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Existing on two different planets

Perhaps the diplomats need to step aside and let the two nations’ common citizens of reach out to each other.
July 03,2017
As an American, I am not in a position to judge other nations. But I consider myself to be a good friend to Korea and Japan.

In this capacity, I had an intense discussion with a mid-level Japanese diplomat during the recent 2017 Jeju Forum. I found my counterpart to be very intelligent and congenial as well as very intellectually honest. Yet, as someone representing the Japanese government, he kept himself within the guardrails of his government’s foreign policy. Though not as intelligent, I tried to be similarly intellectually honest while having the freedom to speak freely on my own behalf.

What came out of this discussion was not surprising, but it did crystalize why the Koreans and Japanese talk past each other at governmental levels. To look as to why that is, let’s ponder some fairly obvious cultural differences.

All adults carry on with public persona, reserving their true nature to only intimates, such as family members and close friends. Local culture mandates how “thick” these public masks may be and how commonly or uncommonly are these masks are dropped to express one’s true nature.

In some cultures, such as in Thailand and Japan, the masks are very opaque and infrequently removed. Other places, such as the U.S. and Korea, the masks are pretty transparent or even often non-existent.

As so often is the case, the Japanese have a vocabulary for it. Conditions concerning the mask are called “tatemae,” whereas one’s true feeling is referred to as “honne.”

Getting back to our Jeju discussion, we began talking about the comfort woman issue. My Japanese counterpart expressed his concern as to why the matter continues after so many official apologies and even financial settlement. After all, it is all on record that the Japanese had apologized! My response was that individual Japanese politicians are not viewed as being credible by most Koreans as they act in official capacities without necessarily reflecting their citizens’ feelings. Too often well-meaning or possibly cynical Japanese politicians have offered carefully worded, contrite statements only to be sabotaged by counter proclamations by members of their national assembly or other important Japanese thought leaders. In other words, the legalistic tatemae is certainly there, but it seems to many Koreans there is little evidence of genuine honne supporting the matter.

As I pointed out to this amiable diplomat, while the Japanese are (in)famous for their constant tatemae of politeness, the Koreans are just as well known for their almost lack of tatemae. Often it seems in Korea, it is almost all jarringly honne!

I suggested that if the Japanese wish to resolve this matter, there needs to be some kind of apology truly representative of the Japanese people, such as a resolution that is widely passed by their legislative body, the National Diet.

My counterpart expressed his skepticism. I asked why — do you think it all about money? Yes, was the reply, the Koreans are just trying to get more money. I then pointed out that if the Japanese even hint at such, they may expect outrage from insulted Koreans.

In other words, my acquaintance was drawing on his own experience of growing up in Japan. Often when faced with unavoidable confrontations, the best and most proper way to resolve a matter is to publicly make a statement to mollify the other party, and when necessary, pay money to demonstrate one’s sincerity — regardless of how one’s honne may actually feel.

With Koreans, while people may cynically leverage the other party to extract money, often in a conflict the ultimate attitude is “money be damned; I want to get a genuine, heart-felt apology!” Koreans operate by their feelings, or kibun (which is more emotional than the Japanese equivalent word), and much less by face or tatemae compared to the Japanese.

But my overall point is that the Japanese and Koreans officially tend to talk past each other, given the cultural dissimilarities. Both sets of diplomats try to serve their citizens in ways meaningful to how their people interact amongst themselves. The Japanese base their positions on quite legalistic positions spelled out in international agreements in a very tatemae-like manner. The Koreans recognize those agreements, but place value on honne-like genuine sentiments. As a result, these neighboring nations seem to exist on two different planets.

But as saying goes, if one is not part of the solution, one is part of the problem. Perhaps the diplomats need to step aside and let the two nations’ common citizens of reach out to each other.

While greater common citizen dialogue may not resolve current diplomatic sticking points, newly discovered common interests and shared projects may become of greater priority than the current stumbling blocks.

Having lived with typical Japanese and Korean families, I find that in spite of the cultural differences, the two peoples really have more in common than with other nations. Clearly it is past time for the common Japanese and Koreans to step up and take on larger roles in inter-country relations. Should professional diplomats insist they be involved, perhaps they should spend more of their time and resources on fostering people-to-people interactions if their countries are to move off the current stalemates.

*The author is the owner of Onsite Studios, publisher of Korean Economic Reader, and author of two books on doing business in Korea.

Tom Coyner