Japan and Asia (1)

Japan and Korea: Spiral of nationalism

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Mainichi Daily News, 21 August 1987, page 9

See also Japan and Asia? and Alternative history

Nationalism as a love of one's country can be simple patriotism or chauvinism. Or it can be the doctrine that national interests are more important than global considerations, or the advocacy of independence from rule by another nation or unification of a divided people.

But nationalism becomes ethnocentrism or racialism when the State is defined in terms of a real or imagined ethnic group or race. Such an equation of ethnic group or race with the State is commonplace in Japan. Yet it may be more prevalent in Korea, which modernized its traditional nationalism under the tutelage of Japanese colonialism.

The word minjok comes easily to the lips of divided Koreans who want to reunify their "race" or "ethnic group" and appeal to a sense of common genetic and geopolitical history. Some Republic of Korea textbooks claim that the first Korean kingdom was founded by the mythical Tangun in 2333 B.C. This use of legend "based on historical fact" to serve political goals is like the role that myths of racial origin have played in Yamatoist ideology.

Minzoku is also a key word in the rhetoric of Japanese who have kept Yamatoist ideology alive after World War II. Prime Minister Nakasone has used this word in major speeches, though in English translations its monoracial, monoethnic and Naziesque pure volk nuances are often disguised by the choice of such words as "nation" or "people".

Minzu, incidentally, is as important in the People's Republic of China, too. But unlike ROK or Japan, PRC positively recognizes multiethnicity in the Constitution, in which it proclaims itself "a unitary multinational state built up jointly by the people of all nationalities."

The Japanese who colonized Korea were Yamatoists. They believed that the Japanese people constituted the Yamato race, that this race was superior because it was the bearer and guardian of the most human, natural moral, divine and spiritual culture on earth. And because it was superior, it had an obligation to rescue inferior races.

Yamatoism provided the rationale for the Japanese "annexation" of Korea in 1910, and for the attempt to assimilate Korean colonials in to the Yamato fold until 1945. And it sustains Japan's present policy to assimilate its nearly 700,000 resident Koreans.

During the period of annexation, Japan tried to control ethnic pride and "rebelliousness" by eliminating Korean ethnicity. Various assimilation policies were carried out in the name of Nai-Sen ittaika (unification of Japan and Korea) and kominka (becoming imperial subjects).

All schools in Korea were Yamatoized by 1938. The Korean language was forbidden. Children had to visit Shinto shrines, honor the Japanese flag, recite loyalty oaths and bow in the direction of the Emperor's palace. Korean newspapers and magazines were censored, suppressed, and finally abolished. Korean literature went underground.

Korean laws were replaced by Japanese laws. A Japanese-style family register system was introduced. In 1939 all Koreans were ordered to Yamatoize their names as evidence of complete assimilation. In 1939, effective in 1940, all Korean [Chosenese] households were mandated to adopt common family for the household, and individuals were allowed to change their personal names. In the same year Japan began recruiting, sometimes impressing, Koreans to labor in mines, factories and construction, and military conscription began in 1942.

Anti-Japanese sentiments were strong. Koreans throughout the Japanese empire, including about one million who had settled in Japan before 1939 and a similar number who were forced to come as laborers, resisted assimilation as best they could under police watch.

The present-day confrontation between the Japanese government and Koreans in Japan is a fossilization of the ethnic strife that occurred during the colonial period. As though still guided by prewar ideology, the Ministry of Education has ordered prefectural boards not to hire Korean teachers, though a number of local boards are ignoring such directives. And some textbook inspectors are promoting versions of history which rationalize Japan's colonialization of Korea.

The Ministry of Justice, in the spirit of prewar assimilation policies, continues to press Koreans who naturalize as Japanese to Yamatoize their names. And reminiscent of prewar police controls over colonial subjects, the Alien Registration Law requires fingerprinting and possession at all times of registration booklets, though Japanese are not required to carry any identification, much less submit a fingerprint and a photo for use in their family register.

Japanese and Korean nationalism past and present are related in yet another way. Japan's attempt to racially assimilate Koreans in the past fostered Korean nationalism. The same determination to assimilate its resident Koreans today still feeds nationalism in both Koreas.

In provoking reactions from resident Koreans and other minorities, Japan's assimilation policies have the calculated effect of nurturing xenophobia and neo-nationalism at home. The policies force minorities to resort to civil disobedience as a means of claiming their human rights. The Justice Ministry and police then sound their law-and-order alarms to appeal to the popular belief that multiethnicity breeds social conflict and pathology, as many seem to believe it does in countries like the United States.

This spiraling of racialistic nationalism in Korea and Japan would probably abate if Japan were to take moral responsibility for its past and positively recognize its Korean and other minorities as integral parts of Japanese society and culture. And recognize their right to maintain non-Yamato identities as bona fide Japanese citizens.