Sunday, August 19, 2012

We Know So Little about Each Other When It comes to the Territorial Issues

Last week, I was engaged in an online dialog with a few friends and acquaintances in academia around the most recent contretemps between Japan and its two nearest, if not quite dearest, neighbors. I’m putting my end of the discussions on my blog, edited as stand-alone commentary including some explanatory words on the other side of the discussion. The footnotes have been concocted solely for the purpose of this blog.

My academic friends point out the Japanese public and the Chinese and South Korean publics are largely kept ignorant of the view from the other side. I think that this is largely true with regard not only to the historical facts, but also the details of the national myths that the three nations have woven around them. I say that with some confidence that this is true in Japan. With regard to how the other side “feels,” though, I think that the Japanese people get more than enough information on that. In fact, I would argue that the information on how the other side feels as expressed in the continuous susurration of anger punctuated by periodic outbursts of rage as conveyed through the domestic media has raised the temperature of non-right wing public opinion, which in turn generates a looping feedback mechanism of ill-will between the Japanese public on one side and the Chinese and South Korean two sides.

Now, I can understand the South Korean media and professional narrators on Korea toeing the locally dominant storyline*, but it’s not easy to see at first glance why, say, Asahi and Mainichi can’t put both side of the story into play. After all, there are Japanese scholars in Japan who have taken up the other side of the argument without harm to tenure, life, or limb, in descending order of importance, and what’s a few more vans in front of your media group HQs? It’s an interesting question, one which I’d like to hear about from a media expert.

In fact, both sides of the Meiji-and-after story, the glory and the gore of the imperialist era, were featured in the history text books when I was growing up, and this presumably remains unchanged today. My two cents worth says that the Socialist Party, which should have been the standard-bearer for the dark half, never reached post-1955 maturity as social democrats capable of capturing and maintaining the regime. Instead, we had to wait until the DPJ became the only somewhat more diversified alternative. However, the DPJ turned out to be a major receptacle for non-hereditary, largely (though by no means exclusively) conservative politicians with no personal recollection of the war, who assumed the bulk of the policymaking role through their drive and talent. So we have the two major parties subscribing more or less to the same preferred narrative, with the DPJ only mildly tempered by the small minority of former Socialists. Thus, there is no significant advocate around to remind the Japanese public that the Chinese and South Korean sides also have certain facts to buttress their claims to the disputed territory**.

* A respected Korea scholar from the native English-speaking world once gave a not-for-attribution talk where he candidly admitted that there were issues where his colleagues traced the accepted narrative scholars or did not go at all. I’ve seen this phenomenon, what I will call constituency capture, at work firsthand in Bruce Cuming’s literate and generally compelling Korea’s Place in the Sun. He inserts a side story extolling his Korean in-laws for the power conferred in the household to his grandfather-in-law’s “second wife,” a curious digression on the virtues of Korean concubinage for a left-the revisionist scholar unless I have vastly misinterpreted his writing. He also provides without provenance a photo purported to be a group sitting of Korean comfort women and their military overseer (I’m writing from memory so Cuming’s actual words are not reproduced here), when it is obvious from details in the photo that it is almost certainly a gathering of female high school students (at a time when only tiny fraction of girls went to high schools, which was only desegregated after the war) “volunteering to work, most likely at an aircraft factory in the Aichi neighborhood). I actually have a pretty good idea as to how the photo came to be misinterpreted by the Korean side; the fact that Cuming gives no provenance for the photo raises the suspicion that he was aware of this.

** I’ve refrained from discussing the legal merits of the cases here, since they were not relevant to the points that I make here, nor were they a part of the dialog. There was a meaningful exchange on the disposition of Takeshima/Dokto/Liancourt Rocks, though, which I will introduce as a separate post.

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