Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated Friday by a lone gunman in the city of Nara.
The reaction from the South Korean public has been mainly that of glee.
Under the title "Abe's death is pitiful", a photo of toasting circulated widely for days. (A colloquial expression in Korean for "pitiful"—jjanhada 짠하다—can also mean clinking glasses). Breaking reports on social media about his death were overwhelmingly liked and comment sections inundated with thumbs-up emoticons and laughing memes. Some even suggested "scouting" the assassin, a 41-year-old former Japanese soldier, as though he were a hero.
It was predictable. In China, which has a difficult relationship with Japan over history (Japan took over large swaths of eastern China starting in 1895), a similar reaction has been observed. And Korea, a Japanese colony between 1910 and 1945, is, if anything, even more vocal about how that legacy should be understood and resolved.
The two sides have famously gone head-to-head numerous times over who should control a pair of rocky islets in the Sea of Japan (a.k.a. the East Sea as Koreans would prefer to call it). The matter of "comfort women"—victims of the Japanese military's wartime system of sexual slavery, with many Koreans among them—continues to reverberate: Tokyo insists it's been resolved for good after a "final, irreversible" bilateral agreement was signed in 2015, but the government in Seoul effectively jettisoned it in 2019.
Compensation for forced Korean laborers from the end of colonial rule remains another thorny issue.
Abe, a rightwing nationalist in power from 2006 to 2007 and again from 2012 to 2020, deserved much blame. His provocative past comments denying the existence of sexual slavery during the Second World War and calling a revered Korean independence activist, An Jung-geun, a criminal (An assassinated a Japanese prime minister in 1909 to protest the colonization of Korea) understandably didn't play well in South Korea and made the rounds again on Korean-language social media platforms after Friday's incident.
But South Korea's jubilant reaction to the assassination, characterized rather politely by one domestic paper as "welcoming the death of a man who led the Japanese rightwing", has been met with criticism, too, especially from South Koreans with own rightwing sympathies.
A controversial cartoonist Yoon Suh-in, known for his conservative streak and frequent attacks on vulnerable communities, wrote on Facebook, "After a long time of anti-Japanese brainwashing, Koreans seem to have developed an illness of the heart and to have lost all respect for universal human rights or life."
Park Yu-ha, a well-known academic and author of a book questioning the dominant South Korean narrative of the comfort women institution, said, "People who sanction violence out of hate are a problem, but a even bigger problem is those who used discourse without sufficient evidence to incite hatred toward Japan."
After publishing her 2013 book Comfort Women of the Empire, Park was hounded by leftist organizations and faced multiple lawsuits for defaming the comfort women survivors in a case that some called an attack on free speech.
Since then, she has become a trenchant critic of the South Korean left and especially the Minjoo Party (of president Moon Jae-in, who stepped down in May), which she sees as supporting the groups against her.
"As shocking as the violence in a neighboring country is, just as shocking is a Korean society, which has produced people who are so desensitized to violence," she argued. "Today we're looking at the outcome of a historiography produced by the so-called 'progressives' for the last some ten years."
What is this "brainwashing"? And what is this leftist "historiography"? Are rightwing critics correct that the South Korean left has actively stoked Japanophobia on Korean soil, contributing to the current standoff?
Outwardly South Korea projects a united anti-Japanese front. And different surveys over the past several years confirm that feelings against Japan do run high in the country, with some three-quarters of the population holding unfavorable views of Japan.
It’s natural when children learn in school (rightly or wrongly) that colonial rule was a period of exploitation, abuse and assimilation. The modern Korean language is rich in pejorative labels for the Japanese. Speaking warmly of the colonial legacy or defending any aspect of Japan’s historical conduct toward Korea is courageous or foolish, and often considered traitorous (as Park found out).
But some including Park contend that this anti-Japanese sentiment is no natural development but a product of conscious engineering. Even my late maternal grandmother, who hastily agreed to marry my grandfather in 1945 so she could avoid “being dragged away by the Japanese” as a comfort woman, didn’t brim with anger at Japan during her lifetime. She liked speaking Japanese, which she had to learn under colonial rule, and spoke fondly of the time before liberation.
Such memories are rarely shared any more, at least not publicly. In fact, successive right-wing regimes, short on legitimacy, stoked anti-communist and anti-Japanese sentiments to justify their rules. The republic’s first president, Syngman Rhee, was no saint, winning his third term through the irregularities-riddled 1958 election. He held on to power through corruption, and by deploying state security apparatus and issuing pronouncements that blamed others for the nation’s ills, notably communists and Japan.
The late military dictator Park Chung-hee staged a coup in 1961 against a democratically elected government and used Rhee's playbook to shore up popular support. Park was responsible for the iconic 1968 statue of admiral Lee Sun-sin—revered for his role in thwarting Japan’s 1592 invasion—which still stands at the very center of Seoul. He fed the nationalism for which South Korea is famous, introducing state-produced history textbooks that glorified his own takeover of the government and assailed the country’s external enemies.
