SEOUL -- A new prime minister took office in Japan on October 4, but expectations for improvement in relations with South Korea can't be seen, with key cabinet posts filled with those associated with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The prevailing view is that relations, which have deteriorated in recent years, will remain sluggish. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida served as foreign minister for about four years and eight months in a row during the Abe administration. He was the person directly involved in a 2015 agreement on "comfort women" sexually enslaved by Japan's imperial army during World War II.
Regarding relations between Seoul and Tokyo, Kishida sticks to the previous government's position that South Korea should come up with a solution. However, a different voice came from Kouhei Kumano, a student in the fourth year of sociology at Hitotsubashi University, a national university specializing in social science in Tokyo.
In an interview with Aju Business Daily on September 28, Kumano stressed that the only solution is a change in Japan's attitude. He thinks true exchanges and partnerships are impossible unless Japan faces history squarely as a perpetrator who colonized the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Kumano, who was a K-pop fan in his school days and thought he knew Korea well, was shocked to learn in college that he did not know Korea properly. Getting closer to the real picture of Japan's wartime sexual slavery, he felt more difficult to solve historical problems which are intricately connected to gender issues.
What changed Kumano's life may have been the introduction of a student he met on the 2019 study tour of South Korea. The student, who revealed his identity as a Korean-Japanese, saw a recent K-pop craze in Japan with a "sad contradiction." It was a thunderbolt shock to realize that he didn't know anything about history, although he even took Korean classes out of interest in culture. Above all, he thought that he had consumed Korean culture, ignoring the historical scars deeply embedded in bilateral relations.
Kumano joined the study tour with a light heart because he could travel to South Korea at an affordable price of 210,000 won ($176) for five days and four nights. However, the trip, which began with excitement, made Kumano feel heavy over time.
Japan's colonization over Korea, Koreans in Japan, and the testimony of wartime victims cast a big question mark on the world that Kumano knew, and the fact that he is a citizen in a country with a history of perpetrators has come to reality. The realization that he had never thought about history while enjoying the privilege of being able to live without thinking about it hit his head hard. Back in Japan, the word that came to his mind when he wrote reviews of the tour was "implication" that was contained in data distributed by Keiki Kato, an associate professor at Hitotsubashi University, during the first-year curriculum.
Implication is a concept proposed by Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a historian of modern Japan and North Korea, that past mistakes remain in the structure of discrimination and come down to the present. Therefore, if people of the present generation overlook without dismantling it, they are not fulfilling responsibilities. Kumano thought that the word was the identity of a heavy heart and discomfort he felt during his tour.
After the tour, Kumano became more active in studying history. That summer, he participated in a symposium on the "comfort women" issue that Japanese students think of. It was a difficult and tough task, but as he prepared for the presentation, he was able to slowly create his own thoughts and perspectives. In the structure in which the history of victims and perpetrators continues from the past to the present, apologies should not stay in a "spot" (moment) but become a "line" that connects the past, the present, and the future.
"In Japan, many think it's over if you pay once and say a word of apology. However, I think true apologies and reconciliation are possible only when constant follow-up measures are taken, not one-off rewards," Kumano said. "Recognizing facts, making an official apology, fulfilling legal responsibilities, and paying compensation should be prioritized, but constant follow-up measures should be taken without stopping, such as history education, making museums, and holding memorial events."
Yet, the strong mainstream voice in Japan is "why do Koreans talk about what is already done?" After entering college, Kumano came to this conclusion through history studies, but his path was not easy, interspersed with many lonely and fearful things.
"There are frequent talks about a deterioration of Korea-Japan relations, but as Professor Kato has said, I think it is the deterioration of Japanese people's perception of history. Some say that even if political relations are not good, cultural exchanges can be maintained. If you look at what has changed after decades of cultural exchanges, I think what we need now in Japan is not such cultural exchanges but proper historical awareness," said Kumano.
Kumano points out that although Hallyu (Korean cultural wave) is in vogue, it is just like enjoying culture without considering the history of perpetrators. His conclusion is that if Japanese people only look at Korean culture, history will eventually be forgotten.
