Note: The following article appeared in The Groove on March 7, 2008, and is recreated here for archiving purposes.
The 15th of August marks the day the Korean Peninsula was liberated from Japanese control at the end of World War II in 1945, a holiday celebrated by both North and South Korea. Unlike many other countries, Korean Independence Day conjures up more thoughts of sorrow and anguish, than jubilation and merriment. At the end of 1945, the Korean Peninsula was left devastated by countless years of cruel Japanese imperialism (officially 1910-1945) – a reign that some Koreans blame on the division of their country.
It is because of this brutal occupation that such great tension still exists between Koreans and Japanese some half a century later. It is estimated that 10,000-200,000 Korean and Japanese women were forced into sexual slavery during World War II – an atrocity Japan still does not fully recognize. The unofficial number of women that were converted into ‘comfort women’ is a testament of how out of control the occupation was – the majority of the women originating from poor rural communities as a result of recruitment or kidnapping.
Japanese occupation also spearheaded successful movements in disbanding Korean royalty, changing names, and acts of cultural genocide such as suppressing traditional festivals and altering national monuments. A major tool the Japanese Empire used in assimilating Koreans was forcing both men and women to partake in imperial military education classes.
A Tough Tension
On June 27, 2007, America asked that Japan formally recognize and apologize for the countless years of sexual slavery that it inflicted on itself and on other Asian countries during WWII. Japan did apologize to South Korea for its WWII misdeeds in October of 2001, but never recognized sexual slavery.
Many Koreans and Japanese of Generation Y (those born in 1979-2000 according to Wikipedia) have firm, deep-seeded views of each other, and once in an intimate setting are more than willing to divulge honest commentary.
Kyung Un Kim, a 27-year-old Korean female medical office worker from Busan said, “I think they [Japanese] are two-faced. They pretend to be really nice and then talk about you behind your back.”
Modern Japanese pop icons like Hello Kitty, Anime film’s such as Princess Mononoke, and Gloomy dolls, have all made their way into Korean culture, yet it remains a hard task to find a genuine positive attitude. A seven-year-old former student of mine from Daechi-dong, Seoul, once told me blatantly in the middle of class that “Jesus hates Japanese movies” – a tall tale undoubtedly feed to him by his family.
Song Sulp Park, a 25-year-old male from Daechi, Seoul, has many firm negative beliefs about the Japanese. “They are too friendly I think,” said Park, “I could never have a Japanese friend [because] I don’t trust them.”
The uncomfortable undertone is unfortunately a mutual one, although Koreans are more opinioned for reasons mostly concerning their negative historical perspective.
A 23-year-old Japanese female living in Yokohama who declined to be cited believes that Koreans are very cold and out of touch. “I don’t like them,” she said, “I think they are very rude people.” When asked about Japan’s apology for sexual slavery she responded by saying, “Japan already apologized.”
In-Hyong Park, a 24-year-old Korean student studying business at Hanyang University in Seoul, studied abroad in New York and lived with a Japanese roommate, so she believes she has a more international perspective toward the issue. “I think [Japanese] are OK [but] they should recognize comfort women in Korea.”
One can only predict whether tensions will disintegrate through time and generations. America and Korea have asked that Japan officially recognize the full details of the use of ‘comfort women’ by their government, but the Japanese have been slow to react on any such request. Perhaps then, future generations will be led peacefully and unbiased into a time where both nations will coexist in a tensionless accord.