Korea and Japan may be many things but close friends is not one of them. Every year, some conflict arises and it usually originates from Japan’s lack of apologies and sincere repentance for war crimes committed during the occupation of Korea from 1910-1945.
Since the anti-Japanese movement is very strong in Korea, Koreans often ask me if I hate Germany, since my country was occupied during the war. Of course I don’t. If anything, I think Germany is a pretty cool country. But they occupied Denmark, right? Yes, the nazis did – 75 years ago. I can hardly blame present day Germans for that. Besides, Germany apologized and worked hard on rebuilding the diplomatic relationships with other European countries after the war. Today, Germany is a key player in the EU and an important country on the global scene. Do I hate Sweden then? No! We did go to war with them a lot up until around 400 years ago, and they still usually beat us in soccer but that I can live with. My point is, I never grew up thinking that one of my neighboring countries was my enemy in any way, and this can be a bit difficult to explain to Koreans who in many cases often carry deep resentment toward Japan.
This animosity was recently sparked as Japan curbed exports to Korea as a political move to express contempt for a Korean supreme court ruling in favor of wartime victims. In retaliation, an anti-Japan boycott campaign was launched in Korea, and outside Japanese brand stores like Uniqlo, Toyota, and ABC Mart you see people demonstrating and urging people not to spend money that goes to Japanese corporations. In supermarkets and convenience stores, Japanese products are taken down from the shelves – (bye bye, Asahi beer) – and the slogan “가지 않습니다, 사지 않습니다” – “don’t go, don’t buy” is trending on social media. A recent poll showed that more than half of Koreans support this 불매운동 – the boycotting of Japanese products.
Why am I writing about this trade conflict all of a sudden? I just came back to my office after a two-hour long lunch with five of my Korean colleagues and all we talked about the entire time was the current tensions with Japan. We drove to the restaurant in one of my colleagues’ car, and she said she regretted having bought a Japansese car (Honda) and that she had just cancelled her reservations for a vacation in Japan this October. This anti-Japan sentiment, called 반일감정 in Korean, is nothing new to me as a foreigner in Korea, but it seems especially severe this time. While I listened with interest to the conversation of my colleagues I found it hard to express any opinion on the matter, since this topic is truly a hot potato.
I may not be a big fan of prime minister Shinzo Abe, but I have nothing against Japan on a personal level. I find the country, the language and the culture intriguing and beautiful. There is enough nationalism and hostility in the world as it is, and while Japan did commit despicable crimes against humanity during the war years, we can hardly hold the younger generations responsible for that. I don’t think Koreans should just “forgive and forget” – definitely never forget – but I do wish that the Koreans and Japanese could somehow find an agreement and stop this war of words against one another. Until this conflict is resolved I’ll remain apolitical on the matter and enjoy not having to wait in line at Uniqlo.