Is it just me or has anyone else on this side of the world noticed an uptick in the anti-Korea rhetoric? I’m not talking about the public’s reactions towards North Korean’s recent missile tests or the attendant saber-rattling by the Japanese government. Rather this is more along the lines of increased blog “chatter” about the disputed Takeshima/Dokdo islets, South Korea’s insistence that the Sea of Japan should be renamed, as well as exactly what was the nature of Japan’s “occupation” (or “annexation” or even “alliance” depending on which side of the rhetorical fence you’re sitting on) of Korea from 1910 to 1945.

Maybe I’m just going through a bad patch of blog-surfing (not helped by the inherent inter-linking among sympatico sites), but there does seem to be something that’s gathering a bit of momentum here. What’s particularly of note here is that, contrary to what you might be thinking, this chatter I’m referring to is going on at English-language sites, sites maintained not by Koreans or Japanese but by foreign residents living in South Korea and Japan.

I suppose I should be grateful I don’t read 2channel (the most popular discussion forum/site here in Japan — see Wikipedia’s 2channel entry here which mentions the site’s relationship with things Korean) or whatever the equivalent is in South Korea, sites where I’m sure there’s more flaming and epithet-throwing than reasoned discussion. And I want to be clear that the discussions I’m referring to on these blogs are, as far as I’ve seen, free of racist remarks and for the most part lacking in extremist rhetoric. Rather what I’m seeing is a growing tendency to harp on the many manifestations of Korean pride — much of which, to be fair, does leave itself open to being mocked or derided (to wit, the South Korean reaction to their exit from the recent World Cup) — to the point where you start to ask whether the blogger is simply calling it as he/she sees it or whether there’s an additional axe to grind.

Much more disturbing than poking fun at Korean pride, however, is a distinct streak of historical revisionsism that I’ve been coming across lately. The site that seems to have formed the locus of many of these opinions is Occidentalism, maintained by an Australian living in South Korea [see comments]. The main writer, Matt (he seems to have recently opened up his blog to other contributors), claims in the FAQ to “tell the other side of the story, the one that the Korean media ignores or covers up or distorts,” and that his site’s purpose is to “oppos(e) Korean hate and extremism.” Not being privy to Korean mainstream media or having any idea what it’s like to live in Korea, it’s not for me to say whether there’s a legitimate beef here or not, though given that I do have some experience as a person living in a foreign land, I can certainly sympathize with his apparent frustration that the local populace doesn’t have the means — or the inclination — to seek a wider picture.

Nevertheless, there’s still something slightly repugnant about this site that I’m trying to put my finger on. If we look at the above-mentioned FAQ, he gives his answers to questions and comments which are all more or less the same, i.e. “This is a racist site.” or “Why are you anti-Korean?” (These may are in fact be actual emails/comments his blog has received or he may have made them up, who knows. [again, see comments]) His answers themselves could be boiled down to a single response, which is basically that “This site exists to provide balance.” and that “Anyway, I have my opinion. If you disagree, thats fine.” (Nevermind that on the same page he writes, “What is written on this site is true. You wont find many judgements from me unless there is plenty of reason to do it.”)

The FAQ is a kind of rhetorical conceit that plays on the idea that the site and its author can’t possibly be racist or anti-Korean because rather than ignore the complaints and abuse he’s received, he publishes it and answers his critics. I don’t mean to imply that the site is racist or anti-Korean (again, I don’t have the sufficient background to make a judgment), merely pointing out that his defensive posture as seen in the FAQ and the site as a whole seems to have pulled a page out of the book written by Little Green Footballs or Rush Limbaugh. (It wasn’t surprising that one non-Korea-related post on the site that I did come across was about that tired old bugaboo “political correctness.”)

The recurrent themes of Occidentalism (the site started about a year ago, here’s the first post) in a nutshell seem to be a) Koreans are still to this day using fake, doctored atrocity photos to drum up anti-Japanese hatred (see posts here, here and here); b) the whole issue of “comfort women” has been vastly inflated or distorted (no specific posts but see the end of this post plus various comments littered throughout the site); c) Koreans were not forced to serve in the Japan Imperial Army or as workers for Japan’s industrial giants, but rather volunteered (here and again in various comments); and d) that Japan’s occupation of Korea was not nearly as brutal as Koreans today make it out to be, that such policies as forcing Koreans to adopt Japanese names or banning Hangul didn’t happen, and that the developed South Korea of today owes a big debt to the colonization of Korea by Japan (see here, here, and here).

Not surprisingly, folks who take the time to comment in with opposing viewpoints are invariably shot down by Matt or by readers who share his opinions. It was more than a few times that I came across comments along the lines of “you must be Korean,” and in general the comments section takes on the feel of Limbaugh-esqe talk-radio where dissenters are either patronized or simply shouted down. As with most bullying blowhards with a pulpit, the site’s writers and serial commenters can usually run rhetorical circles around most any opposing viewpoint, and waste no chance in doing so (so much for that “Anyway, I have my opinion. If you disagree, thats fine.” part of the FAQ). (This thread, with Matt as predictable apologist for Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine and contending that Korea has no legitimate reason to oppose them, is indicative of the kind of combative, unbalanced discourse one can expect at the site. Good luck making it through all 188 coments, though.) Given how these “discussions” usually work, the folks with the minority view who feel compelled to post will sooner or later either give up, or become increasingly frustrated and hysterical, like lambs before the slaughter.

