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World Cup 2002 - Cultural Theft

by R. Sanborn Brown

Historical Notes: Watch Your Purse

Buy This Book From Amazon.Writing in The Korea Times, Kim Byong Kuk tries, convicts, and hangs Japan for cultural larceny. He accuses Japan of the theft of a significant amount of Korean culture and then of claiming it for itself. In a fit of bile, Kim lists three purloined items in "Japan's Cultural Aggrandizement."

Little known fact number one: cherry trees are Korean. According to Kim, "…few, if any, except learned botanists, may know that the fact that cherry flowers are of Korean origin, the species of which were bred and developed on [Korea's] Cheju Island".

Little known fact number two: "sukiyaki" is Korean. Due to the influence of Buddhism, Japanese generally avoided consumption of meat before the Meiji Period (1868-1912). In the 1920s, only "nutrition poor, hungry ‘shosei' (students) dared to eat the ‘gyunabe' (beef stew) or ‘gyunanban' (barbarian's broth)". These Korean students were able to get the innards and other intestines for free from Japanese butchers—and this is what ultimately became "Japanese" sukiyaki. "It is amazing," writes Kim, to watch the "genius" of Japanese presenting this most Japanese dish as their own.

Last little known fact: Japan tried (unsuccessfully) to steal kimchi. Japan "overstepped the boundary of proper conduct"—and exhibited once again its "predatory nature"—when it began to produce imitation kimchi in abundance. In 1977, the dispute was submitted to the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) for an impartial ruling, which Korean won.

From these episodes, Kim writes that it is clear that the "Japanese attitude of aggrandizement had been hindering the enhanced mutual understanding between the two nations - even though South Korea and Japan are sponsoring the World Cup soccer finals".

Kim's bile notwithstanding, all is not bleak in bilateral relations. If anything, the marriage of convenience that co-hosting the World Cup is turning out to be actually appears to be fostering improved relations, on both a governmental and local level. Kim may or may not be pleased to learn for one that the Japanese Emperor recently admitted that Korean blood courses through the very symbol of the Japanese state.

The New York Times reported in March that, "With a candor far removed from the usual poetic fog of the imperial court, Emperor Ahikito…all but declared his Korean ancestry." In a speech on the culture and technology Japan inherited from its neighbor, Akihito added, "I, on my part, feel a certain kinship with Korea." He then went on to cite "an ancient chronicle that says that the grandmother of his eighth-century ancestor, Kammu, was from a Korean kingdom."

Tokyo University's Professor Ronald Toby said that the statements themselves were not surprising—it has been an open secret for many years that the Japanese royal family is descended from Koreans, specifically those from the Paekche Kingdom. What was surprising though was the reaction to the speech: people in Japan were surprised that the Emperor gave the speech. Professor Toby surmised that this is part of a much larger phenomenon: Akihito said something "everyone knew secretly already" as a way of overcoming the legacy of fifty years of colonialism and hatred, of nudging the countries closer.

In a similar vein, a Japan-Korea history panel met for the first time in April. Comprising representatives from government and academia, the panel "was launched in light of disputes over the interpretation of historical events". In particular, it is hoped that the panel will be able to find a way to wend its way through the minefield of Japan's official school textbooks, which many accuse of whitewashing Japan's wartime atrocities.

Moreover, Chung Mong-joon, vice-president of FIFA, Co-Chairman of the Korean World Cup Organizing Committee, and potential Korean presidential candidate, said in an interview on Japanese cable television, "in the long and difficult history between our two nations, we have never had to cooperate on any kind of project of this scale…" Chung has been realistically optimistic throughout preparations for the World Cup.

On a non-governmental level too relations seem to be improving. Japanese animation and fashion are "all the rage" in Seoul, and recently the most popular television drama in Japan was a love story featuring a Korean man and a Japanese woman—and they even kissed in one scene. Also, for the first time in thirty years, ferries are running between the two countries.

"Plus ça change"

In spite of the above developments, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reverted to form and on April 21st once again opted for a "surprise visit" to Yasukuni Shrine in a bid to shore up his right wing. The shrine, home to Japanese war dead and a symbol of wartime aggression against South Korea and China, has been a perennial thorn in the side of Japan's international relations.

South Korea expressed "deep regret," and its foreign ministry summoned the Japanese envoy to Seoul in order to lodge a protest. Similarly, China condemned the visit and has delayed the visit of Defense Minister Chi Haotian, who was scheduled to go to Japan this month.

Koizumi spent 30,000 yen (US $230) of his own money on flowers for the shrine, and later said, "I visited the shrine with the intention of never launching a war again," and asserted that there was no reason for Japan's neighbors to fear a resurgence of Japanese nationalism. The center-right Yomiuri Shinbun predictably editorialized that "Koizumi did the right thing." Every country, it argued, "has good reason to pay tribute to the memories of the people who have given their lives for their country," which in the case of Yasukuni includes Class A war criminals. The center-left Asahi Shinbun countered that "as the jointly hosted World Cup approaches, this can only put a damper on Japan-ROK relations."

Which no doubt has Kim Byong Kuk pleased.

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