South Korea gets a new president on May 10, and minister candidates are being floated. In something of a national tradition whenever members of the elite are subject to scrutiny, diverse allegations of wrongdoing by the nominees have surfaced.
While some concern straightforward corruption (helping sons get into medical school or find a cushy job), the potential prime minister and culture minister are under fire for attending the previous Japanese king's birthday celebration hosted by the embassy in Seoul nine years ago.
Yes, the Japanese king. If you think I made a mistake while typing, you are new to the longstanding South Korean convention: Koreans have been linguistically downgrading Japan's head of state since the late eighties, reflecting strained bilateral relations.
Despite his official title as emperor—cheonhwang in Korean and tennō 天皇 in Japanese—the Japanese monarch in almost all South Korean media mentions these days is referred to as the "Japanese king" [Il-wang 일왕 日王].
So ingrained has this convention become that news articles about him, including the recent ones questioning whether the country's ministers-to-be ought to have attended a celebration in his honor, don't bother to explain why they call him by a title that isn't his.
The shift occurred around 1989. The history of Japanese colonial rule and ensuing animosity aside, records indicate that the Japanese emperor was still accorded the honor of being addressed as emperor by South Koreans following Korea's independence in 1945, even before the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1965.
But the eighties were a difficult decade for this relationship. "1986 saw outrage over Japan's distortion of history in textbooks, and the incident over fingerprinting of ethnic Koreans in Japan was in 1989. Emperor Hirohito [who was on the Japanese throne during the Second World War] died in 1989, and his responsibility in the war came to the fore," explains Kim Su-hye, former Tokyo correspondent for South Korea's biggest newspaper Chosun Ilbo. Without anyone dictating the rules, the media consciously decided to abandon the imperial honorific in favor of the lesser royal one, as a way of registering the nation's displeasure with Japan.
(The fingerprinting of Koreans living in Japan conformed to the local law that foreign residents must be registered in such a way, but became a source of contention because many ethnic Koreans had been in Japan for generations—as portrayed in the hit Apple TV drama Pachinko.)
The very first public call for dubbing the Japanese ruler a king that I can find dates back to 1984, in the form of a letter to the editor by a reader of the conservative newspaper Donga Ilbo.
"Each time I come across the expression cheonhwang I cannot stop my disgust. [...] The title is thought to have its roots in the aggressive nature and arrogance of the Japanese, who want to elevate their own national standing. I think it's sufficient to say 'Ilwang' [Japanese King] or 'King Hirohito'."
While the writer was no public figure and probably had little influence on the change, his words presaged the debate to come over the necessity of calling the Japanese head state emperor from the Korean perspective. His opinion was echoed two years later in another letter by a reader, this time of Chosun Ilbo, who said:
"Cheonhwang means emperor, and an emperor, as everyone knows, is an imperial ruler who lords over many kings. [...] Using such a term serves to give credence to those who admire imperialism."
The left-leaning Kyunghyang Shinmun published that same year a letter to its editor that argued, "We [Koreans] all feel a strong opposition to the word cheonhwang itself, but not only newspapers and broadcasters but also the government maintains calling the Japanese king an emperor."
It continued, "The title of cheonhwang was created by the Japanese to deify their own king. We had to emulate them and use it during colonial rule, but should we continue to do so forty years after independence was achieved?"
Why such fuss over a title? History has something to do with it. Korea was traditionally ruled by a king, and only in 1897 did the Korean monarchy adopt the imperial title as a way of asserting its sovereignty. (If you watched the K-drama The King: Eternal Monarch and wondered why the central male character is an emperor and not a king—in spite of the word "king" in the show's very title—now you know that it speaks to this longing.)
Until then the Joseon Dynasty in charge of Korea had thought it impossible to cross China, which traditionally called itself an empire (and its ruler an emperor). But with China's might waning under assaults by Western nations, there was no point in deferring to the bigger power on the continent any more.
