The Koreas

Confucianism Fails to Explain Sewol Ferry Tragedy

The ‘culturalist’ response to national tragedies fails to explain why South Korean students were unable to abandon ship.

Confucianism Fails to Explain Sewol Ferry Tragedy
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The perception that Confucianism, or a supposed “culture of obedience,” is to blame for the recent tragic sinking of the South Korean ferry Sewol stems from an approach that is common to Western media and particular scholars known as “culturalists.”

The assumption is simple: There is a certain predominant “culture” or set of “norms” peculiar to a society, and that is the most influential (if not the only) independent variable by which a wide range of social phenomena can be explained. The range spans from individual behaviors to even national socioeconomic status. Hence, the French value populist culture, which is why they always shut down Charles de Gaulle Airport during labor protests; the Japanese treasure their culture of shame, which explains why their government would never recognize the Rape of Nanking or the use of comfort women; Thailand is the world’s top tourist spot because its people are kind and hospitable toward their international guests, thanks to their age-old Buddhist background; and Sub-Saharan Africa remains poor and underdeveloped, unlike Western Europe, which reaps the accomplishments of a Protestant work ethic and industrious traditions. The list can continue this way as long as analysts believe in interpreting the complicated mechanisms of world affairs in this way. Eventually, they will present something akin to “The Clash of Civilizations” before their congressmen, cabinet members, and military commanders. And before you know it…

Putting aside the implications of this approach for more serious social scientific attempts to analyze contemporary tragedies, the ironies and inconsistencies that spring forth from these “culturalists” are worthy of note. For instance, three years ago, the same Confucian values of hierarchy and orderliness were praised as “the evolution of humanity” when the Financial Times covered the Japanese people’s reaction to disastrous earthquakes, whereas they are equivocally brought up this time as naive ideals for which the Korean students paid with their lives.  In Japan, Nakayama Nariaki, a Diet member, said:  “You don’t see any Japanese women coming forward to say, ‘I was a comfort woman.’ Things are different for Korean women. They have no shame and do nothing but lie. The only explanation is that we are from different races.” Apparently, to Nakayama, Korean women lack a “culture of shame,” unlike Japanese women, and this is why ladies in their 80s gather daily before the Japanese embassy in Seoul, telling how their lives and dignity were affected by one of the largest human rights violations in modern history. Can you really blame their protests on a lack of “shame.”

As for the Sewol sinking, investigation has already revealed the culprits: structural imbalances caused by renovations to the ship; the captain and crew’s lack of preparation for emergency situations; and the government’s loose regulatory practices, which contributed to these mistakes. To address specifically why the students did not disregard their instructions and jump ship, the answer may in fact be simple. In the words of Won Kyu-wang, interviewed by the Korea Herald, “Think about what you might do on a sinking ship when you don’t have any knowledge about what to do regarding the emergency situation…they might have listened to their teachers or crewmembers as the best option… These students were not on the deck where they could clearly grasp the urgency of the situation, instead they were inside the cafeteria and cabin area, and most likely disoriented and scared. It is not unthinkable then that they could not swiftly abandon such a large ship.

So let us call off this culture-blaming nonsense already; it is neither plausible nor pleasant.

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Byunghun Yoo is a graduate of the University of Virginia and is a Senior Airman in the Republic of Korea Air Force.