Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Comfort Women with Words of Encouragement for Japan; Rob with words of encouragement about Korea

Soundtrack: Bobby Kim.
Wifeoseyo LOVES Bobby Kim, and once took me to a concert of his.  I actually like him quite a bit too... this is one of the songs on his latest; not my favorite, but I couldn't find that one on youtube.

Well, others have discussed the idiots claiming Japan deserved this disaster. To sum up... natural disasters aren't personal, and it might happen in your home state next month, and that's enough about that.  By the way: don't judge the URL till you click on it.

However, here's something really cool that I wanted to share: Wifeoseyo first mentioned it - a news story that brought tears to her eyes.

Many of my readers already know who the "Comfort women" are -- during the colonial period, and through World War II, young Korean women (and women from other Asian nations) were brought along with Japanese armies, to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers.  It is alleged that some, maybe all, of them, were kidnapped from their homes.  They were called "comfort women" - which is the gentlest way you can say "sex slave."  More at Wikipedia.  (Warning: don't take the Wikipedia as gospel truth: Wikipedia has become a battleground for competing national narratives in Asian historical controversies... but it should give you the broad strokes well enough.)

The days, a few of Korea's former sex-slaves are still alive, some of them living in a group home in Hyehwa.  Many lived tough lives, as their history as sex slaves left a mark on them that made it hard for their families, or society at large, to accept them, and what had happened to them.

Every Wednesday, these women stage a small demonstration in downtown Seoul, demanding Japan's leaders apologize, take full responsibility for the things done to them when they were young, and pay reparations to them -- a kind of blood money for the shitty lives some of them have lived.

The Comfort Women were out again on Wednesday... but instead of spouting some ass-hattery about Japan deserving what it got, (The head pastor of Yeouido Full Gospel Church, one of the largest Protestant churches the world, made an ass of himself that way), they came out strong in sympathy and support of the innocent people afflicted in this disaster.

This lady's holding a sign that says "Koreans in Japan, and Japanese citizens: All of you be strong!" (image from here)

If anyone had the right to talk shit about Japan, it was these women -- not the nationalist demagogues who like playing historical guilt cards to gain political points -- but rather than come out in bitterness at the things done to them, these women had grace and class.

Talking about Japan, here in Korea, can be tricky, and I'll share two reasons why today:

1. Even as Koreans love Japanese comic books and cartoons and cute toys, there are a few historical grievances, which translate into modern-day controversies and problems involving a few territories and history textbooks.  These topics can be really emotional - I even once wrote a blog post (way back when nobody read me) titled, "Do not talk about Dokdo"

Many of us expats have stories about a student, or a friend, taking a few minutes to tell us how much all Koreans hate all Japanese... and sometimes something really sad pops up, like these "hate Japan" pictures that were drawn by elementary school kids, and posted in a Korean subway station, during a wave of particularly strong Anti-Japanese sentiment... I also once had a student write "When I grow up, I want to be a general like Lee Sunshin and kill Japanese like him."  Editorials like this cast Korea in an ugly, vengeful, ungracious light.

And it can be hard to have an honest discussion about these topics, when there are so many emotions on a hair-trigger.  I've had conversations before where midway in, I figured out that the person I was talking with didn't really want to hear my opinions.  He wanted to hear his opinions about Japan (which were disappointingly, stereotypically negative) coming out of a foreigner's mouth. I don't see the point in getting involved in conversations where my actual thoughts aren't welcome, and the purpose for starting into the topic is not communication but validation.

2. The other reason it's hard to talk about Japan (as an expat, with other expats) is the echo chamber effect.

Lately, I've been looking at a lot of the memes that have been circulating in the K-blogosphere for a while... (most of which were thoughtfully collected by Kushibo here -- in a post that made an impression on me when it was satirized at Dokdo Is Ours)...

and at DIO, the phrase "echo chamber" comes up -- see, I've been noticing lately that a lot of K-blogs go over similar territory.  Nothing wrong with that, especially as many of them are documenting similar experiences (what percentage of the Korea Blog List do you think is comprised of blogs about the first two years of teaching English in Korea? At least a quarter.  Maybe more than half).  Nothing wrong with that at all... but anybody who doesn't think it gets a little self-referential from time to time is fooling themselves, especially when these bloggers start addressing each other, or an expat audience, rather than their folks back home.

And when people are gathering their information from other blogs, and when those blogs are getting their information from older sources, and especially when commenters come in and bring out the same set talking points whenever a particular topic comes up... impressions and ideas tend to crystallize... and as you and I both know, comment boards aren't conducive to nuance.

Mix in a little confirmation bias...

And you get some crystallized stereotypes and ideas about Korea and Koreans that either aren't accurate, or that used to be accurate, but are no longer... or that might still be partly true, but to a much lesser degree, or true of a much smaller proportion of Koreans, than they used to be.

A perfect example of this is the stereotype of the Dokdo finger-chopper -- that happened ONE time, but how often does the finger-chopper, or bee man, or the pheasant chuckers (all of which date back to 2005), come up, when Dokdo is on the blogs?  Pretty much every time, right? What happened outside the Japanese embassy, regarding Dokdo, last month, or the month before? Finger chopping makes a great story, but it doesn't reflect on the current state of a country that changes as quickly as Korea does, to dredge up something that happened in 2005.