But the idea of Japan as the ultimate evil has served the left equally well. In the fast transition to post-1945 rule by the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK), which controlled the south, the thorny issue of collaboration was glossed over. Many colonial elites retained key positions in government and industry.
Given familial ties between many of today's conservatives and those colonial elites, collaboration and connections to Japan are easily and routinely exploited by the South Korean left as grounds for discrediting the right. For example, one potent weapon in this fight is A Dictionary of Pro-Japanese Names (친일인명사전)—now available also as an app—compiled by the leftwing Center for Historical Truth and Justice to name and shame alleged collaborators.
Park Chung-hee had two Japanese names and served in Japan’s Machukuo Imerial Army, and one of his daughters, Park Geun-hye, served as South Korea's president from 2013 to 2017. A former Saenuri Party (now called People Power Party) leader Kim Moo-sung’s father exhorted Korean parents to join Japan’s wartime efforts and offer children as soldiers of the imperial army.
Such details, which may strike non-Koreans as mundane, get repeated ad nauseam by the left because they are potent in a country that still considers sins of a father to be sins of his child. It forces the right into a defensive position, and to act and sound anti-Japanese themselves.
No wonder Park Geun-hye herself condemned Japan over the matter of history several times in her career. “The historic positions of perpetrator and victim cannot change even after a thousand years’ history,” she read during her 2013 speech on the anniversary of March 1, a highly symbolic day that marks a mass demonstration by Koreans against Japanese rule in 1919.
After the "final, irreversible" 2015 comfort women agreement, she ignored Tokyo's demand that a comfort women memorial statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul be removed (because agreeing to it would make her seem more pro-Japanese than she already did).
Around this time South Korean prosecutors, often seen as doing the bidding of whoever is in power, charged the academic Park Yu-ha with criminal defamation for her revisionist history of the comfort women saga.
Renowned political scientist and expert on Korean democracy, Choi Jang-jip, has long argued that "from 1945 until the mid-1980s, the South Korean elites established their power under a system of anti-communism, and this was a hindrance to full-fledged democracy".
By asserting that the paramount goal of a postwar state was to protect itself and its citizens from communism (and North Korea by extension), anti-democratic rightwing forces in power were able to suppress demands for democratic rights and freedoms.
That's where it gets interesting. Countering that rhetoric, the left—who often call themselves "progressives"—has expounded a competing vision of the nation, one that privileges an anti-Japanese stance as the preeminent qualification of a good 'Korean'. Implied is that eradicating collaborators and redressing the wrongs of colonial rule would somehow restore Korea to its rightful, authentic and sovereign state.
Against that backdrop, 2019 saw the so-called "No Japan campaign", a large-scale consumer boycott of Japanese businesses after a dispute between the two countries over history escalated. Lately in vogue, a label tochak waegu 토착왜구—meaning "indigenous Japs"—is liberally applied to any Korean who shows sympathy toward Japan.
(Then again, the rightwing's historically made use of a similarly offensive term to take down anyone who shows sympathy toward North Korea: bbalgaengi 빨갱이, meaning "reds".)
Fighting this weaponization of anti-Japanese sentiment since the aughts are a broad group of rightwing scholars known as the New Right. One of their central claims is that Japanese colonial rule actually helped Korea develop into a modern state, prompting some to call the scholarship "neocolonial".
The Park administration still attempted in 2015 to teach this kind of rightwing historiography in school using government-issued textbooks. While the effort ultimately failed, it was in no small part instigated by the New Right.
More recently, the South Korean right has focused their efforts on calling the burgeoning Japanophobia irrational and accusing the left of fueling it. One prominent pushback took the form of Anti-Japan Tribalism (반일종족주의), published in 2019.
Co-authored by a number of conservative academics, it claimed that "most Koreans have been fed lies in school, films and various history books about the 35-year Japanese colonial rule" and described the current anti-Japanese sentiment as "a shamanistic worldview based on lies without any factual evidence [and] a tribalism that perceives being pro-Japanese as evil and anti-Japanese as good".
The ensuing uproar was deafening, but despite numerous criticisms over accuracy, not to mention similarities to the extremist arguments advanced by the Japanese rightwing, the book became the nation's number-one bestseller.
Self-serving as the South Korean right's attempt is to discredit the left and the anti-Japanese sentiment in fashion, there is still the question of whether they are correct that the left has a hand in all this, and why the country's Japanophobia has gotten so out of control. After all, why would so many South Koreans buy such a book as Anti-Japan Tribalism had they not been the least bit curious?
Without buying into the work's overt glorification of the colonial period or factual inaccuracies, it's still possible to see the importance of anti-Japanese sentiment to contemporary Korean identity politics.
Say you offer condolences after Abe's death, and you are a conservative. Make no effort to hide your happiness at his passing, and you are a progressive.
Those South Koreans laughing in the aftermath of Shinzo Abe's death, they weren't just showing off bad taste and lack of decorum; they were performing their role as proud Japan-hating 'real' patriotic Koreans.
Cover: the image of toasting that circulated on Korean-language internet forums after Shinzo Abe's death Friday (source: Today Humor)