+ A

Conflict of values

July 25,2019
Kim Byung-yeon
The author is an economics professor at Seoul National University.

American anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s study of patterns of Japanese culture in her bestselling “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” played a key part in formulating the U.S. Japan policy during the final years of World War II and shortly after the war. It helped the United States realize that the best way to end the Pacific War with the fewest casualties was to get the Japanese emperor to surrender. The research also inspired the United States to make Japan adopt democracy and yet preserve its emperor system. The New York Times lauded Benedict as an expert who contributed to a country’s reconstruction. Both Japan and the United States could understand each other’s culture and open a promising future for them — despite the distance between the two.

But tense Korea-Japan relations offer a sharp contrast. Experts and scholars have found diverse reasons for the rupture, but it boils down to a lack of understanding of each other’s culture — a way of thinking, in other words. Blind adherence to one’s own point of view only fuels anger at the other. Leaders’ attempts to take advantage of national sentiments for political gains are making matters worse.

The cultural differences between Korea and Japan are larger than expected. Above all, Korea is a country of reason, whereas Japan is a country of law. After adopting neo-Confucianism from China’s Song Dynasty (960-1279), Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) cherished moral and ethical values more than any other principles or philosophies, as seen in its “three fundamental principles and five moral disciplines in human relations.” For the people of Joseon, such metaphysical values were more important than law, even higher than the king. Modern Koreans’ tendency to prioritize ideology over practicality can be traced to that.

Meanwhile, Japan built its social order on power. The Buke Shohatto, or the Laws for the Military Houses, from the Tokugawa shogunate, states that the law can break principles, yet principles cannot break the law. In Japanese society, people must follow the law whether they like it or not. Another difference between the two cultures can be found in their respective four-class systems of society. While the order of the hierarchy in Joseon was scholars, farmers, artisans and merchants, Japan’s was samurais, farmers, artisans and merchants. That means Korea historically honored moral principles while Japan placed more emphasis on following the law.

The sharp discord over the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling on wartime forced labor symbolically shows how Korea’s focus on reason and principle clashes with Japan’s focus on law. Koreans think that if an agreement between two nations is against reason, it can be renegotiated. That’s why they argue the 1965 Korea-Japan Basic Treaty can be reconsidered. Japan, on the other hand, sees the agreement as having the same effect as a law, which is why it contends that the forced labor issue was already settled in 1965. Many Japanese are supporting Tokyo’s export restrictions on Korea as they find it very hard to understand Korea’s attempt to rewrite the “law.”

Another Japanese cultural aspect different from Koreans’ is that they don’t have a God to seek forgiveness from. In Japan, one’s duty is to faithfully perform the role bestowed by society, not to affect the government’s decision-making. When Japanese fail to perform this role, they feel ashamed of themselves and apologize to the victim. But the evil conduct of Japanese soldiers against Korean sex slaves during World War II is far too grave for Japanese society to admit and embrace. As a result, many Japanese refuse to acknowledge their wartime wrongdoings or say they’re unrelated to the issue because it was the Japanese authorities that made such a decision back then. To admit the brutality, they must ask for forgiveness, but most Japanese do not know any absolute being to ask forgiveness from. Such a cultural aspect is what sets Japan apart from Germany, and explains why it cannot deeply apologize for its wartime atrocities.

Some may ask, “How would understanding Japanese culture help solve the current row?” For a brighter bilateral future, it’s about time to make sure the diplomatic fight does not deepen. Let’s look back to 2012, when President Lee Myung-bak’s criticism of the Japanese emperor brought horrifying ramifications to bilateral ties. Seoul’s relationship with Tokyo began to suffer. Lee, who was known as the “economy president,” brought hardships to K-pop and Korean businesses in Japan, causing many Koreans to lose their jobs.

I wonder how the Moon Jae-in administration is any different. When both countries’ cultures clash, they must talk it over through dialogue and diplomacy. But since Korea’ top court ruled in October that Japanese companies must pay compensation to Korean forced laborers, the Moon administration has continued to refuse Tokyo’s request to discuss the issue. Now that Japan is enforcing export restrictions, Seoul has suddenly proposed dialogue. The Japanese government will see such inconsistency as Korea’s disregard for Japan. The Moon administration has made Korea look rude and arrogant due to its failure to understand the Japanese cultural code.

By imposing economic retaliations against Korea over a diplomatic issue, the Shinzo Abe administration has voluntarily chosen to foresake Japan’s image of respecting the order. But for Moon to tell the Korean people to come together to confront Japan head on is like instigating Koreans to abandon their dignity and be like Japan’s far-rightists.

Instead, Korea and Japan must take time for introspection. And both countries must prevent their leaders from making politically-motivated decisions based on a reckless understanding of each other’s culture. That way, the past will not get in the way of the future.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 24, Page 31