All that to say sometimes the echo chamber needs to revisit some of these tropes, and update them, and some people commenting within the echo chamber, when their own information sources are mostly hearsay, and they don't have the language chops to get across the barrier themselves... they'd do well to qualify a bit.

I haven't heard somebody actually try to tell me there are no gays in Korea since 2004.  Why are people still bringing that up?  And there are lots of Koreans who can think creatively, too.

And another big one?  In my own experience, attitudes toward Japan over the last few years have become a lot more thoughtful, balanced, rational, and positive.  I don't doubt public opinion surveys would bear that out.  Koreans still think Dokdo's an important issue, but there's less "let's cut off the heads of pigeons" and more "let's be strategic about this," and I've heard less open, unqualified hostility toward Japan lately than I used to.  Hopefully this means fewer people are teaching their children to hate Japan, too.

And now, Koreans have come out overwhelmingly on the generous, gracious, sympathetic, and supportive side in this earthquake tragedy, and I'm happy, thrilled to see that. (how about this article, and this one, and this one.  Yep. Korea's treating Japan as a friend, folks.)

I'm just one dude, but this gives me hope.  This post is just one snapshot... but it's a heartening one, so put that in your pipe and smoke it, and if you're one of the ones making blanket statements about all Koreans hating Japan... maybe revisit that. Sure, there are some Koreans whose minds remain closed, and always will.  The same can be said of expats.

Prayers for Japan, and everyone connected to those struggling with this unimaginable tragedy.


Anonymous said...

"And now, Koreans have come out overwhelmingly on the generous, gracious, sympathetic, and supportive side in this earthquake tragedy, and I'm happy, thrilled to see that."

Really well said Rob. I too am very happy to see the outpouring of genuine sympathy and compassion.

Anonymous said...

This article really impressed me:

"We hope the Japanese people’s reaction will teach us a lesson. We still have a lot to learn from Japan and a long way to go before we become a mature, developed country."

There are a lot of assholes making silly jokes about Japan, but the Korean media - from what I've seen - has surprised and impressed me.

I'm no Picasso said...

I hear the "no gays in Korea" line at least once every few months. The last time was in late January, to be exact. So that's why I still bring that one up. You Seoul people are working with a slightly posher crowd, remember.

But the echo chamber effect is definitely alive and well. I usually just call them waegook rumors. There are loads of things about "Korean culture" that get distorted and exaggerated until they're completely unrecognizable, and no one thinks to ever, at any point, just grab one of the loads of Koreans we're surrounded by and ask them themselves. Shame.

Yeongung said...

Nice article. It's good to be reminded to check my views from time to time.

Anyway, I think it's pretty respectable and heroic that the comfort women are showing support for the Japanese people during their time of crisis, despite their history. I think most sane people would agree that we should support the Japanese, if at least in spirit.

Echo chamber is dead on said...

Your echo chamber (confirmation bias) theory just NAILED it. I was feeling the same thing reading all these similar-looking insular expat blogs for a while but I just couldn't put a finger on it. When they begin to sound similar with one another at some point, that reinforces their idea that they must be so right because they see other people say the same thing.

Charles Montgomery said...

I'm going to go all confused here..

1) Yeah.. the echo chamber semi-exists and it is funny (I hope) to those of us who have been here for a few years (NOTE: I barely qualify for that).

2) Most English speaking bloggers are teachers in low level jobs who don't stay long. That's part of the social/economic setup here and what they say is going to be what they say, and entirely subjective/accurate from their points of view. For them it is NOT an echo chamber - it is their experience of Korea and to dismiss them is, I think, cavalier. There certainly is confirmation bias, but where isn't there? If an overwhelming echo chamber exists about something? The something might be the common item...

3)Yeah, still, an echo chamber, and anyone passing along that kind of thought after year 1.5, is probably not thinking. But guess what? They're out there on the intarwebs and their comments are just as likely to be discovered by browsers as my brilliant apercus at or Rob's relatively deep understandings of Korean culture.

Beyond that? WILD props to Korea for responding to a traditional enemy/friend as they have done for Japan.

In the quad of my Uni there have been, basically since the tsunami, kids with bells, boxes and banners pounding home the message that Japan isn't "JAPAN" at this time... it's a country that has had its ass kicked and needs succor (Rob, you can find that word at!)

And, of course, nice post Rob.. it was too long for me to understand...

Eugene said...

Hey Rob, thanks for linking to my blog.

This article was really great, and I think you may have actually scooped the English language Korean news with it.

Good one!

Ask thy Korean said...

One of my students teaches English, she told me her students were HAPPY to see and hear what has happened to Japan, so I guess there still are a majority of parents or whomever teaching young minds to hate. Let me mention one time recently when I "asked a Korean" something. The issue was the word "foreigner" vs "expat," I pointed out that Koreans sometimes use waygookin negatively but the feedback I got was denial or how Koreans do not do that. Said Korean confirmed this denial by asking two other Koreans in class whether this was correct and of course they agreed(groupthink). So much for "asking a Korean."



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Roboseyo said...

Wrong time (months later) wrong place, Anon.