Now again, it may be that all of what’s on this site is true and not merely historical revisionism. It may well be that the majority of South Koreans are brainwashed to a point that precludes reasonable discussion. It may be that Korea was an “ally” of Japan and not a colony, and that all these tales of forced labor, comfort women, and oppression have all been exaggerated by South Korea. As I’ve said a couple of times, who am I to say, never having been to South Korea myself, exposed to the media and mainstream thought there, and quite frankly, not very educated about the whole of Japan and Korea’s historical relationship. But sorry, I’m not buying.

Ordinarily I would welcome such a site that attempts to correct an inbalance, and expose lies and half-truths. And I would love to find a site that helped me create an informed, fair perspective on the Korean-Japan relationship. But the reactionary, revisionist, speak-louder-than-anyone-else tone tells me that Occidentalism isn’t the site I’m looking for. They would have you believe that South Korea is Andersen’s Emperor without any clothes on, but as I see it, it is they who are wearing the Emperor’s new clothes.

 

4 Responses to Occidentalism: just who exactly is wearing the Emperor’s new clothes?

  1. Matt@Occidentalism says:

    Hello Kurt. Interesting review of my site. I will take the liberty of making a couple of comments on what you wrote, if you dont mind.

    The site that seems to have formed the locus of many of these opinions is Occidentalism, maintained by an Australian living in South Korea.

    I want to clear up that I do not live, and have not lived in South Korea, nor have I ever been an English teacher in any country (I know you did not write that I was a teacher but 99% of whites in Korea are or assumed to be). I will have to put that one in the FAQ.

    Nevertheless, there’s still something slightly repugnant about this site that I’m trying to put my finger on. If we look at the above-mentioned FAQ, he gives his answers to questions and comments which are all more or less the same, i.e. “This is a racist site.” or “Why are you anti-Korean?” (These may in fact be actual emails/comments his blog has received or he may have made them up, who knows.)

    All the questions on the FAQ are actual questions asked by readers, and the answers are the same ones I or other commenters gave in the comments section.

    b) the whole issue of “comfort women” has been vastly inflated or distorted (no specific posts but see the end of this post plus various comments littered throughout the site);

    About the comfort women – I think the comfort woman issue is distorted, both in the numbers of comfort women, and the actual way that women found themselves involved in that situation. The current Korean position is that every single comfort woman was forced to become a comfort women, and not a single one was willing to be paid for sex, as if prostitutes do not exist in Korea. Anyone offering the view that there were women in Korea who were willing to be paid for sex is said to be insulting the victims. There is an attempt to make the comfort women a taboo subject, where one has to conform to the official version of the Korean government or be labeled as ‘attacking the victims’. I accept that some comfort women were forced. I also accept that the Japanese army ran a system that was bound to be abused. What I dont accept is that it was entirely the responsibility of the Japanese army. Korean parents who sell their females into brothels also share blame, as do shady recruiters (often Korean). Nor do I accept that all the comfort women were forced to become prostitutes – according to a US army report, many of the comfort women were prostitutes before they were recruited or answered the advertising in the newspaper. As for 200 000 Korean comfort women, I have never seen any methodology for reaching that number. Since the comfort women were on the front line areas, that means a huge ratio of women vs troops. They would not have been very busy. The number seems quite unlikely for that reason.

    So I dont reject the comfort women thing at all – I just think its a more nuanced situation than is explained in the media. I guess if your mind is already made up, then anything less than a black and white explanation might seem unacceptable.

    c) Koreans were not forced to serve in the Japan Imperial Army or as workers for Japan’s industrial giants, but rather volunteered (here and again in various comments);

    Again, it is more nuanced than that. Japanese people were also wrapped up in the labor mobilization for the war, and Korean people were not until the very end of the war. The majority of Korean people in Japan at wars end were there of their own free will, while the minority that had been affected by the labor mobilization (forced labor, if you will) returned to Korea. Japanese were affected by the same policy, but no one calls that forced labor.

    d) that Japan’s occupation of Korea was not nearly as brutal as Koreans today make it out to be, that such policies as forcing Koreans to adopt Japanese names or banning Hangul didn’t happen, and that the developed South Korea of today owes a big debt to the colonization of Korea by Japan (see here, here, and here).

