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Statistics as weapons

Aug 17,2019
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Koreans stage a massive rally in Gwanghwamun Square on the 74th Liberation Day on Aug. 15 to denounce Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic retaliation for the Supreme Court’s rulings on wartime forced labor, his rejection of an apology to former sex slaves and his ambition to make Japan a “normal” country capable of carrying out a war. [CHOI SEUNG-SHIK]
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“Anti-Japanese Tribalism” by former Seoul National University Professor Lee Young-hoon.
Lee Hyun-sang
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

It was uncomfortable. As I read the book, my common sense and values clashed with “proof” in the book. Former Seoul National University professor Lee Young-hoon published “Anti-Japanese Tribalism.” Former opposition leader Hong Joon-pyo said, “This is not right,” and senior opposition lawmaker Chang Je-won felt a “headache and [was] insulted.” Cho Kuk, former senior secretary for civil affairs to President Moon Jae-in, said, “It was disgusting.” Nevertheless, I must confess I was interested in the facts and views. If so, am I a pro-Japanese collaborator selling out the country?

A newspaper column summed it up this way: “The authors claim that there was no anti-human rights cruelties such as forced labor, food exploitation and sex slavery during the Japanese colonial period. They argue that many young Koreans voluntarily pursued ‘romantic ideas’ for money and went to Japan that was ahead of Korea.” Quoting the column, former Blue House secretary Cho Kuk, now a justice minister nominee, posted on social media, “I do not know what to call the scholars, who openly make these claims, and some politicians and journalists, who support the claims, anything else than pro-Japanese collaborators.” A broadcaster even had a violent altercation with the author on the street.

I may lack interpretation skills, but I could not find specific denial of Japan’s anti-humanitarian acts or pains of colonial victims. It may have been the proposal of looking at the colonial reality’s complex, multi-dimensional aspects. Excessive expressions, political claims and derision on Korean people in the book were certainly offensive. However, considering the intention of the book to challenge the history perspective that has become collective, mythicized and power-driven, I thought, “I don’t agree but understand.” Can’t the justice minister nominee distinguish as much? If not, I am truly worried for the academic freedom and freedom of speech.

At the height of anti-Japanese sentiment, the book is ironically a best seller. It may not be just because of mere curiosity. What is the historical truth in the pro-Japanese versus anti-Japanese arguments? The book argues with various data and numbers. It uses rice production, export and consumption volumes, a wage ledger from a Japanese mine and postal saving books of comfort women. It is not easy for the public to critically verify the validity and limits of the data. Denouncing arguments based on data with morals, values, hatred and emotion is ignoring the topic, not overcoming it. I truly hope that future researches and popular books overcome the claims in the book with thorough data and cool-headed interpretation.

The basis of “Anti-Japanese Tribalism” is modernization through colonization. The argument introduced in the 1990s shocked the dominating view of exploitation during colonization. The weapons for the argument were numbers and data. Scholars are also making efforts to get over the modernization theory. Chungnam National University professor emeritus Huh Soo-youl is one of them. His book “Development without Development” shows that most of the fruits of the growth went to a few Japanese and the modernization legacy by Japanese colonization is essentially trivial. The weapon he used was the statistical approach that colonial modernization advocates used. The book was published in 2005, when anti-Japanese sentiment was elevated after Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a Yasukuni visit. Professor Huh was worried that the social atmosphere could interfere with serious academic discussion.

Prof. Huh wrote a contribution to Oh My News on March 25, 2005, in which he said, “I think the mainstream theory of exploitation during the colonial period had been a big fish in a small pond and had to diminish when it came out of the pond.”

Aren’t you ashamed to put a pro-Japanese label on claims just because they don’t suit your taste?