectively while accurately observing the enemy as it fights.
“This battle with Japan is by no means an exception.”
– Joongang Ilbo Sunday
The Dong-a Ilbo interviewed Saenuri presidential candidate Bak Geun-hye, who said Japan must abandon its territorial claims to resolve Korean dissatisfaction. If not:
“It will harm all our interaction: economic, security cooperation, cultural exchange, the interaction between future generations. Both countries have much to lose…If Japan recognizes Dokdo as South Korean territory, this will be easily resolved.”
That won’t resolve it, and she knows it, but let’s continue:
In an interview with The Associated Press on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said: “We are victims of Japanese colonial rule.”
Kim said Seoul wants to expand relations with Japan, including in military cooperation, but only if South Korean public sentiment allows it. In June, they put on hold an intelligence sharing pact after it provoked an outcry in South Korea.
“We have to try to overcome these differences. It’s up to the Japanese attitude. While they maintain their attitude … there should be some limit on the scope of cooperation,” he said.
Last week, there was a training exercise for the Proliferation Security Initiative to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, held near southern part of South Korea by Japan, the United States, Australia, and South Korea. A Japanese escort ship was to call on Busan, as one did in 2010, but the South Koreans refused to allow it to dock. Their pretext was a concern about demonstrations, but a Japanese official at the embassy said, “This is extremely rude for the host nation of a multilateral training exercise.” (They know. That’s why they did it.) Japan thought of backing out of the exercise, but the US rearranged the plans so a trip to Busan was not necessary.
“Of 1,493 Japanese companies that mobilized Koreans into forced labor during the 1910-45 Japanese colonial rule, 299 still exist, according to an investigation committee under the Prime Minister’s Office that published its findings Wednesday.”
Not in the English version: These are termed “War Crime Companies”, and efforts are being made to prevent them from bidding on public works projects. Here’s a photo of a politico-led demonstration:
Now compare all of that with this excerpt from the Chosun Ilbo:
“24 August marks the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea. South Korea fought China during the 50s in the Korean War, and opposed them as an ally of North Korea during the Cold War. This changed, however, after the end of the Cold War. Now, we are important trading partners, and have a political relationship based on a partnership of strategic cooperation. Unlike the Japan-South Korea and Japan-China relationships, clouded by the Takeshima and Senkakus disputes, our relationship is stable.”
China is the reason the Korean Peninsula is still divided into two countries. China is the reason the repellent regime north of the 38th parallel exists, and China is the only reason it continues to exist. It is possible to view North Korea as a contemporary vassal state of China, which the entire Korean nation once was.
China is directly responsible for the brutality suffered — right now — by those Koreans who happened to be northerners. China is causing Koreans to be killed or die — right now — in unspeakable ways.
The South Koreans seem to have a highly flexible set of standards for deciding who becomes the object of their feelings of han.
None of this is to suggest there is something intrinsically wrong about han. Were it not effective in some way as a survival strategy, han itself would not have survived, much less have been exalted.
The problem — both for Koreans and for others — is that they expect other people to arrange their lives to suit an emotional orientation that exists only for themselves. That they consider it a matter of cultural identity to stew in their own juices, and rather enjoy the stewing, is their business. It is not the business of the Japanese, who in any event no longer care.
Korean solipsism expects the Japanese nation today to hold itself responsible for behavior it isn’t responsible for. The responsibility for the past behavior of the Japanese nation would have been considered resolved for most people long ago. The Koreans are railing at the Japanese in a room full of mirrors, and most Japanese have left the room.
That is why bilateral relations between the two countries will never improve. The Koreans don’t want relations to improve. They’re not happy unless they’re not happy, and it’s become an imperative of cultural identity to keep it that way.
* Donald Kirk is a member of the Institute for Corean-American Studies. Years ago, Korea was sometimes spelled with a C in the Anglosphere until they settled on the K as standard. Some Koreans think the standardization of the K spelling was a Japanese plot to have them precede Korea in alphabetical order. The C spelling, they believe, restores the Korean nation to the alphabetical supremacy that is rightfully theirs.
When they start using it for cimchee and Cim Jong-eun, then I’ll think about using it.
* Kirk has received many awards and commendations from the journalistic guild. It should now be apparent that those encomiums are not a reflection of his accuracy or professional integrity, but rather the low standards of the guild itself.
Consider, for example, the photographs the AP and Reuters chose to publish of Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN last week from among the many shots which they could have selected.
* The root of 恨, or han, is deemed to be one of the earthly passions according to Buddhist teaching. It arises concomitantly with anger, and is considered variously a poison, an unwholesome root, or an unwholesome mental factor. Attachment to it will lead to perpetual disquiet in one’s life, and mistaken thoughts in the Buddhist sense. The Buddhist ideal is to disassociate from these phenomena — which are empty — but Koreans choose to indulge this one.
Buddhism was the state religion for the four centuries of the Goryeo period of Korean history. That ended in the late 14th century when Confucianism was forcibly imposed from the top down and Buddhism oppressed.
That’s another reason the Koreans are less likely to be antagonistic to the Chinese than to the Japanese. It’s part of a larger concept that Japanese scholars refer to as Small Sinocentric Culturalism.