"Korean citizens don't know much about Japan's situation, and the same goes for Japan. I have vague expectations that it will be better if they interact with each other. However, the situation will get worse if you are buried in the perception that good things are good and just move on. This is because the human rights of victims are buried and fundamental problems are not solved. There will really be no real improvement in relations unless we think about the history of human rights issues or perpetration."
Although Kumano has such a clear awareness of the problem, it is difficult for him to find someone to share concerns with. "If it's not my friends at the school seminar, there aren't many people who can talk about the problem I think of, so I feel a sense of distance. It's bound to create a sense of isolation. However, I think the seminar with Professor Kato is the only place where I can feel safe and empathetic."
When asked if he wanted to give up the situation where human relationships were narrowed and criticism was poured out online, Kumano was straightforward to reply that he couldn't. "Once you know this problem, your view of the world will change. That's why I can't go back. There were hard times, but I like myself more now than myself in the past who didn't know anything."
When asked what would happen to Japanese society if more people thought the same way, Kumano stopped talking and showed instant embarrassment before laughing and replying that it was too difficult to imagine because it was so opposite to the current situation. After thinking for a while, he expressed his belief that if more people see and think about the history of perpetrators, Japan's relations with the two Koreas and other Asian countries will be able to take a new stage.
Of course, it is a distant future, so he thinks it is necessary to tell "our current story." That's why he decided to write a book with four other students. As a person who likes Korean culture, he thought it was strange not to talk about history. The book published in July with a somewhat unfamiliar title "Moyamoya about Korea-Japan relationship and me as a college student!" is drawing an unexpected response from the Japanese publishing industry as it contained the honest concerns of young people and revealed a slice of new thoughts and anxiety.
The reaction from Kumano's friends was insignificant, and there were malicious comments on Twitter, such as "Don't talk about politics" and "Why bring up a problem that has already been solved?" Above all, it was a big hurt to know when one follower who may be a close acquaintance anonymously posted a comment saying, "It's gross." Kumano stopped promoting the book through his personal social networking service (SNS) and created another account because even his friends showed an uncomfortable look.
"There are many Japanese people who are not interested in history. I think that if I talk about my story about how I think, more people will feel familiar with this issue and think, 'It's not about others but about me,'" Kumano said.
There were people who wrote their old stories on blogs after reading the book. Kumano felt proud because more and more people seemed to accept history as if it were their own business after seeing such blogs. Of course, the road ahead is very long and has no end. However, like Neo, the main character who chose red medicine in the movie Matrix, Kumano chose to move forward rather than backtrack.
In a separate video interview conducted with the help of Kato, all five authors explained the process of engraving sincere concerns about relations between South Korea and Japan into "Moyamoya," a Japanese word meaning puffy, obscure, or hazy, like a puff of smoke in the air. The five included three students in the fourth year of sociology at Hitotsubashi University -- Kumano, Kimika Asakura and Mai Okita. Two others are Miku Ushiki and Lee Sang-jin in the first year of graduate school.
Talking about the reaction to their book, the authors expressed their thoughts about Korea-Japan relations and agreed that changes within Japan are needed above all. As mutual efforts are needed to improve relations between the two countries, they wanted to prioritize their reflection on the society they are in while speaking out about the reality of Japan, which is enthusiastic about Korean culture but ignores the weight of history and violent colonization.
The five have held discussions on issues dealt with in the book for nearly two years by participating in academic club meetings. Hitotsubashi University students are required to participate in seminar classes for two years from the third grade of their undergraduate studies, set research topics, and submit graduation papers under the guidance of their professor. The COVID-19 pandemic played an important role in the creation of the book, and loneliness caused by social distancing was a driving force behind it.
"We've often talked for a long time at seminars because we couldn't meet people," Ushiki said. "In particular, discussions on Japan's historical awareness got more active, with concerns raised about 'what can we do as college students?'"