Japan, though, has used the imperial designation for its own ruler since the 8th century, and modern Koreans, upset with the idea that the Japanese monarchy might be superior to Korea's (which ceased to exist under Japanese rule), haven't been keen on according its hated neighbor the respect of calling their monarch an emperor, which might suggest that Korea is a lesser power.
Lee Kyu-tae, a noted public intellectual and journalist with Chosun Ilbo, remarked in a 1987 column:
"Between countries that are equal it's only right to call each other['s ruler] a king and not an emperor."
The South Korean government itself has sought to stay away from the debate, but since 1998 it has officially respected the international convention of addressing the Japanese emperor as, well, emperor. Still, that same year the foreign minister courted a mini-controversy at a press conference with foreign journalists by addressing the Japanese emperor by the imperial title, prompting suggestions by the domestic media that this was improper.
Late president Roh Moo-hyun, in office from 2003 to 2008, also landed in trouble because he paid a state visit to Japan in 2003 and spoke of the Japanese emperor by using the imperial title. Against that backdrop South Korean media struggled with how to call the sovereign of their neighboring nation. Most decided at the time in favor of the expression "Japanese king" while a few others including the state-funded news agency Yonhap and state broadcaster KBS opted for "Japanese emperor".
And Kang Kyung-wha, foreign minister under the current president Moon Jae-in, had to clarify at a parliamentary hearing in 2019 that "the official position of the government is to use the title of Japanese emperor" even though lawmakers present insisted on calling the same person a king. More recently, last year, the South Korean ambassador to Japan, Kang Chang-il, became a target of attack after using the expression "his majesty the emperor" of Japan.
Funnily, direct quotes of comments by government officials speaking of the Japanese emperor tend to be altered anyway by South Korean media to replace the problematic title with Il-wang, i.e. Japanese king.
Even some Japanese who want their country to have better ties to South Korea have taken exception to this offending convention. Wakamiya Yoshibumi, a late journalist with Japan's major newspaper Asahi Shimbun, made a plea in 2015: "The emperor was considered a sacred and inviolable ruler in the past and was exploited in service of militarism, and even we Japanese feel a strong aversion to the idea of emperor from that time.
"But the emperor's character has changed completely since 70 years ago, and he has become someone that people respect, love and feel a close connection to."
"Calling him not by his proper title can only be seen as rude."
Narikawa Aya, former reporter for Japan's another major daily Asahi Shimbun advised Koreans in a column for the Journalists' Association of Korea last year:
"In Japan the term tennō is used as a proper noun; whether one personally respects or criticizes the emperor, a tennō is a tennō for most Japanese people."
Some South Koreans agree that insisting on calling the Japanese emperor by any other title but his real one is ridiculous. "Even if it's 'god' and not 'emperor' we should call him as he is meant to be," advised Park Hoon, a professor of Asian history at Seoul National University, last year. "Are we living in a feudal time? If we call him an emperor, does he somehow become superior to our president?"
Kim Su-hye at Chosun Ilbo frankly mentions the contradictions this unspoken rule creates. "The palace where the Japanese 'king' lives is called the imperial residence. The law governing the 'royal' family is named the Imperial Family Regulation."
"Should I rewrite the imperial residence as 'royal residence'? Or should I leave it as it is?"
"Calling the Japanese king a Japanese king doesn't mean we become stronger. Calling the Japanese king an emperor doesn't mean that we somehow become inferior."
Chosun Ilbo, however, is staunchly rightwing and seen by more than a few left-leaning South Koreans as a pro-Japanese newspaper. Even this essay that you are reading will likely invite accusations that I am a pro-Japanese collaborator for seeming to defend Japan's interest.
Such is Korea's antagonism toward Japan that any perceived attempt at putting a lid on the charged emotion is bound to be characterized as a betrayal of the nation.
Meanwhile, the Japanese emperor will remain a king, at least in the Korean language.