• James O'Leary

Japan vs. Korea

-A look at an age old rivalry from the view of a military teen who’s lived in both places.



Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloom, nor is Bloom predominately a news website, so do not expect everything in this article to be 100% accurate.


After living in Germany, my family moved to Japan, another of World War II's Axis Powers. Both nations are obviously very different, but one thing that stood out to me was their treatment of their pasts. In Germany, it seemed like most people were truly ashamed of what the Nazis did in WWII, however in Japan it seemed people weren't quite as repentant. The old Rising Sun Flag from World War II, arguably equivalent of the Swastika, (obviously Japanese have a different point of view there) is often still flown on buildings, Kamikaze pilots are regarded as national heroes, and for the average tourist, WWII museums/monuments aren't at all on the schedule. The exception is visiting Hiroshima or Nagasaki, where tourists can see the truly horrible effects of America's atomic bombs- which is unbiased history- however without seeing the other side of the picture it gives off an illusion that Japan was only a victim, virtually guiltless in WWII.


At school, everyone seems to learn about certain atrocities that happened/are happening in this world (ex. Nazis, slavery). Historical human rights atrocities are in our school curriculum not just to expose certain countries or groups of people, but to prevent future generations from making the same mistakes. In other words, it's so history doesn’t repeat itself. Japan, just like Germany or Russia and even the US is guilty of a multitude of atrocities- from WWII war crimes against Korean and Chinese civilians, to those against American POWs - you can educate yourself by reading this TIME article; and study by Toshiyuki Tanaka- but I won't mention specifics here because it's somewhat graphic.


However, according to Tanaka, Japanese students aren’t taught much about such incidents, and Tanaka’s first attempts of publishing papers on such subjects in Japan were rejected for being “too sensitive”. Why can't Japan just admit that it too made some mistakes in the past- even if it was a matter of appearance, would it not help Japan's international image to express sorrow for the old wounds it inflicted on other countries?


If the Japanese were to perhaps be more open and admit their former mistakes, Korea might be more open to forgiveness, and Japan and Korea could perhaps develop a more friendly relationship. For example, the Germans and French have little to no grudge against one another anymore - French, right after English, is one of the most common foreign languages taught in German schools (my school even had a French exchange program), and Renaults and Peugeots, are about equal with your average Volkswagen on the Autobahn. Germans vacation to Paris regularly, and French often cross the border to visit Christmas markets or go skiing in the black forest. Is skiing in Germany or France better? Who cares! Is Germany way more technologically advanced than France? Not really, they're about equal. Is Germany better at soccer than France and literally every other country.... uh... uh... ok so yeah the Germans are proud of their soccer teams. But aside from casual sports rivalries, there isn't some kind of system that promotes Germany as better than France - but unfortunately there is most definitely lots of "Japan vs. Korea" energy - and it's not just during World Cup or Baseball season.


When I researched about Japan before I first moved there, I too was exposed to an onslaught of exaggerated Japanese media. Apparently, Japan is super clean. Unlike "terribly-polluted and less sophisticated Korea", Japan is close to void of crime, and the Japanese system of tollways and trains/subways is basically the best in the world. Also, supposedly simple, pure, high quality fish on plain rice is somehow better than that same fish rolled inside of rice and seaweed with various vegetables and multiple amazing spicy and flavorful sauces??


However, all these claims (except for sushi one, matter of opinion) can be debunked from simple observations. By periodically looking at a world AQI map, I saw that air pollution in Japan, while better than that of Korea, isn't great. After moving to South Korea, I was actually impressed at the modern architecture of Dongdaemun Plaza (pictured below) as well as the nice houses surrounding Camp Humphreys. Also, the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) exists . The subways and trains are 5-10 times the price of those in Korea, and expensive tolls cost over $100 for a round trip drive to the beach (two hours away), compared to $20 in Korea. These premiums might make sense to some, but to me it just seemed as if Japan was overly proud of everything. My point is not that Japan isn’t as good of a place to live as Korea (there's a lot of things about Japan that are amazing- like Mt. Fuji for example), but that it has a lot of unfounded national pride.


The problem is when this national pride turns into “we weren’t that bad in World War II” propaganda and institutionalized racism. (That’s right, the U.S. isn’t the only place where there’s racism) Koreans in Japan struggle to find jobs and Korean children often face terrible bullying at school. It is good to note that while this article is not the most unbiased, it’s undeniable that this racism isn’t just one-sided; Japanese living in Korea don’t fare much better. Koreans don’t buy Sony, Toyota, Honda or Nissan, Japanese don't buy Samsung, LG, Hyundai, or KIA. Imagine if a black person in America became the next Elon Musk, but white people refused to buy his cars because his skin color (and blatantly too, not even pretending it was because his cars weren’t good). It's not the exact same thing, but the fact that it’s even close to comparable tells me something is wrong.



Well, military teens like me living in Japan and Korea are a third party, so what exactly does this mean for us?


Instead of believing the tales each of these two countries tell about each other, we can form our own opinions, and while we shouldn’t be rude and express those opinions to everyone we see in our host nation (good way to get yourself kicked out of the country), we don’t have to blindly agree with all of our host nation’s actions.


Should Japan pay reparations for its occupation of Korea almost 100 years ago? Or was the 1965 treaty enough? I don’t know, but I do hope that relations between these two countries improve. I pray that both Japan and Korea can accept each other and that Japan will realize the wrong it did in World War II, but that this wrong is by no means a representation of its current state.


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