All five authors started from different backgrounds until they got themselves together with the same critical mind and agreed on moyamoya. When external instructors were invited to joint seminars with graduate students to study the subject in depth during summer vacation, some suggested it would be good to create introductory documents from the perspective of college students. "Personally, I thought it would be meaningful to directly express and write heterogeneous points in Japanese society and social problems in terms of historical awareness," said Ushiki.
The five were amazed when 565 people applied for the first on-site publication ceremony held in the same month after their non-face-to-face publication ceremony on August 7. "We found the possibility and hope that solidarity is possible even in Japan," Ushiki recalled. "We have come to realize that we should work harder in the future."
Ushiki, who didn't even know there was an army in South Korea when she was a high school student, said her accidental participation in the tour of Korean history in college served as a turning point. Originally, she joined the tour with the thought of visiting a foreign country at a low price, but she came to realize that something was wrong when a Korean acquaintance asked about "comfort women." Seeing herself unable to express his opinion at all, not from Japan's government position, she knew she had no knowledge of history and asked herself, "How can I not know anything about my history like this?"
Asakura also used to have little interest in history, except for Korean cosmetics and fashion that were popular among peers. Realizing that there was a gap between the history she learned through a seminar with Kato and the Japanese history she learned in high school, she agonized more about biased reports by the Japanese media and the reason why bilateral relations deteriorate.
Okita started with concern about Japanese society. During her days at an elementary school attended by many foreigners, she saw her friends from Korea, Mongolia and Africa bullied just because they were foreigners and started having a question. Since then, Okita, who has grown up with the belief that she would respect diversity without discriminating against minorities and the weak, has vowed to take classes and study more on history.
Lee Sang-jin, a Korean citizen who visited Japan to study in 2015, said that his worries began in that the image of Japanese society he experienced in person was different from what he thought. In particular, he was cautious about revealing his existence in Japan due to a historical and diplomatic dispute. Accordingly, he started studying with Kato to resolve the problem of discrepancy.
The book, which contained sincere concerns of young people who had a critical mind at different starting points, carried no pictures of authors. They have been interviewed in various places, but their faces were not disclosed. Even in the book, their faces were only described in drawings. They couldn't post faces due to worries about an attack by far-right groups. Not only is the popularity of K-pop singers soaring, but "Crash Landing on You," a 2019~2020 South Korean TV series, is at the top of Japan's drama rankings. However, Japan has more people who have a strong antipathy against Korean culture than any other country.
Although it is defined as an introductory document on Korea-Japan relations, the book's assessment is divided into extremes. As of September 22, Japan's top online bookstore, Amazon, had a total of 88 reviews on the book. Evaluations are generally either the highest or the lowest. Some people say they have become able to have a better understanding of Korea-Japan relations that they did not know before. Critical reviews described the authors as just stupid students siding with South Korea's arguments.
What's clear is that the book is attracting attention in Japan enough to be ranked on Amazon's sales rankings compiled every hour. The book ranks first in sales in the research section of the Korean Peninsula, a sub-classification, and 22nd in the diplomatic and international relations section, a higher classification.
The authors are aware of a possible attack by far-right forces represented by "Netouyo," the term referring to netizens who espouse right-wing views on social media. When asked about a negative reaction, Okita said, "What came to my mind was radical words, so I was worried about how much I should say. In particular, what was notable was the claim that the authors who used real names were Koreans with pseudonyms and that Professor Kato is brainwashing students in class."
In response, Kato smiled gently as if he were familiar with such criticism and encouraged Okita and other authors with soft but firm words. "Right-wing comments were also the reality of Japan, so it's okay to say everything 'without control.' At earlier seminars, I used to say 'it's better not to care about Netouyo.' If this article is released, the vicious cycle of net right-wingers searching for and attacking will be repeated, but this is not a 'justifiable criticism' because they did it without reading the book properly."
[The original article was written in Korean by Aju Business Daily reporters Yoon Eun-sook and Choi Ji-hyun]
[This article was sponsored by the Korea Press Foundation]
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