    Well, banning Hangul didnt happen. If you believe it did, then my statement might seem outrageous, but Hangul was not banned. In the 36 years of Japanese rule, it was decided in 1941 that the Japanese Empire would follow a national language policy (just like the people calling for English to be the national language of the US now), and that Korean language, which had been taught in Schools in Korea up until that point, would now teach the national language. Hangul was not forbidden, it just could not be taught in public schools in the last 4 years of Japanese rule. It does not mean that people were forbidden to speak Korean in public or learn Korean in their free time. Since Japan had adopted the policy of unification with Korea, not teaching the Koreans Japanese would mean that they would be denied the language of the power and thus never achieve power in that society.

    People still spoke Korean, and indeed the majority of Korean people were unable to speak Japanese. Newspapers, movies, books etc, continued to be published in Korean. Refraining from teaching Korean does not constitute banning Hangul, and does not mean that Koreans were not allowed to speak Korean, as is often claimed. I dont know what could possibly be repugnant about knowing what actually happened. The way Korean people tell it (those that did not live during the time Japan ran Korea, that is), people were severely punished or tortured for speaking Korean on the street, or writing Hangul letters.

    As for Korean development by Japan, I dont think the Koreans need to thank Japan for that. However, if someone is going to claim that Japan raped the Korean economy and left the majority of Koreans in penury, or caused Koreans to starve to death, I think that needs to be answered with the facts. That is not the same as saying that Koreans owe the Japanese a debt.

    Not surprisingly, folks who take the time to comment in with opposing viewpoints are invariably shot down by Matt or by readers who share his opinions.

    Another way of saying what you wrote above is that my arguments are simply stronger than those of people with opposing viewpoints. Unless you are saying that I am selectively censoring arguments that are damaging to my viewpoint, what you wrote hardly constitutes a criticism. The comments section on Occidentalism is a free-for-all, and anyone with weak arguments or poor reasoning is likely to be ‘shot down’, including me.

    Obviously, I am not going to agree with the thrust of your conclusion, but I do appreciate that you left the door open for different possibilities in it.

  2. kurt says:

    Matt-
    thanks for commenting. I apologize for assuming you were in South Korea and have updated my post (as I also did re: how your FAQ was written).

    I won’t go into your comments related to specifics of the Korean/Japan relationship as I don’t have the required knowledge. I will at some point delve into it in my reading, and I suppose I have your site to thank for getting me more interested in this complex topic than I have been up to now.

    With respect to viewpoints being “shot down” and the like, of course I would expect you to take the position that you have. But my point wasn’t so much about the quality of your arguments as it was about the arrogance in which they’re made (of course you’re not the only commenter doing this, but it’s your site and I do think you set the tone). This naturally would make those who do not share your views intimidated to take part, or feel like they’re fighting an uphill battle so why continue on. (The fact that they give up might seem to you a sign of victory for your arguments, but I think this is short-sighted).

    Your FAQ also sets a confrontational tone. That they are real comments/questions from readers doesn’t mitigate the fact that by choosing to copy/paste together the FAQ with them, you are again setting a tone that is akin to “ok, if you want a fight, i’ll give you a fight”. I have no problem with the *content* of your site confronting the ideas and opinions of readers such as myself, but when the presentation is confrontational as well, then I start to tune out as do I suspect other readers who might otherwise be receptive to a good discussion do. Hence my feeling that the site can only become (or already has become) a bully pulpit for you and those who agree with you.

  3. Matt@Occidentalism says:

    Kurt, thanks for your revisions and reply.

    I guess all I can say is that I am a human being, and I am doing my best to write as nicely as possible given the extreme controvesy of these issues to Koreans. The defensiveness is also a result of Korean anger at hearing things radically different to what they were told at school.

    I think what is important here is to understand that Koreans come from a radically different viewpoint than we do, and even if you dont agree with what I wrote on historical issues, I am sure you would agree that it was the United States and allied powers that defeated Japan and liberated Korea, and not Korea itself that defeated Japan and liberated Korea. That is what is written in South Korean textbooks for Junior Highschool children, and I will be translating the relevant passages in a future post.

    So I get what you are saying about confrontational tone, but I wonder if it is even possible to discuss these issues without it ultimately becoming confrontational. Thank you for your writing about Occidentalism. I will try to take what on board what you have written to the best of my ability, and to the extent that it is possible.

  4. Fantasy says:

    Kurt,

    although I do not follow the writers of Occidentalism in all their opinions, I certainly do agree with them that Koreans come from a viewpoint radically different from our own (i.e. from the one generally held by historians outside of North and South Korea), and that the Korean people need to be confronted with at least a vague notion of that difference (which they do not seem to be aware of).

    It is very difficult to pursue this goal in individual discussions – as the vast majority of Koreans make those who do not share their own views feel as if they’re fighting an uphill battle, or expose them to ridicule, so that the dissidents eventually feel compelled to give up the discussion, which is then invariably seen as a sign of victory for the Korean arguments.

    For those who have no or little first-hand experience of the views and opinions of the average Korean, it is hard to imagine the amount of their arrogance.

    Occidentalism may have its shortcomings, but it provides a necessary corrective element in the fight against the persistent re-writing of history that is going on in both Koreas, North AND South.

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