The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

South Koreans Flock to Study Japan Amid Ongoing Tensions

As tensions persist between Japan and South Korea, Japan-related book titles have seen a surge in popularity in South Korea.

Tae-jun Kang
South Koreans Flock to Study Japan Amid Ongoing Tensions
Credit: Pixabay

Tensions between South Korean and Japan continue to simmer, causing different reactions from people in both countries. In South Korea, for example, people have reacted with a nation-wide boycott movement focused on Japanese products which has continued over the past few months.

But the country has also seen an unexpected trend emerge. Many in South Korea are not only boycotting Japanese products, but also studying hard about Japan.

A sharp increase in the popularity of Japan-related books in recent months is a good example. Among the top books is one titled Anti-Japan Tribalism. The book, which consists of three main chapters, criticizes the conventional perception and knowledge of South Korean society regarding the Japanese colonial era.

It was a best seller at several major bookstores in the country in July and August. At Bandi & Lunis, one of the largest booksellers in South Korea, the book topped the list of best-selling books for seven weeks at 13 branches across the country in the past two months. 

What’s in the book? In the first part, it rebuts claims that Japan exploited South Korea’s rice, land, and workforce during the colonial era.  

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In the second portion, the book explains why anti-Japanese sentiment spread in South Korea while analyzing in the third sections the comfort women issue which has been a center of the dispute between two countries for a long time.

Anti-Japan Tribalism is not alone. Books about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japanese history, economy, politics and culture all saw increasing demand in recent months.

Online content such as videos or podcasts about Japan are enjoying popularity in South Korea as well.

A series of videos by South Korean historian Hwang Hyun-pil, which analyze and rebut Anti-Japan Tribalism, attracted more than 500,000 views in about 10 days.

It is also not difficult to find explanatory videos on Japanese history, politics and society made by South Korean creators on popular social media channels such as YouTube or Naver, a domestic platform equivalent to Google.

This new trend hints at the desire of South Koreans to understand the current tensions with Japan within in a wider context. Tensions between the two are not novel, but have become more severe over the past few months as the two countries engage in a blame game.

In August, Japan decided to remove South Korea from a “white list” of countries that enjoy minimum restrictions on buying goods that can be diverted for military use.

This deepened bilateral tensions, which had already been rising since early July when Japan began implementing curbs on exports to South Korea of three key materials for the production of semiconductors and smartphone displays.

These decisions are widely said to be triggered by South Korean court verdicts on the sensitive issue of wartime forced labor, going back to Japan’s colonial period.

The issues are complicated and require detailed background knowledge to understand fully. But there is a lack of channels through which people can learn more about these issue objectively.

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Some politicians in both countries are more interested in taking advantage of the situation to gather votes rather than resolving the problems.

For example, an in-house think tank at the Democratic Party of Korea, the ruling party, released a report that hints that the current standoff with Japan is good for the party’s chances in the upcoming election.

It is not new to see media outlets in South Korea being criticized for biased reporting on these issues. Such an environment is perhaps motivation for many South Koreans to study Japan on their own and have a better understanding of the situation outside the influence of politicians and media.

After all, the standoff between the two countries is not good for the economy, which directly affects the livelihoods of people. It is natural for them to feel the necessity to be well read on issues of such importance.